Truths of the Information Age, Part 2

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 19, 2012
Previous Version: August 25, 2000

This article is a continuation of Truths of the Information Age. Part One covered the topics of Media Space Must Eat, Information Must Compete, The Early Word Gets the Perm, The Frame Makes the Painting, Selection is a Viewpoint, Newer is Equated with Truer, The Media Sell what the Culture Buys, and You Are What You Eat and so Is Your Brain. Once agan, it is by understanding the way information works that you will be better able to locate the truth hidden within the data smog, to attend to the signal and ignore the noise.

9. All ideas are seen as controversial.

There is a saying, "Nothing so bad that some don't like; Nothing so good that some won't strike." It is probably impossible to make any assertion that will not find some supporters and some detractors. The problem often is that there is no indication of the quality or quantity of argument in support or opposition. Thus, every idea seems in equipoise, undeterminable because of an apparent balance of opinion--because the media, especially broadcast media, have time to present only one spokesman for each side. Information sleeps with lawyers. In a world where there is no longer any truth, all presentations are adversarial. "Find someone with the opposite opinion." This creates crises in values where values and ideals developed over thousands of years are counterbalanced by the opinion of one kook or rebel, with the implication that both positions are pretty much equal. "You've heard both sides; now you decide."

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. --Isaiah 5:20

10. Anything in great demand will be counterfeited.

Old master paintings are in demand, hence art fraud. Designer luggage is in demand, hence product counterfeiting. Similarly, certain kinds of information are always in great demand and are therefore often counterfeited. The demand for amazing knowledge, secrets, and scandals is ever present, and hence many events are fabricated by the tabloids, publicists, or other agents of information fraud. Imagine the greedy opportunist when someone says, "I will pay for information that makes candidate X look bad." Why, then, candidate X is a drug dealing, child stealing, binge drinking axe murderer. Where's my check?

Some people have ideologies which are much more powerful than a mere concern for truth or even reality, and they are quite willing to bend or fabricate information to support their beliefs.

The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? --Jeremiah 5:31

11. Undead information walks ever on.

Wrong information (lies, hoaxes, misinformation, rumors, disinformation, garbled truth) never really passes away. It comes back and continues to circulate. Sometimes, as with the peppered moth tales, wrong information is simply copied unthinkingly from book to book; other times, rumors that have long been disproven continue to be spread by the gullible or the unthinking (or perhaps by those interested in perpetuating them). Some information workers are quite lazy and are content simply to copy stories, ideas, "facts," quotations, and other information from other sources. Thus ridiculous information gets perpetuated. If you were hoping that all those urban legends would eventually die out, you will be disappointed.

When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. --Matthew 28:12-15

12. To accuse is to convict; possibility is proof.

Many people believe that no accusation would be made without any basis, so that if an accusation is made, it must be true, at least in part. Many people are too busy to check anything out, so they just assume that accusations are valid. But imagine the following scenario:

Journalist: "Senator Crump, is it true that you torture animals for fun?"
Crump: "Of course not."
Journalist: "In spite of accusations, Senator Crump denies that he tortures animals for fun."
Journalist: "Do you believe that Senator Crump tortures animals for fun?"
Ordinary Bloke: "Well, no, but why? Is there some evidence? Maybe he is bad."
Journalist: "What about you, sir?"
Another Type: "Yeah I believe it. Senator Crump is a jerk."
Journalist: "There you have it. Opinion is divided about whether or not Senator Crump tortures animals for fun."

13. The medium selects the message.

Television is mostly pictorial, partly aural, and very little textual. Therefore, the visual stories are the ones emphasized: fires, chases, disasters. In-depth discussions that would take too many minutes or that could not easily be translated to pictures, will have to appear in a large newspaper or magazine (or perhaps a book). Until the advent of the Internet and some new publishing ventures, there was no medium for 50-page works (too long for magazines, too short for books). Such works had to be trimmed, expanded, or left unpublished. Many books would have been excellent articles rather than the over-inflated books they are, but books get more respect.

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. --Hebrews 8:10

14. The Experimenter Effect of Media: the presence of the media creates the story.

"The experimenter effect is the tendency for the expectations, actions, or biases of the researchers to affect or influence the responses which participants produce, and therefore at least partially produce the observed differences." --Lynne Henry

When the media are present, especially film news or television media, people behave much differently from the way they would if not being filmed. If you have ever been to an event where protesters were being filmed, you may have noted that they all stood around lazily until the cameras got ready to roll and then became suddently animated and shouted angrily. When the cameras stopped, so did the protesters.

If the media don't report it, it did not happen.
If the media report it, it did happen.
It did happen because the media reported it.

The very fact of media coverage implies that an event is important or "newsworthy," and similarly, absence of media coverage implies lack of importance.

15. Yours is not to reason why; yours is to buy and buy.

The motives for the creation and dissemination of information are the same as before and also different now. Long ago, many people wrote books only when they had something to say. They wanted to inform or persuade. However, Samuel Johnson, an 18th century writer, said that "no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Today, some still write to inform, while there seems to be more emphasis on persuasion and spin. And more people than ever write to gratify their egos, keep their jobs, or make money. Since market and entertainment values are more important than truth now--if such a thing as truth even exists in a postmodern world--the reliability of a book is less important than its entertainment value or its political ideology or its market value. As some people said when I, Rigoberta was shown to be largely fabricated, "It doesn't matter." The same was true when Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa was exposed in The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: "It doesn't matter."

As a commercial product, information is subject to the same treatment as other consumer goods--packaging, marketing, competition, positioning, hyping.

They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. --2 Thessalonians 2:10b-12

16. The whole truth is a pursuit.

The information we receive comes to us filtered, selected, slanted, verbally charged, and sometimes fabricated. What is left out is often even more important than what is included. Bias and perspective are a large part of this, together with worldview or ideology (some things must be true while others are not permitted to be true), but so too is the idea that information or "truth" is now just a story, with every teller feeling the right to add or alter details. And of course, as the proverb says, "The central work of life is interpretation." What facts mean is a major issue. What assumptions underlie interpretations?

Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. --Mark 5:25-33

On a huge hill,
Cragg'd and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
--John Donne, Satire III.79-82

17. Provenance Provides Probability.

Now with millions of Web sites, blogs, Tweets on Twitter and the like, there is an enormous quantity of information of suspect reliability because it is of suspect origin. Today, because of pressure to be first or at least not left in the dust, news media organizations pick up and often pass on many of the rumors that circulate online somewhere, and the ease of spreading stories, together with the motivations to lie, dissemble, and slander, causes a constant churn of junk quality information to circulate. Of course, healthy scepticism is important with all truth claims, but at some point you might need to act on the information you encounter, so some reliability tests are important. Provenance is one of these.

In the art world, provenance is the history of ownership of an art work, tracing it back, whenever possible, to the artist. Faking art is like faking information--all too easy. So, locate the source or consider the source. Where did this information come from? and How reliable is that source? Remember that information from "a friend of a friend" is the attribution given to most urban legends.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com