The truth is no longer a collective vision of something true that unites citizens in a shared structure of belief. The truth is now a bespoke entity that demands to be lived within, versus believed in.
The aphorism “Live your truth” is often employed in social media culture to promote self-empowerment. There may be no phrase more apt in describing the psychosocial dilemma of this time period. As the old rules that govern our reality continue to splinter and fray, “the Truth” has transformed into “My truth”: an inherently self-governing belief system.
Earlier epochs of human society saw, among other systems, the institutions of law, journalism, science, politics, advertising, capitalism and/or communism, and – most obviously – religion as omnipotent structures of omni-belief. Now, these institutions are still granted omni-belief by many, and are still structured to be omni-believable. But the world of belief is rapidly changing. We are now entering a phase of collective human consciousness that is unwilling to surrender to these external structures. Ergo, the truth is becoming an artisanal, mind-made product, crafted for and by the individual. The truth is now a sandbox game.
In the past ten years, we have collectively accelerated toward an entirely new reality, with a novel belief structure distinct from any found within recorded history. The truth – as a concept, a practice, and an experiential phenomenon – was once, not so long ago, the static and impenetrable core of a collective system of belief. Whether grounded in the measurable world of materialism or in lessons dictated from scriptures, we know that differing belief structures historically determined what we universally believed to be “True” during specific epochs throughout history. We can acknowledge that what constitutes the criteria for truth can, and has, changed throughout history. But what has made the truth “True” is the fact that it was placed at the center of a collective, universal system of belief. At any given time in a connected society, something was considered to be universally True. And the choice to accept this truth was so ubiquitous and so automatic that, to society writ large, it really didn’t seem to be a choice at all: the truth was something that everyone tuned to, like an orchestra tunes to concert pitch. And while events like the Crusades and the Enlightenment ushered in new belief structures, and therefore transformed newly accepted forms of truth into power, the truth was always a collectivist enterprise. Previous to the 21st century, we have known nothing outside of, or beyond, a collectivist relationship to a truth. But how “real” was this truth in the first place? Even beloved standards of value like concert pitch have garnered controversy in recent times, and are not quite as “universal” as they might initially seem.
The truth is undergoing a profound transformation against the long-held collectivist modality. If the truth was once accepted as something that resided outside of one’s individual human perspective and inside of a common human belief system, if the truth was once understood as something that could be registered taxonomically like a tree or a bird. This is no longer the case. Where once the Truth was thought of as something that stood above us, something for us to acknowledge as greater than us, it is now becoming, increasingly, something that lives inside of us. The truth must now be subjectively and individually constructed, versus objectively and collectively recognized.
Think of the difference between the analog photograph and digital image. A traditional photograph reveals five distinct visual phenomena: the gaze of the image-maker; the reflection and absorption of light on available surfaces via the camera’s aperture; the chemistry and aesthetics of the film chosen for use (and also of the developing process); the mechanics of the individual camera and lens used; and, finally, the intended or unintended subject matter. In direct contrast, the digital image is a pixelated shapeshifter of nearly infinite potential: it can be reformed in seconds to mirror the imagistic whims of its creator, or it can dissolve into a soup of representational nothingness. It is all shapes, all colors, all content. It is anything, it is nothing. What it is not, typically, is a butterfly net we use to capture and document floating truths. That is the domain of the documentary photograph. The digital image is something wholly different: it is the visual construction of the contents of our own imagination, pushed outward onto the world in a didactic and promotional capacity.
Distortion, meaning to bring out of shape, was a quality one could sometimes locate in analogue photography. Fisheye lenses could create strange effects, lighting could turn mutton into lamb and vice versa, and burning and dodging highlighted and obscured the information found in black-and-white images. Photographs could distort the truth – one could construct a little white lie while composing or developing or altering a photograph – but the truth was still believed to be caught, indexically, within any given photographic image.
In contrast, manipulation, literally, using the hand to alter, is the primary quality of the digital image. With digital images, representation is brought back to the mind of the author, in opposition to the “eye” of the machine. The vernacular digital image is the product of the individual, who renders the visual contents of their own mind onto the pixelated screen of space. This form of image can be a complete rejection of material reality, but, anachronistically, it still holds a form of truth for us. It is what that truth is, and how it is formed, that has changed.
