There’s something memorable about the phrase, “wars and rumors of wars.” It certainly occurs in the scriptures often enough. Two prominent examples are in Nephi’s vision of the future of his people (and his brothers’) on the American continents (1 Nephi 12:21, 1 Nephi 14:16) and the Savior’s own discussion of the end (Mark 13:7 and Mattew 24:6). The latter usage–echoed as well by Moroni (Mormon 8:30)–always struck me as anachronistic.
These were opinions I formed as a kid, back when we all watched the First Gulf War on television. War was a different thing, then. The whole world was on our side, we were rescuing a small country from a larger one led by an evil dictator, and of course nobody could mount a credible resistance to the military might of the United States. Most importantly, however, we could watch the war on our televisions, as reported by correspondents on the ground who were connected almost in real time via satellite communications. In a world like this, how could there be rumors of war? Surely we’d know, wouldn’t we?
As the years rolled by, this ability to know seemed more and more self-evident, to the point where the inability to hide seemed like the real issue. From spy satellites to computer viruses, lack of information seemed like a remnant of a past already fading into dim memories. This was, after all, the Information Age. Knowing is kind of what we do. Isn’t it?
The inability to have unconfirmed rumors of war without immediate verification one way or the other (complete with video clips for prime time news) actually bothered me a little bit, in the sense of wondering: how could that particular prophecy come true? At a minimum, it seemed like something that would have to wait until fairly late in the end game, when some kind of other disruption had eroded our vast, global communications network to the point where we had lost this amazing ability to know everything everywhere all the time.
This, at least, is how things looked in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. At that time, we seemed to have just enough information for maximum overconfidence.
Since then, of course, things have changed dramatically. The biggest change has been the rise of social media and the corresponding collapse of the mainstream media. Newspapers around the country are struggling to remain solvent and relevant while insurgent outlets–first blogs and then later new media outlets like the Daily Kos or Breitbart–traded sensationalism and reassuring moral outrage for ad revenue at an ever increasing clip. Facebook and Twitter are addicted to the same drug (which is to say: outrage) and rely on this steady stream of increasingly disreputable “news” both via paid advertisements and simply to maintain user “engagement.”
And so now, surveying the landscape in 2017, my optimistic assessment of our ability to know what is going on anywhere, anytime seems pathetically quaint. The problem, as it turns out, isn’t an inability to move information around. It’s the opposite: the flow is just too darn fast. And the incentives to sell people what they want to hear are just too strong.
America’s addiction to outrage is a lot like our addiction to calories. In centuries gone by, hunger was an omnipresent danger at the societal and individual level. Today, in the United States in particular, obesity kills us instead. We’re drowning in calories, and most of it isn’t real food. We’re drowning in information, and most of it isn’t real information.
It’s not hard for me to imagine now that we could have both wars and rumors of wars in the 21st century. I can already imagine the headlines. Some would call it a police action. Others would speak of terrorism. Maybe it’s an annexation. Maybe it’s an invasion. The death toll could be in the hundreds or it could be zero, and all the body count and the photos are stage. I’m not imagining any particular conflict at any particular place; simply imagining how different groups with different agendas could muddy the waters sufficiently even around fairly large conflicts that we, far away, would really have no idea what was going on.
The problem won’t be a lack of knowledge, or even–in and of itself–a superabundance. It won’t even be fake news. No, the problem will be that we’re just too eager to hear what we want to hear, and so we won’t be able to trust anything we don’t see with our own eyes.