Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Get Out The Pipecleaners Part III : Your Ears Aren't Big Enough

Now -- on to the other end of the bottle is the other bottleneck -- the reader.

The day has 24 hours. You have one visual input, one audio input, both duplexed, and you're accessing news for perhaps an hour a day. What passes through the two gates of your understanding in that hour? Compared to your two eyes and ears, the information buffet is infinite, so how do you decide?

A lot of it is the wildberry punch of the information buffet. It may be flavorful, but it's not food. In the Entertainment section there's a birth, a death, an argument, an arrest, and what difference does it make to you and me? But our primate social instincts tell us these things are important, so we avidly read about Brad, Angelina and all the others -- strangers we will never meet. (And what's a wildberry, anyway?)

Then there's the opposite end -- the high density, good-for-you news that the buffet can't even give away except for a few health food nuts grazing around the margins. Important international trade agreements camouflaged in the opaque lectures of boring guys in suits. Equivocal research on the cell chemistry of a protein whose function is still not known. A dull back-page paragraph on the convoluted ties between two industrial giants, which if understood, would explain why a one-industry town just lost its factory. Too dull, too abstract, too hard to grasp -- a lot of it effectively embargoed to us because to understand it, you first have to understand a dozen other things.

We are told (and not just by libertarians) to be wise consumers, to judge carefully and research before we invest. And most of us are smart people and can wisely study one or two topics in depth. But life's too short to do this for every topic important to us.

Our eyes aren't big enough, our brains aren't fast enough, our hours aren't long enough to sort through all the confetti and junk food and find the data to understand our world. We need intermediaries to do this for us and make that condensed data available at the instant we actually need it. Without researchers and reporters, periodicals and libraries and now the internet, especially the blogosphere, we are blind, deaf and helpless.

Here's a true story -- many years ago when salad bars were a new phenomenon, I was one of a group of poor college students who would get together every week or so to visit one of these salad bars as a treat. One of our number was Rocky, an intelligent fellow with a very direct approach to life.

The salad bar was laid out with low-cost items at the beginning, medium cost and less often chosen items in the middle, and finally at the far end three big bowls holding minced roast beef, ham, and chicken.

Most of us did the usual salad bar thing, adding from each of the bowls until we got to the far end, and then taking a garnish of one or two kinds of meat. But not our friend Rocky. He might put a little cottage cheese or a hard-boiled egg in his bowl, but for him the lettuce was just something that slowed him down on his way to the meat. It was the meat that rose like an island in his salad bowl, proudly carried to the checkout by a carnivore who really believed in getting value for his dollar.

Thanks to Rocky, the salad bar changed their policy pretty quickly.

Predators take advantage of the hard work herbivores do in turning grass and leaves and lichen into energy-dense things like meat, fat and marrow. A cow has to graze morning and evening and then chew for another few hours every day. They need bushels of feed and a lot of time. Predators only need a couple pounds of cow and no time at all for chewing.

We have too little time to process our news, and our ears and eyes aren't getting any bigger. So, to avoid the need to genetically engineer bigger ears, here is an action plan.

Step one: Remember Rocky. Be an apex predator, because you don't have time to be a four-stomached ruminant, except in one or two areas specifically important to you.

Be as picky about your sources as you are about your dinner. No Cheetos, no wildberry punch, but honest meat and drink.

Have the sources you're considering lied to readers? Do they cite references, and how far can you follow their sources to the raw data? Do they misinterpret other people's experiences? How much of their content is unsupported opinion, how much is solid stuff you can take to the bank? If their content is challenged, do they respond to the challenge and defend it, or honourably admit error and supply a correction?

And spend the least time possible with sources dedicated to any sort of propaganda.

"Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist." (I include in this category most advertisers.) It is the enemy of clear thought, and almost always the enemy of the people it's aimed at. Eschew it.

Step two: encourage the herbivores. You have all read the research showing population booms and crashes between rabbits and bobcats. The predator/prey cycle is a commonplace of biological research, less often applied to media. But if the papers, the magazines, the TV and radio news sources can't afford to keep paying their reporters, their writers, their footsoldiers, then what will the rest of the food chain feed on? Responsible news sources are expensive, and irresponsible ones are funded by, surprise, propagandists.

So you should subscribe (yes, spend real money) to at least one major newspaper and two magazines. Buy a good magazine off the newsstand once a week. Support your library. Support good blogs, they don't grow on trees. Write to the good sources and compliment them, write to the bad sources and tell them why you avoid them.

Step three
: be an herbivore. In the things that you yourself know and care about, become an honest source. Then when indicated make that information available to others who don't have it. Make sure it's solid and as well defended -- factually, logically -- as you can. And if you find you are wrong, stop defending it.

Luckily for us, and unlike the rabbits and bobcats, we can live at both ends of the information food chain. The internet has given us a network where we can be both dinner and diner. We can have it all -- we can fill our bowls with all the beef we want, and then if we want and have the time, we can add some Brad pasta salad and Angelina pickles and some spicy Britney spears.

But no wildberry punch ever again.

This is part III of III.

Part I, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part I : You Can Hear Your News Arteries Narrowing, is here.
Part II, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part II : Robbie the Robot Can't Do News , is here.

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