Journalism’s “post-truth” era

ChaosThere has been much public weeping and gnashing of teeth by professional journalism observers in the wake of the industry’s (is it an industry or a trade?) loss in November with the election of Donald Trump. “Journalistic handwringing” has become one of my favorite current phrases. Everybody has their opinion about what happened that resulted in the press discovering it was far removed from the everyday people who make up the interior of the U.S. I’ve expressed my views, but I want to think out loud today about the latest revelation of the journalism world – that we’ve entered the “post-truth era.”

What exactly does post-truth mean? The Oxford Dictionary made it their 2016 “Word of the Year” and defined it thusly: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” I think this definition serves journalism well, for we’ve already agreed that “transparency is the new objectivity.” Objectivity, it seems, was never really objective and hasn’t been since Creel Committee social engineers first wrote of “Manufacturing Consent.”

However, “post-truth” is terribly misleading as it relates to what’s happening beneath it, and that is that we’re on a learning curve for a new cultural era in the West. It’s not “post-truth;” it’s post-modern, which means we cannot rely on any single, top-down historical narrative anymore. I’ve been following this and reporting on it for fifteen years. Here are thoughts I expressed in an essay from December of 2002:

The digital era, created by the logic of a modernist world, has done far more than simply empower young people with knowledge. It is the force accelerating an enormous cultural shift and leaving broadcast news organizations in a very fragile position. Like Dorothy, Pomos have cast aside the curtain and revealed the Wizard for what he really is — a profit-motivated entity that they believe has fooled people for decades.

I’ve been predicting blowback against this the entire time I’ve been covering the beat, and the election of Donald Trump is certainly the fruit of this cultural shift. Why? Because we’re all deeply frightened about what it means. The uncertainty scares us. We feel unprepared. We stand before progress, as Henry Adams did in Paris over a century ago, when he wrote, “Chaos (change) is the way of nature. Order is the dream of man.”

So it isn’t really “post-truth,” because truth has historically been determined by those with the power to decide what it is, and that power (knowledge) is now being spread horizontally. The web itself – with its associative links – is constructed to function as a machine of deconstruction, the postmodern practice of slicing grand narratives to pieces in order to reveal the biases therein. In the end, the truth of history is revealed for what it really is: the subjective views of the writer, and we’re going to have to get used to something different. We’re going to have to start thinking in terms of multiple narratives and do our best to find information regarding each, so that we can decide for ourselves which is more believable and why. That’s why I say we’re on a learning curve that will be fraught with mistakes along with discoveries. Can we exist in such a world? We have no choice but to accept, study, and learn.

For example, someone recently asked me for “objective resources” on the Middle East, so that they could study points of view other than purely the Israeli narrative. I responded that there are virtually no “objective resources” anymore, and that the best we could do regarding this particular issue is include Mondoweiss in our daily news reading. The slogan of Mondoweiss is “Bringing the news to you that no one else will,” and it is serious journalism that offers alternative views – those outside the Zionist propaganda machine, hasbara – so the people can explore multiple narratives and be better informed. This is what “news” will be in our postmodern world, and we’ll all be much better off for it.

We are most certainly in a culture war, but this one transcends right versus left. Those two terms have become largely meaningless as they battle it out for supremacy throughout the land. It’s really modernism versus postmodernism, logic and reason versus participation, top-down versus horizontal, and it will change the world forever.

It has already begun.

Who writes the history in a postmodern world?

Slate Image

Slate.com Image

As the American press attempts to deal with its devastating loss of authority in the 2016 presidential election process, it might be useful to review one of its most important, albeit self-assigned roles: creating the “first rough draft of history.” The job of writing history in an era where there is no governing narrative is going to be very tricky, as this election has proven. There is no single explanation of what happened, for each “side” has its own narrative. This is going to increasingly be the case, because postmodernism rejects grand or meta narratives as self-serving and biased in favor of, usually, the ruling class.

“The rich man writes the book of laws the poor man must defend.” Ricky Skaggs

Let’s review: We entered the postmodern era as the internet came into being. Thus, the mantra of Western Civilization is shifting from purely “I think and reason, therefore I understand” to more of a “I participate, therefore I understand” theme. Power is shifting from top-down to horizontal, and this will continue for many hundreds of years. Its end will likely not be dystopian, unless the priesthoods losing their power and control get really ugly. Then, who knows? Meanwhile, and especially for a man of my age, the conflict can be pretty entertaining. Civilization can seem quite unpleasant, uncivilized, and chaotic to those stuck on the modernist bus, where order and equilibrium provide the juice for the drive train.

