When I was a kid, going to secondary school and college, smart people consumed the news.
If you didn’t have much time, you “snacked” — consumed the few news segments on TV. If you considered yourself a serious person in society, wanting to be an informed voter and current on events and discoveries of the day, you got a morning newspaper and read it. Gave you wonderful material for conversation the rest of the day. Finally, if you really wanted to understand how the world around you worked, you subscribed to magazines, where long format and deep-dive articles took their time explaining to you why things were the way they were.
Nowadays most people don’t trust the news, but they still consume it. I find that odd.
The usual culprit is that the press has some sort of leaning to it — it’s either conservative or liberal. But press has always been biased, so I don’t buy that. People will tell you that it was the fault of cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, but while that played a contributing factor, I don’t think it’s the entire story.
Nope, the reason consuming the news today sucks is that we live in a world of constant outrage.
At some point, news publishers realized that emotional engagement, not facts or solid background material, drove readers to consume and share. So all of our media channels are full of people who are either outraged about something or are using thinly-veiled logic to get us upset about something.
And so we have a treasure trove of material designed to drive “engagement”, which just means it’s stuff guaranteed to provoke an argument. Any news event can be spun half a dozen ways to try to generate anger — and it will be. Then, whichever angle works out the best will be mined for eyeballs until the next story comes along.
This consumption of material engineered to constantly outrage does not make for a healthy mind. Part of the reason is the constant emotional roller coaster it puts the consumer in, but part of the reason is that the media outlets are constantly trying to cover up and deny that this is why they’re running the stories to begin with. So most outlets well-known for “just the facts” reporting are anymore just presenting a light sheen on top of articles designed to enforce pre-existing attitudes.
Put another way, the reader is constantly being manipulated. The only question is the degree of manipulation and the honesty involved.
That’s why I’ve converted to reading tweets and opinion columns. Tweets are almost entirely too shallow to waste much of my time, and they’re wildly inaccurate, but they keep me apprised of the general gist of day-to-day conversation. Opinion columns are there to make a point regarding some pre-existing opinion. I find that to be perfectly fine. If you’re going to spin and slant the news to make your point, at least be a man about it and tell it to my face. Don’t hide behind “analysis” and pro and con segments.
With these two forms of news consumption, as long as I read opinion columns from all over the spectrum, I get a fairly good balanced diet of what’s going on. I don’t find all the drama in the news that my fellow consumers feel.
Consuming the news has changed. Smart people don’t do it like they used to.
I wish I could say long format pieces have survived this shift. They have not. More and more, I’m seeing long format articles that amount to nothing much more than extended arguments put forward by one special interest or another, many times with an interview of a token person holding an opposing position as some sort of fig leaf to “fairness”. What is needed here, as in tech and science news, is reporters that actually know their area and can write stories at length about important events happening there. Instead what we’re finding is reporters who are getting socially involved in issues, then try to pry meaningful news from their social network. You end up with four-thousand-word cocktail party chat. Not always, but more and more.
It’s sad that news is dead. As a former freelance writer who has written for both weekly, daily, and magazine outlets, I liked them. The TV guys were never hitting on much, but they had a fun, egocentric job to do as well. These guys as purveyors of what’s important to know are long gone. Their job positions and media outlets will go on for many decades longer, sadly. And dumb people will keep consuming them, keep getting upset every day, and keep wondering why the world is such a bad place to live in.
For years I’ve posted about various kinds of government oppression on Hacker News, and for years I’ve heard the same thing: This is all political bullshit. I want to hear things that are more important, like tech news or information about how to program better.
And it’s not just online boards. Many founders of popular internet sites all say the same thing: We’re here making the world a better place. You’re really going to like it! (We know this because we’re A/B testing every little thing we do). All that politics stuff is for politicians and loser political types. Come and make a better world so that information and freedom can connect all of us together. It’s going to be a beautiful future. We’re the good guys.”
Indeed. It seems that as long as you can wave your arms around, vaguely describe some super cool future with flying cars and borg-like clothing, everything is going to work out fine. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to how things are actually turning out.
