The Age Of (mis)Information

When I was a kid I was fascinated by the world. The sounds and smells of the waking world were siren calls to that little Argyle-sock-clad adventurer on those early summer mornings. The crickets and creaks and nightsounds were not terrors but lures to me as I lay awake wondering about all the wondrous things I’d encounter on those neverending days of freedom and discovery. I was lucky enough to have lived in an environment that was extremely conducive and often encouraging to my curious nature. My grandfather was a scientist, and I don’t mean scientist like fancy laboratory, white frock, impressive equipment scientist; I mean scientist like the ultimate expression of a small boy’s imagination, in which Spiderman and Doc Brown and Hari Seldon and Buckaroo Banzai were all simply extensions of real life possibilities. In reality my grandfather was a science teacher, among other things. He would spend hours with me going over the periodic table and showing me things in his microscope and genuinely answering any question I could come up with. My grandfather taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned, the foundation of all my knowledge to this day. He taught me how to think.

I thought I belonged to Generation X when I was a kid. Then I heard, from my older brother, that I was a bit too young to be a Gen X’er and that they hadn’t named my generation yet. This was mildly upsetting. For some reason I had latched on to this term and thought that it held some inherent value. I was overcome with woe at having this stripped from my identity. I still have no idea what generation cohort I belong to, some models place me at the tail of Gen X and some place me at the beginning of The Millenials. Oh my goodness what a loaded term that one is. Doesn’t matter one way or the other, I’d be foolish to rely on generalizations to define my identity, and I’ve rarely fit in with any group I’ve been assigned anyway.

For some reason I became enamoured of sweeping categorization. I became a fan of human history and loved breaking things down into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age and the Stone Age and so on. I often wondered what they’d call this age in which we live when they look back on us from the future. I think we’ve pretty much settled on the Information Age, but that has little to no bearing on what they’ll think centuries from now.

As an adolescent I developed a deep distrust of society at large. I thought that everybody was selfish and couldn’t be bothered to chip in for the greater good. There were even times in my life when I was dangerously close to becoming convinced that I was at the center of some nefarious conspiracy, or that I had uncovered the secret that some tyrannical agency had been hiding for centuries. I am in the process of putting together  materials on that topic for a large project that I intend to serve as a resource for people who are in a position to provide help to a friend or loved one, or simply an acquaintance, who is suffering from such delusions. That type of thinking is extremely dangerous and ever more easy to succumb to these days.

As an adult I’ve come to see things much more clearly. I no longer rely on fantastic, compelling, or emotional narratives to serve as my worldview. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people are genuinely doing their best to live a good life, and that the majority of the shitty things we do to one another are side effects of our broken systems. I believe that we are all in need of some form of help and that the only way to ensure we all get that help is across-the-board cooperation.

I haven’t sat and watched the news in a very, very long time. I don’t watch the evening news, I don’t watch the early-morning or late-morning or lunch-hour or afternoon news either. I do, however, read news articles. I use a few different apps on my phone and computers to collect news articles from myriad sources, and I read through them casually throughout the day – usually at times involving porcelain and air freshener. In the past few years I’ve noticed the same thing I’m sure you all’ve noticed. There are generally three stances that all our reporting takes. One is staunchly on one side, one firmly on the other and one seems indifferent. The indifferent reporting seems to be growing ever more sparse while the obviously biased narratives seem to be the ones being promoted.

Social media blew up in the last decade. I’m not going to take the time to get the numbers here, this is just my opinion on something I’ve seen unfold, and it’s pretty clear to see for anyone interested in the facts of the matter. Before social media we had traditional media, TV and radio and print and Cinema and physical media. Before that I would bet dollars to donuts life was immensely more simple – and I don’t mean that regression is the answer, I’m just saying there were far fewer agencies contending for your attention. In the era ruled by the Television things found an equilibrium, people lived and worked and made money and spent money and it was all predictable, advertisers found dependable ways to get their message out to consumers. Why does advertising have anything to do with critical thinking and misinformation, you might ask? Because advertising revenue funds the media markets, you wouldn’t have your boob-tube shows or radio programs or that olde timey newsprint that feels so refined and smells like truth. You wouldn’t have your television news anchors, who make very comfortable livings by parroting each other and giving us violence and tragedy-porn every day with our cornflakes and then again with our beef stroganoff. You wouldn’t have your pundits and correspondents and outside experts boiling down the essential facts into an easily digestible primer on the evils of the world.

I hate to seem cynical, this is simply the way things are. News and information agencies largely depend on advertising revenue. I know this is not new to any of you, but it seems to be a fact oft forgotten in today’s discussions about the state of world affairs.

When the internet really hit its stride and social media evolved from a way to keep in touch into whatever exactly it is today, it shook up the entire industry. Social media platforms allowed people to instantaneously share information. It mostly started out as cats and silly novelties, but it eventually became many people’s prime source for information on the outside world. Along with the preponderance of people sharing information there grew many smaller outlets looking to capitalize on this new means of disseminating information that would just plagiarize or steal information from the established industry to generate traffic and, therefore, ad revenue.

