Friday, July 30, 2021

To Strengthen Democracy

by Caravaggio (1571-1610) This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, how hugely ironic it is that phony populists swim in a sea of self-adulation, obsessively interested only in themselves; narcissistic in their ignorance that George Orwell long ago illustrated how to tear down trash-talk to restore truth, and Jacques Ellul alerted us to both the dangers and limits of propaganda.

Like many of us today, Orwell and Ellul had their fill of wannabe leaders wanting to snatch up control of governments and freedoms. And, we hardly need reminding of the horrors that the phony leaders caused then.

During the upsurge in phony populism more recently, it's been healthy and useful to use the mute button on nonsense claims, or switch TV channels, or turn off the tech, or question presumptions in the too-often-repeated outrages.

It's understandable to wonder where is the mute button to counter propaganda more widely. We dampen nonsense on television this way, why not other trash-talk? And, why do mainstream and social media so like to magnify manufactured outrage?

When a fringe-mob violently tried to overthrow democratic government in the United States almost seven months ago, many of us were more than tired of the phony tirades and trash-talk. By then, manufactured outrages often dominated public communications.

Orwell and Ellul had warned about the use of media to engulf us in a swell of swill. Ellul noted that propagandists win by denying freedom of thought. And, with fashion, rumors, and propagators of weird social beliefs aided and abetted by some unprofessional news-folks and social media, of course we'll always be targets of propagandists.

To help swim the sea of propaganda, with its hidden currents and rips, and to encourage the critical thinking needed to do so, Ellul outlined what enables propaganda. He provided relatively few specifics on what we each might do to counter propaganda, as Randal Marlin pointed out in a recent blog-post here. Ellul sought to stimulate, not dictate our thinking. His thoroughly exploring principles and practices remains useful though, to help swim across the tidal rips of propaganda to reach a better destination.

One of Orwell's contributions was to help us scrutinize language, to look for the tells that identify the self-interested wannabe controllers of thinking. He also explained how to deal with their language, which was especially well-outlined in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language"first published in 1946, and still well worth the (re-)read. 

As daily life gets engulfed in a swell of swill on digital devices and other products of the technological age that we welcome into our lives, it becomes increasingly important to enlarge commitments to critical thinking. Educators have a role here, but the declines in teaching logic and the already crowded educational curricula mean that logic and other life skills like civility, or information literacy, or financial management, or the law will be formal educational experiences beyond the reach of many.

So it is up to each of us to build defenses and offensives to dismantle propaganda. Check out earlier postings on this blog for some "to do's" to counter propaganda, and/or look into Randal Marlin's excellent Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion [Here].

Plenty to be concerned about, with the continuously rising impact of technology on what we see, hear, and doas well as the ongoing efforts of wannabe leaders pretending to be democratic, who aim to control people directly, or through legislative sleights of hand.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021


The Bookworm
by Carl Spritzweg (1808-1885) Museum Georg Schäfer
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Policy wonks long believed healthcare delivery to be governed by considerations of Access, Quality, and Costand, that it was possible to address any two, but not all three satisfactorily. Policy prophecy can be self-fulfilling, or worse, as we now know from endless hours dealing with health insurance companies, pharmacies, and the others fiddling in this space.

Hype among policy determiners often has self-fulfilling effects. The preoccupation of the news media with ratings and advertising sales has predetermined the constraints within which the most creative editors, journalists, and others are bound to work. Progressively, added to the mix are the effects of new tech. 

The editor-in-chief of the newspapers in my hometown, Harry Gordon, contrasted how print and broadcast news media might report on Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Gordon wrote the newspaper version of this story as "Moses came down from the mountain today with Ten Commandments. These are... [with the ten guides-to-life described]." He projected that the broadcast news would be "Moses has delivered Ten Commandments, two of which are..." 

How social media might relate this news is anyone's guess. But more interesting is the hype that tech fashion has self-perpetuated, as well as its long-term effects.