Take a look at “The New Digital Age”, a book full of such baloney. Evgeny Morozov tears the book apart (as opposed to most of the tech media, which seems to still be buying it)
The original concepts introduced in The New Digital Age derive their novelty from what might be described as the two-world hypothesis: that there is an analog world out there—where, say, people buy books by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen—and a matching virtual world, where all sorts of weird, dangerous, and subversive things might happen. Or, as the authors themselves put it, “one [world] is physical and has developed over thousands of years, and the other [world] is virtual and is still very much in formation.“ As “the vast majority of us will increasingly find ourselves living, working and being governed in two worlds at once,” new problems will emerge and demand original solutions.
Cohen and Schmidt argue—without a hint of irony—that “the printing press, the landline, the radio, the television, and the fax machine all represent technological revolutions, but [they] all required intermediaries. … [The digital revolution] is the first that will make it possible for almost everybody to own, develop and disseminate real-time content without having to rely on intermediaries.” Presumably we will disseminate “real-time content” brain to brain, because that is the only way to avoid intermediaries. Coming from senior executives of the world’s most powerful intermediary—the one that shapes how we find information (not to mention Google’s expansion into fields like fiber networks)—all this talk about the disappearance of intermediaries is truly bizarre and disingenuous. This may have been more accurate in the 1990s, when everyone was encouraged to run their own e-mail server—but the authors appear to have missed the advent of cloud computing and the subsequent empowerment of a handful of information intermediaries (Google, Facebook, Amazon). Not surprisingly, Cohen and Schmidt contradict their own gospel of disintermediation when they mention just how easy it was to weaken WikiLeaks by going after companies such as Amazon and PayPal.
…Why do so many of the trivial claims in this book appear to have gravitas? It’s quite simple: the two-world hypothesis endows claims, trends, and objects with importance—regardless of how inconsequential they really are—based solely on their membership in the new revolutionary world, which itself exists only because it has been posited by the hypothesis. Consider another claim from Schmidt and Cohen’s book: that “governments … may go to war in cyberspace but maintain the peace in the physical world.” Something clearly isn’t right here. If governments are at war—a condition well-described in international law—then they are at war everywhere; as with pregnancy, one cannot be just a little bit “at war.” If governments engage in skirmishes that do not amount to war—a condition that is also well known to students of international law and politics—then they are not at war. It is certainly the case that increased connectivity has made it easier to engage in new skirmishes, but we are not dealing with anything even remotely revolutionary here. The banal truth buried in Schmidt and Cohen’s hyperbole is something like: governments can now mess up each other’s networks in much the same way that they mess up each other’s embassies. A revolution in global affairs it isn’t.
…When someone writes a sentence that begins “if the causes of radicalization are similar everywhere,” you know that their understanding of politics is at best rudimentary. Do Cohen and Schmidt really believe that all these young people are alienated because they are simply misinformed? That their grievances can be cured with statistics? That “we” can just change this by finding the digital equivalent of “dropping propaganda flyers from an airplane”? That if we can just get those young people to talk to each other, they will figure it all out? “Outsiders don’t have to develop the content; they just need to create the space,” Schmidt and Cohen smugly remark. “Wire up the city, give people basic tools and they’ll do most of the work themselves.” Now it’s clear: the voice of the “we” is actually the voice of venture capital.
Apologies for the extended quote. You really should read the entire article.
The rules for polite discussion in the tech community have been fairly clear: gossip and technical talk is okay. Better still is wild-eyed, empty-headed pandering with vauge statements about some utopian future that if we only keep writing more code and developing more products, will appear. The rest of the talk, about oppression and government intrusion of our lives, is “political bullshit”
Well the political bullshit chickens have come home to roost, and it’s time to start looking at our role in all of this.
Somewhere in the last 20 years a hacker created a hardware device that government law enforcement agencies can use to intercept and monitor cellular calls. Somewhere in the last 10 years a programmer wrote code that is being used to identify and kill dissidents. Somebody right now is creating and maintaining a portal that allows security agencies potentially unfettered access to all of our details.
The commercial sector creates things. We — programmers, hackers, and other technologists — are not creating a utopia. We are giving the rest of the world power tools to do bad things to each other and then washing our hands of it because trying to deal with the ramifications of what we’ve done is just too much for us.
