The Temple of Billboards
Produce by: Yewen Jin
The Temple of Billboards is a fictional place. A temple implies a religious context. A place can be either physical or conceptual, as long as there are means of demarcating the boundary, whether it’s through words, walls or signals.
This essay brings together references from a few different theoretical frameworks, and aims at presenting them as a theoretical collage that paints the background for the Temple of Billboard, an ongoing project that uses this essay as a start. We’ll example the relationship between power and knowledge. For thousands of years sovereign states and religions have been exercising their control through these two elements, historically either in conjunction or in competitions or a mix of the two, while today the infiltration of digital technologies into every aspect of our daily life allows a different form of power to compete with the other two in shaping the cognitive reality of the mass population. There is a new platform shifting towards an alternative to religions.
PART I - KNOWLEDGE
In the time we live in the general public seems have be very little concern about examining the concept of knowledge: what is knowledge and how do we know if something is knowledge. The endless conquest of things we’re able to learn about is made possible and highly rewarding, to which slowing down to re-evaluate what we’ve taken in becomes an unwanted distraction that is too often already neglected.
In contemporary philosophy, all discussion in epistemology start with the foundational requirements of being “true justified belief”. To qualify as knowledge, a statement must be 1) true; 2) believed by the subject that owns the knowledge; 3) have justified source or means to support the belief.
What are the sources and justifications for knowledge? There are many reasons why we believe something, but not all of them are reliable. Generally, sources that we count as reliable come from our own perceptions of senses, from introspection, from memory, from reasoning, and from testimony. The first 4 categories comes from process of our own mind, but the last one depends on the trust of external sources.
Our shared knowledge of science, though widely received as indisputable facts, are based on the collective faith in the web of educational institutions, practical technologies implemented in everyday life, the consensus among our immediate social circles etc. and the lack of apparent contradictions. It may seem absurd that some cultures reject the theory of Evolution in favour of the theory of Creation by one God, or that some groups believe in the flatness of earth despite evidence otherwise, but they do consider their beliefs to be knowledge, and the denial of them to be ignorance.
If we were to examine how we think what we believe is knowledge, not everyone that believes in the same thing share the same level of justification. A historian who published a book on WW2 must go through sufficient amount of academically well-regarded sources, documents and files, verify the validity of them, and consolidate all the learning and reasoning into a body of text. A person reads it and believes everything that’s said in the book the same way the author believes in his own work, but the said person hasn’t seen any of the documents that the historian used to prove it, nor has that person gone through the same verification process. The person believes it because they trust that publishing house and the social status author and perhaps the number of critics who comment on it together are enough reasons to believe that the author is telling the truth.
At the end both of them believe in the same set of information that’s contained in the book, and in the case that all information are truthful to the historical facts, the two of them have gone through different means of justifications and so the criteria of judging whether what they believe in is knowledge would be different. The historian has done a dense amount of work and gone through the rigour of reasoning to ensure the validity of the content in his own book, and that’s his job. The reader may simply have picked it up, consumed it and take the truth value for granted.
Let’s consider a slightly different scenario: the author decided, given his recognition in the field, that he wanted the next book he wrote to be sensational. He added some colours here and there to make the stories sound juicier without deviating too much. The said book is published, and the same person reads it. While the author knows some of the things mentioned in the book is not true, the reader may still believe them. In this case, the reader is doing the exact same thing as he does in the previous example, but we know some of what he has learned this time is not knowledge but lies.
I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
– “Cat’s Cradle”, Kurt Vonnegut
Each person has a belief system that is a web consisting of layers and layers of beliefs built on top of each other, and system keeps building with new beliefs that are more or less consistent with the existing configuration. Since no one can do the job of all historians, scientists, journalists… or anyone they’ve learned from, most of the content in our belief system about the external world is determined by the ones we trust: the people, agencies, institutions or symbols of a collective value.
Faith is inescapable in this process regardless of who we are, who we believe or what we believe. Not only the faith that we consciously acknowledge, but also the unconscious ones, the beliefs that are taken for granted without given much thoughts, the presumptions and preconceptions that build up the foundation of our belief system. For the big mechanism of society to function, for each individual to form a coherent web of meaning to live by, we inevitably have to take a lot of trust for granted.
The question is not whether we are, but how we are biased based on what belief systems that we’ve woven for ourselves. For practical reasons we assume what we have already known to be true and so any new information that contradicts that must be false. The reality, however, is that our existing pool of beliefs are more likely than not to be flawed, and if a true statement challenges our (unknowingly) false beliefs, then what we’re meant to do are not so straightforward. We can either protect our belief systems and refuse to acknowledge the contradicting information, or put both in careful scrutiny, but the first option is no doubt the route that takes less effort.