Soon the titans realized that these upstarts could potentially dethrone them. People were watching less TV and instead watching at cats play pianos, reading fewer magazines and newspapers in favor of reading online, listening to podcasts rather than AM or FM radio, streaming movies rather than going to the theatre, on and on, you get it. Traditional media had to come up with schemes to compete with this new online advertising marketplace. Most companies found a new equilibrium. But this new marketplace is not stable and predictable like it was in years past. This new market is dominated and governed by instantaneous-incidence. Nothing is relevant for longer than a few moments, and as time ticks on things have to be more and more sensational to wrest our attention away from the last sensational thing.

Companies became desperate for a dependable content model to ensure continued income. Small though they may have been, there were more and more organizations popping up every day publishing information with a lack of concern for its integrity or validity, in an effort to draw more traffic and sell more ad space – taking money out of the pockets of the behemoths.

Now it’s all convoluted and confusing, and it makes it very difficult for a normal person in their everyday life to discern what is and is not valid information. Traditional media outlets have resorted to the same uber-quick turnaround journalism as the upstarts, writing articles that could have been written by twelve-year-old-me  – I’m not self aggrandising, I’m pointing out my disgust with formerly trusted journals and publications. TV news has become a Philip K. Dick nightmare come true. Radio shows are worse than they ever were before, astonishing! I’m not saying that things were perfect in that magical long-ago known as Back in my day. I’m not even old enough to be talking about My Day. I am saying that things have gotten to a point where it is legitimate to say that you don’t trust what They say.

I try to have as many conversations with as many people as I can about as many topics as they are willing. It is becoming more and more difficult to do so, people are becoming more and more insular and invested in their identities and the perceived differences between them and the rest of the world. No longer do I find people eager to discuss matters that matter, they’re often more concerned with their online echo-chambers promoting persecution narratives.

I’m not going to sit here and say the sky is falling and we are incapable of open communication with each other. I’m not promoting the narrative that we have lost something essential to our society, or denying the fact that in many respects right now is the best time ever to live in human history. I’m not spreading cynicism and saying DON’T TRUST ANYBODY! I am airing my frustrations with the way things are today. The fact that our rampant consumerism has prompted all this is very disheartening, but also leads one to believe that there is something that can be done about it.

As a result of the lax, or nonexistent in some cases, standards for journalism in this market that relies on ad revenue and is dependant on sensational claims to draw traffic to increase eyeballs to grow value for the advertisers, there are now so many conflicting narratives everywhere you look. These narratives are designed to draw attention and often to inspire loyalty to a certain outlet, for the purposes of more ad money, so they most always contain something outrageous that alludes to secret or occluded knowledge and a claim of persecution, for the emotional motivation to keep coming back to the same enlightened source that is standing up for you as an individual, while in reality they are taking advantage of all of us to generate more ad revenue.

I realize that this has started to get a bit disjointed and repetitive, so I’ll stop for now. I didn’t intend to write about this at all, I was going to write a story about my grandfather and then this just started surfacing in my mind.img_20190112_1334032702139673031582296.jpg

This is how I feel right now. I’ll do my best to close this up so we can all get on to doing more enjoyable things.

So, if you’re looking for information on a given topic you’re in luck. We are living in a time of unfettered access to just about anything one could ever dream up, one with a healthy mind at any rate. There are uncounted sources just a click away, many you don’t even have to pay for! (I really do miss going to the library) It is important to be careful when collecting information on any topic because the market is flooded with people who care more about maximizing ad revenue than they do about protecting the integrity and validity of the information you are using to build a robust worldview. There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of your getting accurate information. Those things collectively are called critical thinking and are basically just different ways of asking questions.

Is this information sensational? Is this source or information appealing to my emotions, like outrage or fear? Is this source or information making claims of secret knowledge or persecution? Is this information contradicting other reputable sources, or does it contradict what I’ve observed?

These are questions you can ask yourself to quickly surmise if the information in question is likely to be incorrect. If you answered yes to any of them, the next step is simply to google the topic and see what comes up. It is important to remember that the ultimate source is always the best option, such as the agency or organization that generated the data. It is also important to note where your info is coming from, academic and public institutions are almost always more reliable than journalistic outlets – the institutions don’t make money from advertising, and an added benefit is that you get to form your own opinion rather than have one handed to you by a pundit.

I don’t know guys, maybe I’ll keep the first part of this and work on giving it a solid conclusion, maybe it’ll sit here for the rest of time. I apologize for putting you through that, I really thought it was going somewhere, then it just got away from me. Thank you for taking the time to read! I hope that maybe some of you got what I was getting at and maybe it’ll pop up in conversation somewhere and maybe it’ll help somebody use critical thinking in their life.

Have a good one.

‘It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.’ – Philip K. Dick

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