I grew up with computers. In 1973, if you could have sat down with most anybody in the western world and described the amazing future technology of 2013, they would have been incredibly impressed. Connect to anybody world-wide for free? Have the world’s knowledge at your fingertips? Auto-drive cars? What an incredible future!
But then if you had explained to them the way these tools are used, their response would be much different. Controlling what people can learn, say, hear, or talk about? The ability to constantly track each person on the planet to a location within 50 meters or so? Automatically monitoring who talks to whom, what time, for how long, and so forth? Real-time information about purchases? Automatic computation of all of a person’s friends, with the ability to dive into exacting detail about their lives as well?
This is not the stuff of an incredible future. This is the stuff of a horrific science fiction movie. Nobody in their right mind would have traded all these cool gadgets for this kind of micro-cataloging of all of our lives. In fact, if the public had known exactly what was in store for them, and had they believed it, computers may well have been outlawed a long time ago.
This is not an argument against progress, or computers, or a rant on how the world is going to hell. I’m not saying that technology is the root of all evil. The world has a lot of problems that have nothing to do with technology. We’ve just help make them all worse.
This is a plea for us technologists to get our heads out of our collective asses and take a look around at what we are doing. It’s time to grow up, and it’s time to take responsibility for the surveillance states we’ve helped create. I don’t know the answer — I suspect that the best policy would be that anything the government can know, the average citizen should be able to know as well — but I do know we need to start talking about it. Not every now and then when a major story comes out, but on an ongoing basis. The impact of our work should be as important to us as the work itself.
A recent friend on Facebook started this conversation yesterday. I’d like to elaborate a bit. What do our experiences in technology governance tell us about how governments should be run?
I’m an Agile coach. I use the term “Agile” because a few guys were nice enough to provide us with a marketing term. “Mentoring in best practices around incremental and iterative development” just doesn’t fit on a powerpoint deck.
So when I say “Agile”, it has a completely different meaning than something like “PSP” (A methodology where developers are told exactly what to do) It’s not rigid. It’s a growing, learning community. We learn because various members come out with cool ideas, we all try them, then we figure out the edge cases and hidden assumptions. It’s a great community.
What I commonly see is people that “get it”, turn around and start creating rigid, overbearing systems of governance to implement Agile! It sounds crazy, since Agile is very non-prescriptive in many areas, but there it is. People will take something that tries to focus on people instead of process and make a rigid process out of it.
My conclusion after watching this in corporation after corporation is twofold. One, some people just want stability in their lives. They would rather have “bad Agile”, where everything is spelled out to infinite detail, than live with not knowing how things are done. They find comfort in creating a “program” that the rest of us have to live. They like organizing things.
Two, that the risks the organization faces is different than the risk the teams face. Teams can make a trade-off about the risk of deploying something half-assed into production that makes sense to them. But it’s much too risky for the organization itself. You can’t have teams making risky local decisions that can impact everybody else. So you have to have some kind of governance.
And that’s why I consider myself a pragmatic libertarian. You have to have laws. The trick is in creating a system that minimizes the complexity and power of the laws while also reducing risk to others. This is also why I have an aversion to folks I think are a little too eager to control the rest of us or talk about some kind of danger we face from corporations or terrorists — this is a slippery slope that will do nothing but destroy the chaos that makes us all so successful.
They say programmers have a special personality type: we are able to dive in deep into very small details and stay with them until we find a solution.
I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I know this morning when I asked myself “Wouldn’t it be cool to have numbers inside of circles for signup pages?” I didn’t realize I was heading off on a multiple-hour adventure.
First, this code is crap. I hate all the markup involved for something so simple and I suspect I could collapse it down quite a bit given time. It’s also pretty loose: I have a feeling there’s stuff in there that could easily be removed, and I’d like to comment it up some more. Also I could have spent a large chunk of my life worry about browser compatibility, but I did not. Works on webkit.
But this is the internet. You pays your money and you takes your chances. The main goal for me was to demonstrate to myself that this is possible. If I ever want to use it in production I’ll come back and honk around with it some more. Or not. If you need something similar, hopefully this can be a good starting point for you.
