David Stairs

Deep fake of the Queen’s Christmas address; courtesy Channel 4

A man walks into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. armed with an automatic rifle determined to free children he believes are victims of a peadophilic sex trafficking “deep state.” People interviewed at a Stop the Steal rally in Atlanta tell interviewers a commission is needed to investigate the Democrat’s efforts to corrupt a widely certified election. A man in Nashville (not Robert Altman’s version) destroys a city block blowing himself up at the same time in protest of AT&T’s roll out of 5G wifi service. In another era one might be tempted to agree that “the time is out of joint,” except this bizarro world is our everyday reality.

In his 1831 jaunt through America, officially to examine its prison system, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled widely, from the eastern seabord, through the South, and on to the then northwestern frontier of Michigan. In most places he found a literate, informed, politically aware populace that led him to publish his reflections about the new republic in Democracy in America. Needless to say, he would have been astonished that in less than two centuries America has devolved into the conspiracy capital of the universe.

It used to be that one could view a program about alien abduction, or read an article about anti-fluroidation and understand that you were encountering the wack-job fringe. But not any more. Political dystopia has reached such a fever pitch that one can’t decide who will strike first: 2nd Amendment zealots, egged on by a deranged lame-duck president, interfering with the Biden certification (check that one off), or anti-vaxxers overturning efforts to stem Covid-19 and thereby extend the American pandemic.

In my lifetime I’ve lived through Jonestown, Rajneeshpuram, and the Branch Davidians. Timothy McVey has been imprisoned for life, as has the Unibomber. Many books, movies, and television programs have been devoted to shilling theories about John Kennedy’s assassination, and Neil Armstrong went to his grave disgusted at having to contradict theories that the event he risked his life to achieve was a hoax. In a free enterprise society a certain amount of hornswoggling is to be expected. I mean, is anyone over the age of eight taken in by the spectacle of WWE? But there should be limits to what rational credibility needs to prove.

There are so many articles on the strange state of truth these days that Wikipedia, itself a cloud-based repository of questionable pop culture facts, has created a category for Post Truth Politics. “Truth Decay” is now a recognized meme, like fake news and alternative facts. And still, the conspiracy theories expand, but with profound consequences.

Holocaust denial resides with the White Nationalists who wear swastikas and burn Black Lives Matter signs. Climate change deniers troll Al Gore and Greta Thunberg, eternally hitched to a criminal fossil fuel cartel determined to ride the extraction industry right through to the last winter. Meanwhile, deep fakes ranging from Barack Obama to QE2 populate the social media channels, hoping to recruit against or, at best, embarrass their ostensible subjects.

Relativism, combined with an unflinching belief in free enterprise capitalism, contaminates many professions, including the design professions. The dangerous untruth that technology will save humanity, with design, that domain of creative people, best able to steer this technophilic mythworld, is the sum and substance of most design conferences, lectures, and academic programs.

As we enter deeper into the third decade of this dystopic century it behooves us to remember that our Republic was founded upon “universal truths,” not specific, personal, and relativistic fantasies. And that, while one might accept a conspiracy narrative in the name of satire, or humor, or just to be plain contrary, one should never grant it the distinction of accepted fact. As my Father was fond of saying, that’d be like “trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

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