The Mis-Information Age
The whole nature of the way we absorb information as a society has to be one of the fastest and biggest changes of the last 50 years. The increase in information flow, though, has not necessarily been matched by an increase in the ability to process that information, and to separate the proverbial “wheat from the chaff”. Often the “chaff” is more compelling, and simpler to understand, so that tends to be where large sections of society tend to get their context from, which doesn’t necessarily mean that society is using increased information to make better decisions.
In the post WW2 world, merely getting access to information still remained key; channels of information were extremely limited, relative to today, and much of the flows of information were state or semi-state controlled, even in the ‘democratized’ West. On top of that it tended to be a relatively privileged class that would have domestic access to television, radio and even newspaper channels of communication at this point. In the UK the government funded BBC had a monopoly on television until 1955 and on radio until the 1970s. In the US, likewise, TV competition was limited to 3 channels, ABC, NBC and CBS into the 1950s. Radio was somewhat more widespread, as the cost of the “wireless” diminished over time, but still relatively limited. Newspapers had been the main form of information dispersion over the previous several hundred years, so were not new, but the number of different newspapers widely available, still relatively limited.
Today access to information is virtually universal. Seeing children on mobile phones in remote parts of the developing world is testament to that, and it would be a struggle to travel to a place in the world that couldn’t provide at least some access to the Internet. I can read the Times of India, The New York Times and the Sydney Morning Herald all for free sitting in front of my computer, from pretty much any location in the world, and have 3 different global perspectives on the same piece of news.
The channels of communication and information transfer can be at least as numerous as the number of people in the world, with the range of media having developed from TV, radio and newspaper into a whole variety of offshoots of the digital age, with much of this content or ‘information’ user generated. Blogs, like this one can be accessed from anywhere in the world by typing in an address which is about a quarter of the length of any domestic address. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, now has 12 million articles written collaboratively by ‘volunteers’ (i.e. anyone who has an internet connection), and is currently the most popular general reference work on the Internet, yet its content is only “expert” because its ‘volunteers’ believe it to be so. One of the best known mis-uses of Wikipedias openness happened when in 2006, a US journalist complained that his Wikipedia entry implicated him in the assassination of President Kennedy. The decision of a member of the public, Brian Chase, to insert the claim “as a joke” to fool a colleague exposed the openness that Wikipedia is based on as potentially flawed.
The most valuable commodity a media company can attract now is user focus, whereby they establish means by which their content is always at the top of the pile, and that people look at the longest or the most number of times. Internet search engines make money, by charging internet content providers to appear at the top of the list when searches are carried out through their engine. The engine itself doesn’t filter on the basis of quality of content, but on the basis of the words used in the search combined with who is paying money to Google in that category. As a consequence people tend to find out answers to their searches that they want to hear, as opposed to answers that are necessarily right. By way of example, with my wife being pregnant, and neither of knowing much about what we’re doing, the internet can yield completely opposite answers to the same question both of which will be generated by remote, unaccountable, self proclaimed experts. Trying to decipher what is good information and what is bad, is quite difficult – particularly in this instance where we aren’t experienced.
In contrast to 50 years ago the scale of competition for information “air-time” has changed dramatically. Institutions like the BBC were set-up with an almost paternalistic outlook in mind. The content they were producing was the biggest focus, and the controllers of the Beeb were the filtration device in terms of quality that is missing from search engines today. The lack of competition meant that it was less likely that someone would channel hop in the event that they didn’t like what a program was about, or when they disagreed with it’s opinion. Focus was a natural given, because alternatives were limited.
I recently re-watched the film Good Night, and Good Luck, which was made by George Clooney in 2005. The film takes place in the 1950s and plots the passage of anti-Communist sentiment which US senator Joseph McCarthy uses to both stifle political debate and push his own political status forward. The film focusses on the conflict between Senator McCarthy and Edward Murrow, who is a CBS news journalist, who had become popular on US radio broadcasts during the Second World War. In Murrow’s Sunday evening editorial TV show, See It Now, he defies corporate and sponsorship pressures, and discredits the tactics used by McCarthy during his crusade to root out communist elements within the government.
Murrow first defends Milo Radulovich, who was facing removal from the US Air Force because of his sisters political leanings and because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper. A public feud develops when McCarthy responds by accusing Murrow of being a Communist, for his defence of Radulovich. Murrow is then accused of having been a member of the leftist union “Industrial Workers of the World”, which Murrow rightly rejects as false. In a growing climate of fear and reprisal, with sponsors reluctant to be involved with CBS/ Murrow, there is pressure for Murrow to be taken off air. Thankfully he wasn’t and he ultimately strikes a historic blow against McCarthy.
The reason Murrow was so important to this debate at that time, was that he was looking to inform US society, that the simplified tactics of McCarthy were not in the best interests of moving the US democracy forward. McCarthy tried to simplify the world for the US voter – Communists are evil, and I am going to root out evil from our society. Murrow was given the air time, to both say that things weren’t that simple and also to try and re-open political debate about the unfairness of judging a citizen guilty before trial. The fact that people were willing to pay attention to Murrow, when he was flying in the face of sentiment at the time, I would say was in large part a result of the limited scope of broadcast media at the time. There wasn’t much alternative but to listen to Murrow if you were watching TV at home on a Sunday evening. In the modern broadcast age viewer attention spans have dropped, and consequently Murrows quest to broaden the minds of a 2009 audience may have produced a channel switch to “I’m a D-list Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, or a pre-programmed recording of “Big Brother”.
Paul Saffo, who is a futurologist, is pessimistic about how society will be affected by the media revolution. “Each of us can create our own personal-media walled garden that surrounds us with comforting, confirming information and utterly shuts out anything that conflicts with our world view,” he says. “This is social dynamite” and could lead to “the erosion of the intellectual commons holding society together. We risk huddling into tribes defined by shared prejudices”.
Likewise, Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist who became famous for spotting both Yahoo! and Google, worries about “amplification of the internet soapbox” and imagines what role user-generated media would ha
ve played in “1931 in Munich, how easy it would have been to broadcast the message; I think the Nazis would have got to power quicker”. He also believes Ed Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism in the US in the 1950s, would have fallen on deaf ears. In essence, the herd mentality that seems to be central to the human condition isn’t reduced by the apparently secular nature of news media in the 21st century, it is increased. People find their common ground with others, albeit that those “others” may not be their neighbours, or even from the same village or city. With more than 6bn people in the world, most of whom are “connected” the chances are that you will find someone out there who is happy to reinforce your views on the world, however daft they may be.
Both the Blair government in the UK, and George W. Bush’s governments in the US were often criticized for a “dumbing down” and “simplified soundbite” approaches to politics. It was a successful strategy for winning at elections, but the longer term health of both democracies have probably suffered as a consequence. Instead of being encouraged to look deeper and have informed opinions, voter apathy was often willfully encouraged in order to create a more “manageable” electorate. This enthusiasm for apathy I think has spread wider than just the political spectrum, and was probably a contributing factor in the current financial crisis, through a form of collective ignorance. Donald Rumsfeld, who was a big advocate of this sort of governance, was once quoted as saying:
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
At a guess I would say that the scale of unknown unknowns has grown over the past 50 years. People think they know more than they actually do, because their prejudices are reinforced by access to “comforting, confirming information” which “shuts out anything that conflicts with their world view.” Many of the financial decisions that have led to the current crisis come from a form of collective ignorance that was not diminished by more available information, but actually reinforced by it.