whose news? clean it up

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The last few days I’ve reached a new level of frustration with what is often called “news”. I pretty much only watch Al Jazeera English and a smattering of Swedish news these days. AJE is the only straight news sans fluff, sans glorifying ‘celebrities’ and that covers all of the world’s parts (not just western concerns). Swedish news – well – it’s local, so I kind of want to know about that stuff.

But online I follow loads of news, tech, music/entertainment, development, marketing/SEO/PR/comms blogs and sites… and I swear that the only thing that seems to appear across disciplines is the most asinine stuff that is not news and about which we should not care. I don’t even want to give it the time to write about it now except that it seems important in the sense that we are to blame for our own fake news dilemma. We begged for more bullshit, and we got it. So today when every media outlet put out ‘headline news’ about the “quiet” relationship forged by musician Grimes and tech ‘mogul’ Elon Musk, I started to get angry. I am silently screaming, “Who cares, who cares, who cares?!” It’s not news; no one should care… and it’s not quiet if it is the headline on every news, tech, music/entertainment and PR blog or site in existence.

For two days, I have seen too many articles about Donald Glover and his (Childish Gambino’s)  “This is America” single and video. Don’t get me wrong. I love Donald Glover. Yes, Glover is beyond talented; “This is America” is brutal and beautiful all at once. I’ve seen the backlash pieces (i.e. don’t make or expect Glover to be the anti-Kanye). But is this newsworthy? (Arguably this is more newsworthy than the aforementioned bit about celeb personal lives… or about royals having babies and getting hitched and BBC stopping EVERYTHING to report on such truly insignificant trifles; they would have done this anyway but it’s also a convenient way to ignore covering the shambolic state of Brexit.)

Why is this kind of frippery what we care about instead of real things? This is what our sweet tooth begs for, and the 24/7 news (infotainment) cycle, competition in channels and platforms, our inability and lack of desire to understand or grapple with complexity, the sad state of journalism today, too many other things distracting us – why not?

We gluttons of talent we don’t have, money we will never make, and elusive, ephemeral ‘fame’ prioritize these shallow displays over anything that actually matters. We think it’s normal to pay actors and athletes millions of dollars – we don’t even bat an eye at this insanity. We think events like the Met Gala last night, another thing that was plastered all over the headlines, are important. But I don’t even know what the hell the Met Gala is – and not one of these headlines told me. In fact, all they could highlight was what these ‘special people’ in attendance were wearing.

Meanwhile… I can’t even begin to recount what we ignore in order to find out what designer some personality du jour is wearing or breaking news on celebrity dating. Who has the attention span any more anyway?

admonishment to vigilance

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“‘Drive,’ she said when she sat down next to Sami. ‘Where to?’

She thought for a moment. Without looking at him, she said, ‘To where the country ends.’

‘For me it ended a long time ago,’ he hissed.” –To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Each day, the least democratic thing we could imagine (or even couldn’t imagine) happening happens. And then the next day, something even less democratic happens. This is true in the political realm, and it’s increasingly apparent in technology (now that we have algorithms deciding for us what we can/will see).

“‘I went,’ he told her, ‘because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.’” –The Plot against America, Philip Roth

How much of what we think and see is influenced by what we are fed pre-emptively? How can we think for ourselves and discover new things when there are limits on what we see (thanks to algorithms and our blindly, blithely feeding all of our own data into massive data crunching/manipulating machines)? I have been thinking about this for some time. Most of the jobs I’ve had were directly within or at least adjacent to/dependent on the collection, analysis and use of data about users and their behaviors and habits. Many companies exist solely because of their access and ability to harvest data – it has created entirely new business models and applications. But it’s never been mysterious what was going on (even if most average people don’t consider the implications). I don’t know why people are now, suddenly surprised.

Just as I was trying to figure out how to discuss this, an article appeared on HBR.org:

“The ability for an elite to instantly alter the thoughts and behavior of billions of people is unprecedented.

This is all possible because of algorithms. The personalized, curated news, information and learning feeds we consume several times a day have all been through a process of collaborative filtering. This is the principle that if I like X, and you and I are similar in some algorithmically determined sense, then you’ll probably like X too. Everyone gets their own, mass-personalized feed, rationed by the machines.

The consequences are serious and wide-ranging. Fake news and misinformation are pervasive. Young kids are being subjected to algorithmically generated, algorithmically optimized pernicious content. Perhaps the least concerning implication is that there is systemic bias in our information feeds, that we operate in and are informed by tiny echo chambers. It’s a grotesque irony that our experiences of the world wide web today are actually pretty local, despite warnings from the likes of Eli Pariser back in 2011.”

My own words – base oversimplifications – are totally inadequate to deconstruct and intelligently discuss the complexity of these issues. But almost every book I read contains a warning. Almost none are direct cautionary tales in the vein of 1984, but almost all advise us to consider what we have and how easy, without vigilance, it is to lose:

“Because civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there’s war, life is a preventative measure.” –The Cellist of Sarajevo, Stephen Galloway

But then, we also need to consider that the erosions and explosions of “civilization” also come about because not everyone agrees about what constitutes civilization – this fundamental disagreement poses its own dangerous fragmentation.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash