Thursday, March 23, 2017 7:16 PM
There’s a new industry—information analysis for public consumption—you can see it in the deer-in-the-headlights look of recent guests of shows like The Rachel Maddow Show, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and Real Time with Bill Maher—people whose life up until now consisted of research, data analysis and synthesis, in quiet, dusty offices, are suddenly guests on a TV talk show.
Sometimes they’ve written a book, but just as often they’ve had an article published in a newspaper—either way, they’ve spent months, perhaps years, doing research on some overlooked, obscure, but important piece of our civic life. News today has a cornucopia of subjects, many of them medical, scientific, financial, legal, or something equally complex—and that complexity increases by an order of magnitude when we get down to cases—specific aspects of Antarctic microbiology effected by climate change, perhaps, or the difficulties of fighting the spread of Zika when each municipality has its own mosquito-spraying schedule.
And it’s more than an understanding of principles, either on laymen’s terms or as a professional expert—there’s an overabundance of data to deal with as well. Congressional bills run to the thousands of pages of legislation. Unmanned drones send back data from Pluto that will keep astronomers busy analyzing it for years to come. Wikileaks dumps thousands of pages of raw, hacked text and data—friend or foe, that stuff doesn’t index and summarize itself. Then there’s the galaxy of social-media texts, pix, likes, emojis, and what-all that can target-market, sociologically analyze, or just plain stalk almost anyone under the age of thirty.
There’s a lot of information floating around. If there weren’t, perhaps we’d have less trouble with the creeps that insert disinformation into the social conversation—misrepresenting a person or group for purely partisan aims. But it would seem that someone has to go looking for that stuff—I mean, the fact that it’s out there also speaks to the fact that a lot of people want their prejudices confirmed by an authoritarian media voice, no matter how shaky their journalistic cred. Their audience pre-dates them—they’re meeting a ‘need’, so to speak.
And the Alt-righters are not alone in seeking comfort. Americans are glued to their I-phones as much to hide from this frightening new world of information, as to make use of it. We can obsessively play video games or surf Instagram all day, take selfies or duck-pose ‘til our eyes bug out—that avalanche of information is still there—even if you don’t look.
The rich people started it—denying that smoking was dangerous so they could keep selling tobacco, denying that drunk-driving was a problem so they could keep selling liquor, and still denying that climate change is a threat when scientists are screaming in their faces. And if they can deny reality, why can’t we? Hey, new cars are expensive as hell—better to say ‘fukkit’ and keep the old gas-guzzler.
There’s much more information being denied than just climate change—the economics of socialized medicine (detached from the vested interests of existing insurers and drug manufacturers), the economics of socialized higher education (including the future cost of an tech-illiterate citizenry)—just name anything where an industry is making a good buck and you’ll find the conversation being steered away from anything that amounts to significant change. This is especially true of finance. And while the unseen machinations of lobbyists are certainly a big threat, the lack of free thought and public conversation about these areas is just as much a roadblock to change.
Some unpleasant folks like to say I’m ‘drinking the Kool Aid’. When Rush Limbaugh tells them that the New York Times is lying to America, but Paul Ryan is as honest as the day is long—then they tell me I’m the one that’s brainwashed—I really can’t respond. I might as well be trying to explain things to a cow. But, again, it comforts them to believe that they are right in their prejudices. It’s almost frustrating enough for me to want the consequences to hurry up and show themselves—if my words are useless, maybe reality can convince them. But that’s a pyrrhic victory of the worst kind—I get to say ‘I told you so’ while we all die—not much of a win there.
Here’s the problem—the world has gotten complicated—and crowded—don’t forget, overpopulation is still a global issue, even with first-world birthrates in decline—and we, instead of embracing that unpleasant consequence, are creating a world of doubt and rumor, where the nasty facts can’t reach us. But that is like avoiding the doctor when you don’t feel well—it’s a bad idea. While we’re putting off facing the problem, it’s just metastasizing.
I wish we could put all these fake-news-zombies to one side, and get everyone else to huddle up, and say, ‘look, we know this is real—fuck those people—let’s do something before we all die’. Wouldn’t that be nice? Politics today seems to be the art of avoiding just such a come-to-Jesus moment. And it’ll work fine—until Jesus comes to see us.
I think we need to take a hard look at the paradox of the Internet—its vulnerability to hacking makes it unreliable—so why are we in such a hurry to rely on it? As it stands, the Internet just adds another layer of confusion on top of an already confusing situation.
But the main problem remains the intersection of the power of government and the power of money—their relationship should be, to some degree, adversarial—the age of assuming that what’s good for business is good for the country is long past—and we need to face that, too.