Over a decade ago, the CEO of an early online search firm shared his surprise with me that his teenage daughter showed no interest in participating in that rite-of-passage of earlier generations, of proving skills enough to obtain a driver's license. Her answer, living in a city, was to text a friend, if she wanted a ride to go somewhere; and soon afterwards, there was Uber!

Now, it's reported that, in a nation whose people seem otherwise sensible, the National Library of New Zealand is set to "de-accession" over 600,000 "Overseas" Books collections, including Shakespeare, Cervantes [that should stop future tilting at the windmills of wonks!], all the classics, and much more. Oh, and just about any other non-New Zealand literature you might (or might not) be encyclopedic enough to remember. Some policy wonking, eh?! Even the shortlist for the chop, identified in a World of the Written Word blogpost on July 9, is remarkable. [Here: two blogposts on this]

Interestingly, the "Internet Library" chosen as New Zealand's substitute knowledge repository, unlike a physical library, appears not to compensate authors still in copyright, or their publishers' production effortsno mention of either buying or re-buying books, as other libraries do, much less per page lending and payment systems so common elsewhere. Naturally, an author association and publishers are mounting legal challenges to the presumptions underlying the approach, with proceedings still winding through the courts. 

Also not considered important apparently are the realities of digital storage decay, or who will really take care of the periodic re-"saving" that will be needed for such mountains of information in yet-to-be developed new digital formats. No indication that the so-called Internet pirates discussed in the more recent blogpost, who are to be the substitute caretakers of this knowledge resource of New Zealand, have any more concern about this or other consequent losses than the library policy wonks, who seem fine about glossing over the losses to the nation in deciding on their approach. 

Such wonks will likely remain enamored with the idyllic fantasy portrayed by sci-fi movie actors, who talk to computers to retrieve any information that the movie script, written by someone else, has told them how to request. 

At the risk of sounding even more like a dinosaur, the other, even-bigger effect that pops up regularly in the news is the ambiguous security of our infrastructure, national and personal, which we are all governed by. Amid these apparently uncontrolled forces, there are some things we can do. 

A key "to do" was crystallized in the years I worked alongside two very talented undergraduate computing students, to deliver computer-coding competitions, we called "hackathons." Within this tech-sect, social media was gospel for every purpose, except to get geeks to enroll in the (free) computer-coding competition. 

Which is where the title of today's blogpost comes from. ".0001%" was roughly the percentage return, calculated over the years, of the actual enrollment in our "hackathons" that resulted from social media, in a highly tech communityin other words, insignificant in this group. Of course, with different resources to drive the social media, including automated systems and expensive demographic data, and/or with very much larger population groups, and/or with physiological pre-testing of messages, and/or, etc., etc., others do better. 

Just have to look at the social media election exploitations in the United States and other countries, where the first or strongest in a territory/nation with relatively developed resources has done well, especially where the opponent gears up little or not at all with social media, in offense or defense. But the distance between results and hype in our modestly resourced "hackathon" marketing efforts always stunned us.

As you might have guessed, what worked to engage participants in our "hackathon" competition, and in all the other big computer-coding events we surveyed in Michigan, Boston, and elsewhere, was word-of-mouth/person-to-person. As my tech-student colleagues found, what worked was standing, day-after-day, in the university quad and food court, handing out flyersinviting personallyand, yes, email still lives... with personalized email follow-up.

This also applies to dismantling propaganda, by restoring dialog. Or, nurturing critical thinking (socratic dialog doesn't seem to fly on social media). Or, inviting others to join a cause. Zoom calls in these times are helpful. 

It will be best for us all the soonest and more completely that the United States, or for that matter any nation or community, finds person-to-person ways to further enliven the community interactions that shape democratic strength. 

[FOOTNOTE UPDATEAt the end of November 2021, a reprieve for an unspecified time from the proposed action of the National Library of NZ was announcedpossibly due to the legal uncertainties mentioned above, along with potential embroilment in the likely long-winded and expensive legal proceedings mounted by publishers and author organizations against the so-called "Internet Library" in the United Statesdetailed here]