Upstreamist

Machines Of Understanding


L. Rhodes

Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve been asked by different people how I cope with the onslaught of political news cascading out of the Trump administration. I take that as a question of both practicality — how do you process so much information? — and survival — how do you avoid defeatism and depression?

To some extent, those two questions share an answer: finding effective ways to process news as it comes helps stave off the negative emotional effects it might otherwise have. Temperament no doubt plays a part. To some extent, it’s also a matter of training. I’ve spent more than half my life studying philosophy, which is nothing if not an education in how to think through issues that threaten to overwhelm.

I don’t always have a ready explanation for how that works, but you could draw a useful analogy by thinking of it as a process of building imaginary machines. The news as it is delivered to us is mostly atomized. That is to say, it arrives as a series of disconnected facts. We're left largely to our own devices to assemble it into something like a coherent model of the world. To suggest that such models should work like machines is to say that the model should try to account for the way in which the constituents parts move and interact with one another.

Take, for example, this news story about Congressional Democrats' inquiry into a fund established by the White House to help pay the legal costs of Trump aides. Previous administrations have established similar funds, but this one is unusual for its opacity, which could theoretically conceal any number of shady moves.

On its own, the article arrives as another abnormality in the way the administration conducts its business, one of hundreds that have been reported on since the 2016 election. Viewed cumulatively, those abnormalities would tend to lose meaning, overwhelming your understanding by their sheer number. Imagine them, instead, as parts of a machine, assembled to serve a particular function. You could call one such machine "damage control" — after all, the way the legal fund appears to be structured would allow the White House to secretly influence the defense strategies of former aides by withholding the disbursements that pay their legal teams. Or you could construct a slightly different machine called "warchest," since the fund could also be used to accept virtually unlimited donations from lobbyists and funnel them into Trump's 2020 campaign, in violation of FEC limits on campaign contributions.

So the first question is: How does this bit of news move? In this case: it draws money away from public oversight, and distributes it under the cover of secrecy. The second question is: What sort of work might that motion be used to achieve? The answer lies in finding a rational, grounded way of connecting the isolated fact to the more complex patterns discernible in the accumulation of news about the administration.

The tricky part, of course, is "rational." Failure on that count is how conspiracy theories take hold. And the more complex the pattern of events, the greater that hazard becomes. Ultimately, though, I'm not sure there's a strategy for dealing with the messiness of real-world complexity that doesn't run the risk of becoming a conspiracy theory. The best we can do is strive to keep our understanding grounded.