PART II – POWER
Whoever seizes the channel through which we obtain knowledge seizes the power to influence. In the first example, the historian can write a book on a subject, the content of the which ordinary readers would assume legitimacy. The power to influence doesn’t always go through scrutiny: scrutiny takes up a lot of mental resources that could be a luxury for a lot of people. Scrutiny is often bypassed, and habits often decide for us the hierarchy of credibility. These are habits as tiny as asking Google Assistant how long it will take to roast the chicken or opening a new tab of New York Times.
The Prophecy by Marshall McLuhan
“All media work us over completely.”
– “The Medium is the Massage”, Marshall McLuhan
In his book “The Medium is the Massage” that was published in 1967, Marshal McLuhan illustrated the nature of how our thoughts are shaped by the very medium that we communicate them with and prophesized the technologies that will dominate our thoughts today. The newly emerged medium at the time, “Electric Informational Media” as he called it, was a prototype form of what we have today: the much more sophisticated and pervasive information network and digital technologies.
The soil of our belief systems was prepared for us the day we were born. In his time McLuhan witnessed the onset of a new era where that system was no longer a product of our immediate environments but were open to the influences from images, sound, texts and ideas transmitted in large quantities. At that point civilization enter a new era: the one of televisions and of the audio and moving imagines passing informations perpetually in the background. That would not only shaped the way people receive knowledge about what was happening with the world at the time, but also defined what the world is through the medium itself. New temporal and spatial dynamics emerged around the television as well as a complex meaning-generating machine – the whole world happening – is working within the frame of it.
As the analogy goes, “You must talk to the media, not to the programmer. To talk to the programmer is like complaining to a hot dog vendor at a ballpark about how badly your favourite team is playing.” (McLuhan 1967)
The Stack Model proposed by Benjamin H. Bratton attempts to theorize a new type of political geography outlined on the multi-layer infrastructure of software and hardware. Its vertical structure is overlaid on top of the horizontal scale of earth with the force of what he calls a “planetary-scale computation”. The Stack consists of 6 layers: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface and User, where pre-existing geography is superimposed with the computational forms.
The Stack also introduces an evolved power dynamic between the states and other non-state actors.In this framework, the Cloud layer became “de facto states”, where the states are moving their governance to the Cloud layer, and non-state actors such as global internet giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon are reaching another form of governance through the scale of their computing power and user base – “platform” as is called referring to such entities.
As the most dominant platform among the use of the internet, Google has effectively achieved the status as our go-to source of knowledge and solutions. It has taken, in a way, the social role of a Sage and it’s not a huge leap to view Google as synonymous to the World Wide Web itself on the daily practice. Google’s mission, as declared from its own statement, is “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”. The ethos of Google “argues that open data flows puncture local superstitions and will eventually sink capricious authoritarian ideologies under the weight of the transparency and enlightenment that they usher in.” (Bratton 2016) Despite the fact that Google’s presentation of itself not only the tool and the symbol for a kind of universal truth using seemingly unbiased algorithms, the black box of their algorithms is as far from transparent as its ambiguous link to the US government and the unquestionable commercial profits that clearly indicate their interests against neutrality.
The Stack model illustrates the status quo that we are in today as a fulfilment of McLuhan’s prophecy, but the scale of its impact has become magnitudes larger.
In an ethnographic study, Bhatt and Mackenzie examined this relationship between knowledge and power in higher educational institutions. The study investigated how university student’s ritualised use of digital platforms as a primary source of information in the academic environment conduces to the epistemology of ignorance. The creation of ignorance studied in this context is not referred to the lack of knowledge outside of our learning capacity, but the biases constructed systematically in the epistemic process. As Bhatt and Mackenzie pointed out, ignorance is “something which is performed as a social practice, is often ritualised and, as we will show, it has a complex role to play in the writing and knowledge creating work of university students”.
The study acknowledged the fact that when we have limited amount of knowledge in an area, we “often judge what to believe on whom to believe”, and brought in the concept of “sponsor” (Brandt 1998) of literacy – any agents that provide sources of knowledge and have the power to control how they’re received, but also have an interest to benefit from this asymmetry of information. While the dominant sponsors of literacy used to be religion, today these are primarily major internet services that has penetrated into every details of our lives. Because of that, despite the guidelines to rely on credible academic sources rather than the most “accessible” results from Google, Wikipedia or YouTube, the actual approach of seeking information from the internet inevitably involve a variety of strategies of using commercial tools that are beyond the scope of academically verified materials, before the relevant process of discerning the legibility of content.