One of modernism’s beacons of glory is Colonialism, humankind’s grand venture into conquest – often in the name of God – to acquire land and its resources in order to increase the wealth of the conquerers. Colonialism, it turns out, is a special kind of enslavement, for colonies are forced to submit to those who hold the power, and a big part of that power is information – the grand narrative that justifies and maintains the conquest. In order to be in charge in a top-down government, whether democratic or totalitarian, the top must control that narrative. If you’re sensitive to it, you can actually witness such attempts as they happen, and these are even more evident as modernism slowly slips away.

My favorite conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., once said, “History is the polemics of the victors.” which was his version of the old axiom, “In war, the winner gets to write the history.” This served well in the top-down era from which we’re exiting, but it won’t suffice at all in the future. That’s because history – true history – is an ongoing, ever evolving and complex narrative, one that is highly suited to a connected universe. In the deadline-driven era, it was necessary for the press to provide a finished product for consumption, even if it was just a “first rough draft.” Thanks to hyperlinks and connectivity, however, we’ve no need to summarize and package anymore, for life presents itself as an on-going and chaotic mystery, even though it’s subject to the laws of seasons. Nothing “natural” exists in draft form, finished or otherwise; it is merely one, long, ever-evolving, chaotic mess, while we work our butts off trying to put everything into digestible forms of order.

The history book – with its beginning, middle, and end – will be replaced by search and living links, for the stories that comprise human existence never really conclude; they simply branch off and evolve. Our access to that never ending story won’t require packaging, for the story will supplant the package on the value chain of knowledge.

Essential to order is the myth of objective or absolute truth, the idea that foundational elements of life are set and therefore cannot change, an idea that includes grand narratives, often in the form of religious tenets and beliefs. These, however, fall apart upon honest deconstruction, for somebody always gains while others lose. Therefore, grand narratives are always a zero sum game. The total is the sum of everything. Postmodernism challenges the authority of this by deconstructing narratives to a point of conflict, and this will form a new understanding of history in the centuries ahead.

The best illustration of this today is an examination of the hot button word “terrorist” and how it is used for propaganda purposes. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and we cannot resolve this to everyone’s satisfaction as long as both sides are a part of an ongoing narrative, the moving target that I’m calling postmodern history. The ruling authority would have to dismantle our ability to connect – and with it, our organized public disagreement – in order to stake its claim of terrorist or freedom fighter. Hyperlinks provide access to multiple points of view, and that cannot be tolerated by those in charge (the top), for we might then agree with the opposite of what the ruling authority is asserting. The postmodern world is immune from this, and one day in the distant future, we will be our ruling authority. The mischief potential of top-down authority is simply too great to be forever sustained by those requiring a special wool to pull over eyes educated to see.

Oh there are plenty of people trying today to interfere with this natural flow of civilization by demanding control. The best example is the Zionist government of Israel, a country where control of the narrative is essential to maintaining the status quo. Despite being only one side of a multi-dimensional and multi-directional overarching Middle Eastern reality, the Israelis are especially good at controlling the world’s view of their geopolitical nightmare. The greatest evidence of this is the way the government is approaching social media by defining disagreeing posts as “incitement” against them and demanding private businesses such as YouTube and Facebook remove those posts. This is trying to control the narrative in the first degree, but it’s merely a form of global censorship. It cannot be sustained, for the forces against it cannot be controlled in our increasingly postmodern world, and it would be much healthier, if we all agreed on what’s taking place in the Holy Land in such a way that the narrative was more inclusive.

I realize many will view my statements as vast oversimplifications, but the vision presented here is available to anyone who’s paying attention at the macro level.

We can either participate in the evolution/revolution or sit back powerless as others do it for us.

The real threat to the working class

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

In the endless litany of analyses over why Donald Trump was elected president, the winner seems to be the cultural subgroup known as “the working class.” All the nostalgia over making America great again was targeted to this group, people who once participated in the American Dream but have lost out to foreign manufacturing, among other things. As a working class guy and a transplant to the South, I can tell you this is serious business down here. Textile mills that used to dot the landscape have moved where labor is cheaper, leaving behind a legion of good people without a way to provide a middle class lifestyle for their families.

Mr. Trump blamed trade agreements that allowed other countries to steal the manufacturing sector out from under us, but he did so without ever mentioning two important aspects of this: cheaper products produced by cheaper labor, which benefit us all, and dramatically increased profits that didn’t have to be shared with the cheaper labor. Assuming all of that was somehow brought back to the U.S., consumer prices would skyrocket, which would not please anybody. I mean, what’s the point of a “good” job, if it means inflation and higher prices for everything from housing to a pair of jeans?

