Book Review: ‘There Are No Facts’

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 artificial intelligence and social networks.

We are in the painful process of understanding our post-truth world: a world, shaped by algorithms and online interaction, that was taking shape long before 2016. Scholars like Shoshana Zuboff, with her theory of surveillance capitalism, have already taken steps by leaps and bounds in examining this world through the lens of the 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 studies at the University at Buffalo , State University of New York, draws on contemporary thinkers such as Zuboff and Joy Buolamwini, as well as 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, it would be because – like so much of the best and worst work in the 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 mining, analysis, sale and exploitation of behavioral data has, Shephard argues, created an increasingly fragmented “uncommon ground” in which there are very 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 speaking your mind and then letting people come and listen to you and have that shared experience of what your narrative is, you stay whispering into every single voter’s ear 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 no longer have shared experiences and we no longer have shared understanding.

Shephard begins by examining how truth claims are historically incorporated into techniques by which the world is documented (such as making maps) and goes on to explain how these practices are playing out today, leading up to the January 6, 2021 attack on the US capital .

“In times of crisis like these,” Shephard writes, “finding common ground would seem 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 is slightly undermined by social science jargon and slow rote trudging through many of the usual “big tech and society” case studies that we expect from this genre). Despite the strength of this argument, there is little on the question of how to navigate this unusual terrain.

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

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