Some cool things you could do from here if you have the time and patience. Hover effects on these little guys would be awesome, as would making them work automatically in an ordered list — although I believe a bit of JQuery might be involved for that to happen.
Note that the shadows of each circle have a hint of the circle’s color in them. Also note the background of the circles around the circles are gradients, as are the backgrounds of the numbers themselves. You could have a nice red-to-yellow colored font for you numbers on a green-to-black circle if you wanted. Then you could make it dance around. And sing. But I’ll leave all of that as an exercise for the reader. I need to get back to actually working.
If you are interested using this, there’s a bit more complexity behind-the-scenes than you might expect.
Finally, here’s the code working on the page:
UPDATE: *sigh* I went back and added in the hover. Just too cool to pass up. So now they are numbered circles which also work as buttons. The comments show what to take out just to have them be numbered circles again.
I don’t listen to the radio — I prefer listening to college lectures when I drive — but several times a year I find myself surreptitiously tuning in anyway, usually when I’m bored and wonder what other folks are listening to. Many times, after wondering around a sonic wasteland, I find myself on National Public Radio, or NPR.
NPR is mostly known for great classical music, at least where I live. Because NPR is partially funded by public funds, and because it sets itself up as an icon of shared common good, it always seems to be wanting to show that it’s smarter than the other radio stations. The classical music is many times deep dives, with an entire work examined and placed in context. The news tries to be level-headed, wide-encompassing, and neutral. The quiz shows are only for the erudite. Heck, even the car repair guys have degrees from MIT.
I used to love this. I could tune in at any time and feel like I was one of the few who understood and enjoyed Tchaikovsky the way he should be enjoyed. And lo, there were other people there like me! And why watch another episode of Jeopardy with it’s lightweight format when I could play along with quizzes that challenged my intimate knowledge of Russian literature? (Or lack thereof.)
This all changed when I finally figured out what was going on. It was NPR news that did it. It took many years, and my own experience working as a freelance writer, for me to figure it all out.
While not obvious to the casual listener, NPR does their news in a mechanical, ritualistic format. While I may get many details wrong here, the gist is correct. During the night, their fax machine churns with releases from various special interest groups. Save the kittens, eat the rich people, grow more bunnies, prevent hunger worldwide, eliminate nuclear weaponry, and so forth. Some are politically conservative groups, yes, but the vast majority are left of center. Sometimes far left. This is simply the reality of activist groups.
The editors sift through this pile of “Hey! This is really interesting! You should do a story on it!” material looking for something of value for their news shows. The vast majority of the releases are just the same stuff on a different day, so they get ignored. But every now and then one strikes the editors as unusual enough for their audiences. “Here’s one on how puppies are adversely affected by greenhouse gases!” an editor will say, and then they’re on to something.
First up, they come up with the hook. “Did you know that your puppy may grow an extra tail and try to eat you while you sleep? And the reason is greenhouse gases? According to a new study by the prestigious….” Next they call the people who issued the release, basing the bulk of the story around an interview with one of them. Extra credit points if this person has a good radio voice. Then they’ll dig through their academic contacts, looking for somebody to provide some context and background quotes. This will be the second part of their interview. Most academics lean left, but are able to backhandedly explain the other side of the opinion, so this counts as balance, I guess.
On a rare occasion they’ll look for somebody who may actually have an opinion that is different and deserves attention. Perhaps it’s an important issue and they want to devote more airtime. So they’ll go through their sources rolodex, finally coming up with some group named something like “All puppies must die” and find a PhD. who is willing to be interviewed. Usually this guy is so off the wall as to be laughable, so then they’ll go back to their pocket academic for some more context quotes before the reporter ends with a sort of “Well, you know, it’s all kind of the same, but it’s a very interesting subject, as you can see, so one thing’s for sure: the debate will certainly continue.”
I’m not trying to imply NPR is left-leaning. By no means. No implication needed. I’ll come right out and say it: they’re left-leaning. Worse still, everybody knows this, including NPR, so they try even harder to sound neutral. Their anchors adapt this singsong vocal style so lampooned on SNL’s skit “Scweddy Balls“. Their topics try to include something for everybody, including, presumably, those poor morons like myself who only pass through every now and then.
