Descartes considered the mind to be fully self-transparent; that is, he thought that we need only introspect to know what goes on inside our own minds.
A recent Radiolab podcast relates an amazing story about Allen Funt, the creator of the television show, Candid Camera. Funt found himself on a plane that was being hijacked. However, as Funt was by then well-known as the creator of the show, one of the passengers on the hijacked plane spotted Funt, started to grin and, pointing at Funt, yelled out, “we’re on Candid Camera!” The rest of the people on the plane began to recognize Funt as well and, despite Funt’s protestations to the contrary, became convinced that the hijacking was all an elaborate hoax—a show. But it wasn’t a show, and by the time everyone got off the plane in Cuba (the hijackers’ desired destination), each passenger had some choice words for Funt as they deplaned.
The situation in which Allen Funt found himself was a situation in which, as the result of his blurring of the boundaries between “reality” and “show,” people were unable to understand the situation for what it really was. Just as with “the boy who cried wolf,” Funt was unable to convince the passengers on the plane that this was not a show because people had come to expect that whenever they saw him in real life, it was really just a show. In the podcast, Radiolab makes the interesting observation that the position in which we all find ourselves today, as our relationships with each other are increasingly mediated through social media interactions, is perhaps even more complex than the position in which Funt found himself on that fateful day. As a pioneer of what we now call “reality television,” Funt realized that the way people behave when they think the world might be watching is very different than the way we behave when we don’t think the world is watching. This is, perhaps, obvious. What isn’t obvious, but very interesting to consider, is whether we (i.e., those who are involved with social media) are so engaged in “show” that the distinction between “reality” and “show” has become blurred to the point that we have created fundamentally new epistemic problems in acquiring knowledge of each other. This is the thought I had in listening to the Radiolab podcast: perhaps social media has created a new kind of epistemic problem.
Here is one way of thinking about this epistemic problem. One way of conceptualizing knowledge is in terms of our ability to rule out “relevant alternatives.” For example, to use Fred Dretske’s example, in order for me to know that the animal at the zoo is a zebra, I must be able to rule out that it is a cleverly painted mule. Since it seems that I can rule this out, I do indeed know that it is a zebra, not a mule (assuming there aren’t other relevant alternatives that I can’t rule out). Now consider a pre-Funt era when my friend tells me that p. If I can rule out that she is lying then it looks like I know that she believes p. Contrast this with a situation in which my friend posts on Twitter that p (or posts a picture of herself doing x on Instagram). I still have to rule out that she is lying, but now it seems that there are other alternatives to rule out as well. For example, to what extent is she saying this because other people are watching? Would she say this if others weren’t watching? Is she just saying it for “show,” because she wants her words to have a certain effect on her Twitter followers—e.g., to make them think a certain way of her? That is a relevant alternative that is different from lying, but that needs to be ruled out if I am really supposed to take this as a candid revelation of herself. In short, whereas in a pre-Funt era I needed to rule out just one (to simplify) relevant alternatives regarding candid interactions with others (i.e., lying), in an era of social media ubiquity, I have to rule out two: lying and “show.”
Perhaps another word for “show” here is “performance.” In a world in which personal cameras + social media are ubiquitous, the distinction between “the candid” and “performance,” may be much fuzzier than in a pre-Funt world. The idea of what I have called performance or show can be connected to what Harry Frankfurt has called “bullshit.” According to Frankfurt, “bullshit” is a kind of speech that is not concerned with truth but, rather, with the effects one’s words have on others. The bullshitter cares less about truth than the liar, according to Frankfurt. Would there be more bullshit in a world in which social media interactions are ubiquitous than in a pre-Funt world? I don’t know, but it is interesting to consider (which, however, I will not do at any further length in this post).
So, to summarize, the epistemic problem connected to social media that I am suggesting here is this. People’s apparently candid interactions with each other via social media (like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) cannot be straightforwardly taken to be candid unless we can rule out the effects of “show.” Since we are concerned with what others think of us, what is communicated through such venues cannot be assumed to be free of “show” or “performance.” The result is that it is harder to know who a person really is, insofar as our interactions with them are mediated through social media. Perhaps the “show” effects of social media interactions also affect our non-social media, face-to-face interactions. And perhaps they make not only our knowledge of others difficult, but also our knowledge of ourselves. I am not convinced that any of this is true, but it is interesting to consider whether (or to what extent) it is.