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Review

Book review: ‘There Are No Facts’

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Media theorist Mark Shephard argues that the common ground on which truth claims were built has fragmented, to be replaced with new ‘post-truth territories’ shaped by AI and social networks.

We are in the painful process of understanding our post-truth world: a world, shaped by algorithms and online interaction, which was taking shape long before 2016. Scholars like Shoshana Zuboff, with her theory of surveillance capitalism, have already made great strides in examining this world through the lens of social sciences.

In ‘There Are No Facts: Attentive Algorithms, Extractive Data Practices, and the Quantification of Everyday Life’  (The MIT Press, £22.50, ISBN 9780262047470), Mark Shephard, associate professor of architecture and media study at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, draws from contemporary thinkers like Zuboff and Joy Buolamwini, as well as the likes of Hannah Arendt, Bruno Latour, Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, to present a theory of ‘post-truth spatiality’.

If this sounds a little opaque to the lay reader, that would be because – like many of the best and worst works in social sciences – it is.

‘There Are No Facts’ explores how data and algorithms are shaping our world and ourselves, with an emphasis on ‘shape’. The extraction, analysis, sale and exploitation of behavioural data have, Shephard argues, created an ever-more fragmented ‘uncommon ground’ where there are vanishingly few common truths left to share. This is reducing the public sphere to what he describes as a “multitude of micropublics”.

As Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie eloquently explained: “Instead of standing in the public square and saying what you think and then letting people come and listen to you and have that shared experience as to what your narrative is, you are whispering into the ear of each and every voter and you may be whispering one thing to this voter and another thing to another voter. You risk fragmenting society in a way where we don’t have any more shared experiences and we don’t have any more shared understanding.”

Shephard begins by examining how truth claims are historically embedded in techniques by which the world is documented (such as mapmaking) and moves on to explain how these practices are playing out today – leading to the 6 January 2021 attack on the US capitol.

“In times of crisis like these,” Shephard writes, “finding common ground would appear to be more important than ever. This book is an effort to better understand the topography of these conditions and how to navigate their contingent territories.” Shephard presents a powerful argument that we have come to exist in fragmented micropublics (the argument slightly compromised by social sciences jargon and mechanical plodding through many of the usual  ‘big tech and society’ case studies we have come to expect from this genre). Despite the strength of this argument, there is little on the question of how to navigate this uncommon ground.

‘There Are No Facts’ – while not for the lay reader – makes a strong, original argument and is sure to advance scholarship in this area.

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