In their eyes, they are simply finding a story with a good angle, sourcing it, finding some context, maybe a little debate, and then presenting it in a completely anesthetic fashion. There’s no bias at all. It’s very sad, actually. In their efforts to try to be more neutral, because they don’t even understand what they are doing, they just make the product even worse. I’d rather just listen to a good rant from Olberman or Maddow. At least the entertainment value is higher.
It took me many years to realize this same pattern of news reporting happening over and over again. Not only was the fact that NPR had no idea what it was doing interesting, hell, people love this stuff. When fundraising time comes, they always ask “Where else folks are going to get this kind of high quality and informative news?” and the money just keeps pouring in.
To answer that question I need to broaden our scope a bit.
There has been a discussion lately on the need for a liberal education. College costs have gone through the roof yet graduates seem unable to find work. Outsiders see the cost going up and the results going down — some of us wonder if college is working as it should. It looks very overpriced and broken.
Of course, I’m a huge proponent of a liberal education and I love the arts as well as the sciences. But still, if you can’t get a job, whatever you have been studying, it was the wrong thing.
As part of that debate, which has gone on in multiple columns over the past few weeks, I came across an interesting one today. “Think Right, not Deep” It’s by a right-wing fellow, and he makes the standard arguments (true) that college is basically a training ground for young liberals instead of a place to actually learn a trade. So it’s mostly that blah-blah-blah stuff you hear from both left and right that has been going on for decades. But then he gets to an interesting point.
Finally, there’s the issue about whether people in the humanities and liberal arts are broadly educated. I don’t think they really are. My undergraduate degrees are in biology and biochemistry. Since I went to a non-elite public university I saw the full range of students, and those who were not science majors were often quite academically unmotivated and passed their classes through bursts of cramming. In the sciences the situation was different because failing was a much more clear and present option. Many people switched out of science majors when they hit organic chemistry or physical chemistry, because they failed them or knew they could not pass the courses.
When I met history or political science majors there were sometimes awkward moments because it was clear I knew more history and political science than they did. I have a strong interest in these areas, and in my naive youth I thought that someone majoring in history or political science would wish to discuss these topics. But usually the reality was that they’d rather drink a beer.
But is it better with genuinely smart students who went to the top schools? Unfortunately that hasn’t been my experience. As a specific example years ago I ran into someone at a party who turned out to have a background in classical Roman history from an Ivy League university. As a Roman history buff I was excited to talk to them about various issues, but I quickly realized that this individual was more interested in seeming smart than saying anything substantive (I wanted to discuss Bryce Ward-Perkins’ revisionist How Rome Fell, and my interlocutor seemed to lose all interest when I was not sufficiently impressed by their name-checking of scholars in the “Rome did not fall, it evolved” school of thought. They were not even prepared from what I could gather to defend that position on empirical grounds).
Too many smart liberal arts graduates remind me of the blonde douche in Good Will Hunting:
…4 – Those liberal arts graduates who are very bright are too often enamored of the latest intellectual fashion, and are keener upon signalling their ideological purity and intellectual superiority than actually understanding anything.
And there we have it: the difference between learning and social signalling. You spend a couple of years of life in your spare time learning Roman history, as this author might have, and you love history and want to learn more. You are excited when you meet somebody who majored in it because here is somebody who got all this stuff in school, taught by a real professor.
But too often, aside from name-dropping, perhaps an emotional rant about whatever the latest fad is, and plenty of signals to show that they think “correctly” about many issues, there’s nothing there. Like the guy said, they’d just rather have a beer.
We’re teaching people to put on the affectation of being smart, of having the right opinions, being upset at the right things, listening to the right radio stations, hanging out with the right crowd — without actually being smart. Being smart has become a brand.
NPR Syndrome is when there is a panache of intellectual fervor without the deep humility and curiosity that real intellectual depth brings. It’s a patina of understanding, the dropping of names, listing of book titles, the citing of experts, the glossing over of depth on both sides of key issues, the use of key words and phrases that signal I’m of the elite in this area.
