Published On Mar 8, 2024

What is truth?

The philosopher Karl Popper said there were three worlds:

  • World one is the external world of objective things we can touch and verify independently.

  • World two is the internal world of subjective thoughts and beliefs that only we can know.

  • World three is the objective content of thought.

Think of bread. What popped into your mind? Was it a baguette, or a naan, or a pita, or a loaf? Was it crunchy or soft? How did it smell? Did it come from a supermarket or a boulangerie? Your subjective, individual World Two bread is unique. But there’s also a collective World Three concept of “bread” that we all share.

Now think of an atom. Atoms are all around us; they make up World One, and they’re right there for us to touch and feel and stand on. We all have our own World Two ideas about atoms, but few of us have seen them, and even then, indirectly. So we rely on World Three information to understand them. We trust experts. We believe physicists, scientists who’ve run the math, or researchers who’ve fired up the quantum microscope, or our high school physics teacher.

Truth Thumbnail

An image of hydrogen atoms generated by a quantum tunneling microscope.

You believe that the picture above is a photo of hydrogen atoms, not because you’ve taken similar pictures yourself, but thanks to a complicated system of trust that helps you navigate World Three. You can’t know it’s real; you have to take my word for it. Words—and, more recently for humans, images and videos—are what create World Three.

World Three is why humans dominate the natural world. It’s allowed us to predict when to sow and harvest crops, or take down a wooly mammoth. It lets us specialize, so that some of us can be medical waste technicians, or bereavement coordinators, or horseshoe crab milkers, or iceberg movers (yes, these are all real jobs. Trust me.)

World Three drew org charts and wrote job descriptions and launched mass production. It doubled the lifespan of humans. It gave you the computer or smartphone on which you’re reading this, and the currency with which you paid for it.  Through government, it’s given us laws and rights and freedoms and highways and safe airplanes.

World Three is collective truth.

(Oh, and this is an actual picture of an atom. That other one was an image of a kitchen sink drain tweaked by an algorithm nobody really understands.)

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An actual picture of a hydrogen atom.

The AIDA model

First described a century ago, the Attention, Information, Desire, Action (AIDA) model explains human decision-making. While it’s been revised and expanded since then, AIDA breaks a decision into four steps:

  1. Something captures our attention;

  2. We collect information about it;

  3. We discover a gap between our current state and an imagined, better stage, triggering desire;

  4. We act.

Whether we’re getting a coffee, buying a car, or electing a candidate, this is how we decide. Unfortunately, we’re losing our ability to make good decisions, because World Three is under attack.

Coordination and Wicked Problems

We need good decision-making more than ever. Humans are facing multiple crises, from climate collapse to autonomous weaponry to poverty to war. Game theorists call these crises Coordination Problems, because they might be avoided if only everyone agreed on the facts and had perfect information. Without a shared truth, we make suboptimal decisions. For example, no country wants to spend money on an army—but every country needs one because every other country has one.

There are no more objective truths. World Three is fracturing. And tech is to blame.

How tech broke World Three

In one generation, we’ve gone from a few radio stations and broadsheet newspapers to billions of chatrooms, personalized feeds, and a world where everyone is a content publisher.

We’re so busy arguing about which politician stumbled on a word or groped someone at the theatre or danced with their friends that we’re unable to coordinate a good response to existential problems. Truckers and LGBTQ+ activists all want freedom, but nobody can agree on what that means. 

Policymakers call challenges that are difficult to solve because of contradictory requirements, social complexity, and interdependency Wicked Problems, and Truth is the Wickedest Problem of them all.

Here’s how the AIDA model is under attack.

Attacking attention

Our lives are driven by notifications and tiny red dots. Every wall of every public space is an ad. Clickbait headlines plant information gaps, tempting us to tap and click and lose an hour scrolling.

We designed it this way. We built an Internet, and decided it should be free, turning to digital advertising to pay the bills. But unlike print advertising, when you read online content, it reads you back, learning what you like, optimizing itself to better capture your attention. It worked: We spend more than a third of our lives staring at screens. Just recall the panic you felt the last time you left your phone somewhere, and you’ll know how completely technology has captured our attention.

Attacking information

We live in filter bubbles of like-minded people where agreeing with others is more important than being right, and where ostracism trumps truth.

When we receive information, how do we know it’s true? We might verify its claims ourselves, but few of us have the ability to do so. Instead, look for subtle cues: Is the website well-designed, or full of errors? Does the source look like us? How much do we trust the source, and has their information been reliable in the past? What’s in it for them?

This, of course, is full of bias: We like things that confirm our beliefs, and trust things we’ve seen more frequently. But it’s worked in the past, so we rely on it.

Except those biases are vulnerabilities. We can’t trust the message (it might have been altered) or the messenger (they might be a deepfake or a chatbot or a scammer.) Without trusted sources, we believe what we want to believe, and celebrate alternate facts. Everyone does this, and everyone thinks the  fools are on the other side.

Attacking desire

All the best vices—sex, rich food, drugs, and the approval of our peers—once motivated us. We needed to reproduce; we sought calories; we craved comfort and safety. These rewards drove us to survive. But our industrial world has put these vices a tap away. What’s more, when we can live in virtual worlds and videogames where we’re all-powerful, who wants to spend time in the real one?

Desire is a gap between what we have and what we want. The Internet encourages us all to post our best lives, or share our outrage, widening that gap. We should be thrilled: We live—twice as long as our ancestors—in a world of scientific wonder, where advances in material science, healthcare, rocketry, sustainable energy, and every other frontier of human existence is pushed back almost daily. But instead we’re furious that someone misspelled our name on a triple foam extra hot chai latte.

Attacking action

Topping all of this, humans have lost their agency. Overwhelmed by a world that’s extra in every possible way, we wait to be told what to do. We’re abdicating decisions to leaders who perform for the nightly news rather than confronting the myriad problems we’re creating. We’ve forgotten how to instigate, lulled into complacency by the exhaustion of the modern world.

Fixing truth

Truth is the ultimate Wicked Problem, the one without which we cannot solve any other. It may even be the Great Filter. Technology has robbed us of a collective truth and decimated World Three, but it may help fix it. From detecting deepfakes, to securing communications, to powering  collective sensemaking, to educating at scale, we’re inventing ways to restore trust. It’s an incredibly broad topic, but it’s also the ultimate challenge. 

(Want to know more about coordination problems? Watch Liv Boeree explain Game Theory, Moloch, and why there’s reason to hope.)

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