In just a decade, we have disposed of what could be termed a photographic approach to life, which dictated much of what we regarded as “true” for the better part of the 20th and early 21st century. In the photographic life, we relied on that which we occasionally and/or specifically captured in a photograph as the objective truth. The truth was caught in a photograph, and that captive image represented to us a memory clearer and more faithful than the recollections housed in our own minds. This meant that, at one point, we collectively believed that what was held within this four-sided, two-dimensional document was a Truth more reliable and more complete than the truth that lived inside of us.
Things have changed as digital images have become ubiquitous. The life we live now is the pixelated approach: the truth is an endlessly morphing data stream translated into the visual. It is continuously constructed and reconstructed through unlimited edits and feeds. The truth is what we make of it, not what it makes of us. This, perhaps more than anything, is what separates the mechanical, Industrial Age (with its Modernist, Enlightenment roots) from our contemporary, amorphous, pluralistic digital epoch. The Enlightenment favored measurable results and material phenomena, and the analogue camera helped it achieve those goals. Our “New Truth” favors individual perspective and the deconstruction of hierarchical systems of belief – and our personal digital devices have proven to be the perfect tool to render the visual evidence of this new approach.
It is possible that the truth, in a court of law, will begin to amount to what someone can convincingly represent as their own holistic truth. In contrast to litigation that strives toward the objective analysis and judgment of facts in accordance with established laws, in court cases, objectivity and adherence to the rule of law will become less and less of a consideration. Instead, cases will be judged on the ability of an individual to collect and represent their truth cohesively and effectively – which is to say, narratively and in a codified structure.
Blockchain’s distributed ledger system foretells this transition: the truth will begin to exist as a personal value system one can encode and collect, rather than as a system of beliefs one is forced to agree with and “follow” under the regulatory gaze of democracy or church or law. To make this New Truth “work,” continuous self-surveillance and self-tracking will be required by all, in direct competition with the behavioral surveillance our devices and social media already employ “against” us. Using tracking and recording devices, we will collect data to provide alibis for our every behavior, belief, gesture, thought, and action. Counting steps and geotagging were just the beginning of this form of self-surveillance. The nascent battle cry of “Receipts!” heralds an age where one must meticulously record and collect evidence from every interaction, so that one might arm oneself against potential future narrative attacks.
As we move toward omni-surveillance conducted by each individual, all-party consent laws related to the recording of interactions between groups will become a thing of the past. Individuals of all stripe – and this term will expand to include corporations, families, nations, and couples (really any group or singular person who establishes and codifies a specific and “ownable” perspectival truth) – will use personal devices to record each and every encounter, and this information will can immediately be uploaded to a blockchain. Additionally, the telematics devices used by insurance companies to track behavior and record data will be reformulated, repackaged, and sold to individual consumers, so that we all may have proof of record for our every behavior.
This will be our New Truth: something we intentionally create and codify at all times, in direct opposition to that which we passively observed and documented (old truth). The New Truth is created versus observed. Codification is the new documentation. The New Truth is pastiched individual perspective that will be qualified and quantified in the realm of the digital.
It is currently believed by some that the more images are “corrupted” through manipulations like deepfakes, the less we will tie ourselves to the notion that “seeing is believing.” This seems doubtful. As long as the sense of sight dominates our course of action, as it surely does, it will sponsor belief. It is therefore belief itself that will need to change, that is changing, that has changed. This transformation will affect both what we regard as acceptable forms of truth, and how we create, consume, and digest that truth.
In the United States, the admissibility of photographic evidence in a court of law – the beginning of which began as early as 1879, with this statement by the Supreme Court: “By the employment of the beautiful art of photography, this tribunal can examine the assailed title, and contrast it with papers of undoubted genuineness, with the same certainty as if all the originals were present, and with even more convenience and satisfaction” – is currently based on two different theories, according to a statement from the website of the law firm Keis George LLP. These theories are termed, respectively, “pictorial testimony theory” and “silent witness theory.” Under pictorial testimony theory, “such evidence is admissible when a sponsoring witness can testify that it is a fair and accurate representation of the subject matter.