The older I get, the more Socrates amazes me. One of the greatest philosophers of all times, and he insisted that he did not know much. I have a feeling he’d have a lot of fun today sitting out by the city gates, listening to the cognoscenti.
I don’t mean this rant as being anti-intellectual. Far from it. If anything, it’s a plea for true intellectualism; the pursuit of knowledge and treasuring of sharing and comparing views and opinions. But that’s not what I’m seeing when I look at large sections of the public. It’s not even what I read about when I read about how academia works on the inside. Instead I see people who wrap themselves in a little cocoon, listening to NPR and watching CNN, laughing at Stewart and hanging out at the Daily Kos, all the while feeling so superior to the common man and how easily he is manipulated and led. And yes, the right-wing does just as much of this as the left. But over on the right the intellectuals are mostly the tolerant ones. On the right it’s the anti-intellectuals that are intolerant. On the left the more education you have, the more isolated and bigoted you are. There have even been studies that show that the more education you have, the less economics you know, and the more sure you are of your own opinions about economic issues. It’s exactly the opposite from what we would expect.
Wonder why that is? And if people with college degrees can’t find jobs, and they’re actually understanding less and posturing more, could somebody explain to me as a taxpayer and voter I would want to pay for more of the same?
I had some comments on the clarity of this piece. My apologies if it rambled. To restate my thesis: what we’re getting for our tens of thousands of dollars of college education is a lot of graduates who have mastered the social signalling and habits of appearing to be educated, without actually being educated or having any sort of deep interest at all in the fields they are supposed to have majored in. NPR’s relationship to its audience, whether by design or accident, is illustrative of the power of social signalling and posturing in this manner.
The TSA announced this week that they are going to start being more aggressive with their pat-downs. This, in addition to the virtual strip searches they want to perform, has made me want to stop flying commercially forever.
Folks seem to enjoy this kind of abuse of my freedoms, though — folks from all sides. When I’m in a conservative room and I complain about conservationists taking away my private property rights (or government telling me I have to buy insurance), everybody agrees. When I’m in a liberal room and I complain about the TSA or internet monitoring, everybody agrees.
Everybody seems to agree: whatever they want to do is more important than my freedom of action and my personal property. They know better than me, and they are very willing to decide that I need to make sacrifices to make them happy about something or another.
But I don’t want to talk about politics. Or at least not directly. I’d much rather try to go meta and talk about general principles. What I would like to talk about is the reaction of individuals when organizations do stupid things, because I see people doing this same thing to each other at all levels of organization, from tiny teams of a dozen or so up to the size of the United States Federal Government. And the response is always the same.
(Note use of Wave for comments at bottom. Feedback appreciated)
I do not believe in evolution.
When I was in fourth grade, my entire class took a break for an hour while I had a debate with my friend David Hillon about evolution. He argued for evolution and science, and I argued for skepticism and faith.
The world, you see, was only a few thousand years old. The Great Flood made the Grand Canyon. There were too many gaps in the fossil record to demonstrate evolution. Great flood stories are part of every culture. After all, we already knew how things came about — the King James Bible — and as long as we understood that was true we could speculate freely about the rest of it.
As long as it supported long-established religious dogma, it was worthy of study.
I have been thinking about my fourth-grade experience and Cato The Elder quite a bit over the last several years.
I usually try not to do political articles here — seems like they just tick everybody off.
However I think politics is an interesting way to talk about problem-solving in large organizations. So I think it’s applicable to technology management. This is the reason why the politics category exists on my blog.
And that brings me to my current beef: why the sudden rush to shut down debate on health care legislation?
What does a nuclear madman have to do to get America’s attention? On Memorial Day, the North Koreans detonated “an underground atomic device many times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” as my old colleagues at The Irish Times put it. You’d think that’d rate something higher than “World News In Brief,” see foot of page 37. But instead Washington was consumed by the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, who apparently has a “compelling personal story.” …
Not impressive. Perhaps a hat would help.
Let’s face it: Kim Jong Il just isn’t that persuasive as a evil maniac. He looks more like a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Or somebody from American Idol. And now our next contestant Kim will sing “Born Free”
We used to have a much higher quality of bad guys.