The case study from four undergraduate university students shows that, in fact, most of them tend to adhere to the strict guideline and follow the ritualized practice of obtaining information only through resources recommended by the instructor, such as the VLE or a number of database. However through this type of practice, students are placing high amount of trust on their lecturer and as a result there is a missed opportunity to cultivate their ability to discern and verify information through major search engines and may lead to the habit of being unreflective with their sources in the practice of knowledge seeking.
We’ve gotten used to obtaining knowledge through a ritualized practice through the structure of this network that provides the speed, ease and convenience that convinces us that we can know anything we want at any moment. The issue is not simply that the network infrastructure that allow and propel us to do so is inherently biased and has interests that don’t always aligned with out best epistemic result. The concern is that the entire system of how internet content operates, dominated by the few powerful players, creates an ecology that we’re deeply embedded in. The environment that is generated through this system is what implicit or explicitly telling us what we need to know. They benefit from the information asymmetry by constantly reminding us of such asymmetry.
The ones who seized the power are never tired of playing their favourite game, like capitalism, to provide solution for the very problem they create.
PART III – THE TEMPLE OF BILLBOARDS
The Temple is a Temple made of Billboards, many of which supported by a gigantic steel frame that encloses the the space from the outside.
The Billboards are billboards made of LED screens of various sizes: from as big as 3 stories tall and 30 metres wide to as small as generic 13 inch laptop screens. There are one thing the billboards never do: lying. Billboards never lies.
Half of the billboards face outwards, each one of which screams for attention like the ones you see from the high way and the cheap corners in the cities. Each one contains different content from one another and they could be anything imaginable from dinner recipe to the introduction of newest model of self-driving car, from musical performances to wild animals. They’re constantly changing, containing everything imaginable in the visual form.
The other half inside is an entirely personal and solitary experience. What shows inside are determined by a collection of algorithms that tracks your eye-movement while you were looking around outside to decide what would be most directly desirable and relevant to you, presented in order of priority among the billboards of different sizes.
You will go in and perform the rituals in pursuit of truth and enlightenment, and you’re guaranteed to learn something as you come out.
One of the biggest billboards on the outside shows the never fading words as following to welcome its visitors:
The Temple of Billboards will quiet your mind, from the noises and temptations of the unnecessary information that you get bombarded with, leaving you with only knowledge that you need.
The Temple of Billboards will calm your mind, from the self-righteous anger, pity and contempt, leaving you with only wisdom and compassion.
The Temple of Billboards will purify the mind, from deceits, fake news and any other obstacle to truth.
Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack - On Software and Sovereignty. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016.
The Stack Model presents a theoretical framework for us to re-examine the forces at play in our society with increasingly strong presence of computational entities. This perspective goes beyond presenting the world as a massive organization of data in parallel to the physical reality, but rather view both as the building blocks of power dynamics and components of our reality. The fictional space that I’m trying to construct is built on this framework and left intentionally ambiguous whether it’s a physical, virtual or a metaphorical space.
McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects”, 1967.
Throughout the book/pamphlet there is one central theme that persists among a collage of seemingly fragmented blocks of texts and image: the medium is deterministic of what gets expressed, not the content. McLuhan outlined both horizontally (different aspects of society during that time) and vertically (historically) how the medium directly shapes reality itself by shaping how we construct our reality. It never ceased to be relevant even in today’s context, where our sense of reality is shaped by the ever-present result of algorithms and an entire culture immersed in a virtual world (internet).
Vonnegut, Kurt. 1965. Cat's cradle. London: Penguin Books.
Bokononism is a fictional religion in this novel. It was based on a book of lies that can make its believers happy. As a satire and critique of religions and belief systems in the society, Bokononism is both absurd and functionally coherent. I’m borrowing the concept to illustrate the phenomenon that the need to live at ease with a coherent system of thoughts can surpass the will to the truth.
- Steup, Matthias, and Ram Neta. ‘Epistemology’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2020. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/epistemology/.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. 1965. Cat's cradle. London: Penguin Books.
- McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium Is The Massage, 1967.
- Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack - On Software and Sovereignty. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016.
- Fuller, Matthew, and Roger F. Malina. Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Leonardo. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005.
- Bhatt, Ibrar, and Alison MacKenzie. ‘Just Google It! Digital Literacy and the Epistemology of Ignorance’. Teaching in Higher Education 24, no. 3 (3 April 2019): 302–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1547276.
- ‘College Composition and Communication, Vol. 49, No. 2, May 1998 - Conference on College Composition and Communication’. Accessed 12 May 2020. https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/ccc/online-archive/v49-2.