It is important to note, this theory is based on the personal observation(s) of the witness. Under the ‘silent witness’ theory, such evidence is admissible if the process used to produce the photograph is accurate and reputable. This theory speaks for itself, hence the ‘silent witness’ designation. These two theories represent a departure from earlier requirements, which required authenticating testimony from the photographer and/or an expert witness regarding the reliability of the recording process.”
As the “expert” photographer has faded from legitimacy in legal settings and elsewhere, a vacancy has formed: within images, there is now a you-shaped hole where the truth should be. The New Truth will demand even further departure from so-called “expert authentication,” and will employ a novel theory for the use of images – distinct from the use of photographs – as evidence. The New Truth will view the subject of each image as its author, and will take into account (among many other considerations): personal expression, hierarchical concerns, and the very nature of subjective, two-dimensional reality. Mostly, it will take into account the codification methods used for each image’s editing and upload, as well as the intention of the subject, who will now also be considered the creator of the image, even if they didn’t physically click the shutter. According to the rules of the New Truth, you are your image, and you must be responsible at all times for how your image is rendered and reproduced.
In the court of the New Truth, individuals will present their own personal image narratives as both witness and evidence. The New Truth will be a mix of individual expression – via edited images – and omni-surveillance, a continuous narrative with each modality bolstering the other to ensure we reside in a world wherein everyone is free (and consequently chained) to “live their truth.” Such truth will be recorded and edited into a subjective semblance, or a “likeness” – versus an objective document – of one’s individual perspectival belief structure. The New Truth accepts manipulation and editing if it leads to a more coherent and cohesive narrative structure. The New Truth contends that facts are merely raw data, and it is what one crafts with that data that matters most.
Previous to this time period, if one’s entire life was presented publicly in story form, this usually occurred only after one died – often in the form of an obituary written by a journalist. A highlight reel in narrative form, the obituary “made sense” of a life, creating a story arch complete with climax (death) and denouement (the funeral details). With the New Truth, our personal narratives, composed of our self-authored surveillance material, will showcase an ongoing highlight reel of achievements, behaviors, and beliefs. In court, this will be crafted and edited to produce what will be akin to a new form of character witness. The Old Testament required at least two human witnesses for the conviction of a crime. Under the New Truth, one’s star witness will consist of self-authored surveillance footage, created to document every gesture, movement, and social interaction. The winner of each case will eventually amount to the individual or collective body who can most convincingly and persuasively represent their surveillance narrative as the better – meaning the most linear, complete, and comprehensive – truth. That which sounds or seems the truest will triumph over incomplete, nonlinear, or contradictory presentations that fail to establish an orderly perspective.
The New Truth is not a game for the inconsistent. Truth duels will be less about establishing a case against the other, and more about establishing one’s own truth narrative as superior. The initial conflicts that give rise to truth duels will mostly comprise events wherein one or both parties feel that their personal truth has been violated. Therefore, the roles of plaintiff and defendant will no longer define the dynamics of court cases.
In the order of the New Truth, what will constitute a lie or a falsehood? One has only to stay the course of a chosen narrative. What comprises this narrative can be fanciful or dull, but it cannot be contradictory or overly confusing. The New Truth is defined by nothing more or less than a coherent narrative that is verifiable and that does not break from a linear, accessible and provable storyline. Plot twists are acceptable only if they feel “true” to one’s story arch. One must not only keep their story “straight,” but also keep their plotline coherent and intriguing. To be most believable, the New Truth must adapt the storytelling structure commonly found in narrative cinema. The New Truth is not scaffolded by what is collectively factual or real. It is defined by what is presented by the individual as factual and real. What were previously termed objective scientific facts – such as climate temperatures or the chemicals found in a water sample – will be brought into court cases with the notion that they have no intrinsic, self-defined value or meaning outside of the context of each case. They will serve only to strengthen or add character or plot development to an individual’s truth narrative. Facts will become akin to show notes, and will cease to exist in their current role of objective phenomena. When this happens, the transition of the truth as “belonging” to one’s personal value system, rather than to a collective belief system, will be complete.
The New Truth is creation over verification. It is supple and in constant motion. The New Truth is ownable and promotional; it is something that one can craft carefully with the intention of making others want to believe you, in a similar modality to the one that public relations and advertising have functioned within for decades. The New Truth is something that will unite believers of like minds into tribes and affinity modules. So-called universal truths or age-old truths will only be deemed as such by the individual who feels that they can incorporate them persuasively into their personal truth narrative.
Under the New Truth, we will no longer live lives – we will craft narratives. Showing respect for the truth of another will weave its way into our social mannerisms, and become another form of handshake. If one’s truth directly contradicts the truth of another, efforts will be made for the separation of these individuals before conflict. The New Truth is about the needs of the individual above all else, and those needs will dictate our social behavior. The New Truth is inherently narcissistic, but those who wield it wisely will understand how to create a consciously narcissistic personal truth narrative.
The greatest hope the New Truth has in evolving toward a unifying omni-belief structure will be found in those consciously evolved humans whose sense of “I” is porous enough to understand and include beliefs that lay outside their own personal truths and values. When the narcissistic “I” can begin to hold opposing truths within it simultaneously without cracking in two, we will begin to function holistically as a species. This will be a form of robust, antifragile new-truth narcissism, distinct from the personality disorder that currently defines the term. We can say that the New Truth is inspired by narcissism, but that, in its better moments, it transcends the brittle limitations of the pathology of contemporary narcissism.
While at first blush the New Truth seems like the culmination of feckless self-involvement, the logistics required for its deployment will not be so easy. The New Truth will demand a lot from those who practice it. It is an unending performance; it is defined, in fact, by both its performativity and its demand to be performed at all times.
This performance recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s then-novel concept of “bad faith” in Being and Nothingness. Sartre illustrates his concept by describing a waiter in a café:
His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the customers with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the client… All his behaviour seems to us a game. He applies himself to linking his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.
The performativity of the New Truth will be a practice toward a new form of self-authored authenticity, versus (as Sartre describes) a bad-faith mask to cover one’s inability to transcend into the authentic.
Thus, counterintuitively, the New Truth will couple with a strong emphasis on individual responsibility. Controlling one’s narrative will be of utmost existential importance, as important as securing shelter and sustenance (and in fact integral to securing one’s physical and material safety and wellbeing). Woven like spiders’ webs, these incessant truth narratives will demand a great amount of time and energy, and their construction might make one feel like Scheherazade, crafting stories in order to stay alive. At first, New Truthers will behave a bit like the waiter in the café, moving just a hair too rapidly. Tap dancing on the head of a pin. But, before too long, performative gestures will settle into a rhythm of beyond-performance, the way a ballerina’s footwork only looks natural and fluid after hours of grueling drills. We will fake it until we make it. We will become our avatars, but it will take some practice. Future generations will come to this with greater ease, having been born into the practice.
The New Truth will set the stage for endless self-invention. Reinvention will prove trickier, as the New Truth will insist that individuals stay the course of their perspectival, narrative identity. As we steadily create and live out our unique, self-contained truths, toting our carefully curated baskets of beliefs hither and thither, we will become further separated from one another. Without a singular truth to calibrate to, we will feel profound disconnect as a species. When together, our lives will begin to resemble an augmented reality game, and our ability or inability to collaborate and interweave our narratives to compose coherent poly-truth narratives will likely reveal whether or not our human species has the chops to make it through the 21st century. Those dexterous at code-switching and keen to take on the challenge of learning the New Truth will be most adept at these games.
The New Truth will mostly lead to intense polarization and separation between individuals. Much more intense than even what exists now. It might even lead to the end of the human race. But this is the path we’ve chosen to walk down. If we can make the New Truth work to our benefit, it will lead to an omni-belief structure that is potentially more durable than any found in previous epochs. If we are to create a new omni-belief system, it will be from a mycelium-like network that spreads its hyphae slowly outward, connecting tentatively and deliberately to others. It will not be from the dictatorial force-flowering of top-down collective belief structures (which are likely what spawned this turn to the New Truth in the first place). The New Truth will tear us apart before it can knit us together again.