But the bigger story is what’s ahead for the working class regardless of the extent to which nationalism grows as a practical matter. Technology isn’t just disrupting hierarchies and those whose value to the economy is based on protected knowledge; technology is also stripping away working class jobs and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. By 2019, the Labor Department projects that 40% of the labor force will be self-employed, which doesn’t bode well for those who whose parents went to the office, the plant, the mine, or whatever. No amount of “Yea, America” is going to make corporations care about the lives of their employees beyond what they can do for the bottom line.

And that means the digitalization of the kinds of jobs once thought untouchable will continue. Today, it means little that a truck can transport goods without a driver, but what about tomorrow? Anybody who drives for a living can be replaced. Robotics continue to advance in all directions, as does artificial intelligence, holograms, virtual reality, advanced military weaponry, and many, many other areas. This has brought about serious discussion about the concept of “uniform basic income” or “guaranteed basic income,” in which the government would give everybody money whether they worked or not. The election of Donald Trump, some within the basic income movement argue, may jumpstart the idea, while others, according to a Business Insider article, disagree.

“The election of Trump as president is probably not good news for the basic income movement,” Rutger Bregman, Dutch basic income expert and author of “Utopia for Realists,” tells Business Insider.

And with millions of jobs set to get displaced by robotic automation in the coming decades, Bregman could be right. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro argued, Trump doesn’t seem too concerned about the lack of manufacturing jobs in the future. That lack of clarity has experts like Bregman worried. The president-elect seems unwilling to acknowledge that humans could get booted from entire industries in a matter of decades.

That’s precisely why Trump has every incentive to cozy up to basic income, Pugh says. His fan base has serious fears about the future of the economy.

“Enacting basic income would help to revitalize parts of the country hit hardest by outsourcing and automation by spurring entrepreneurship in those areas.” Or as writer and basic income advocate Scott Santens put it, “Basic income is good for business.”

The working class faces a very difficult future, which is why it’s probably a safe bet that young people will continue to leave rural communities for opportunities in the big city. There are still innovative opportunities available to anyone within the Great Horizontal, but such opportunities demand a different mindset than one based on nostalgia and making American great (again) by going back to an era buried in the sands of human progress. The irony is that rural versus urban is an artificial barrier, for we have achieved a degree of omnipresence never even considered by the planners of old.

Personally, I’ll take small town living with a good internet connection any day of the year.

Two major online news factors for young people

pew-readersNew Pew Research reveals that young people prefer to READ news online rather than watch it. This is being presented as a revelation (Younger adults prefer to get their news in text, not video, according to new data from Pew Research), but it’s really just another example of news organizations’ history of not paying attention to reality. The new report doesn’t tell the whys, and doesn’t even speculate. Please allow me to give you two important reasons why young people prefer reading news to watching it:

Over fifteen years ago, then J. Walter Thompson CEO Bob Jeffrey said, “Time is the new currency.” Many of us at the time applied the idea to online media, especially after we learned that viewers were using DVRs to avoid commercials, and the not-so-secret reason was that they “didn’t have time” for commercials. Therefore, the first reason young people would rather read news that watch it is you can do the former a whole lot faster. Don’t try to dazzle me with your storytelling genius; just give me the facts, so that I can determine (for myself) if I wish to explore further.

The reason media companies prefer video is the nice ROI on ads. Madison Avenue likes video, and that means media companies do, too. Unfortunately, nobody in either of those two chairs gives a ripple chip about what the audience might think and don’t think twice about irritating those viewers with pre-roll ads. Therefore, the second reason young people prefer reading to viewing is the annoyance and wasted time of advertising that is meant for a different medium.

All of this is doubly significant on mobile, which is THE go-to platform of young people (and beyond).

There are other factors. For example, prime time for news remains the hours at work, and the disruption to the office of someone watching a video is untenable.

Many of us have known for a very long time that news clips with attached (or detached) pre-rolls wouldn’t work to grow revenue, just like we knew that recorded newscasts on demand wouldn’t be a significant revenue source either. This is the Web, people, not TV. We’re not on a stage with a captive audience. We still need to get over ourselves and start honoring those eyeballs that we need so badly. And PLEASE can we stop feeding them ads that were created for TV, not the Web?

Another media disruption ahead

caitlindeweyCaitlin Dewey is a canary in the coal mine of the web, and she’s singing a warning to everyone. I sense what she’s saying, and I’ll bet you do, too. Profit through disruptive advertising and the damned reliance on platforms are slowly sucking the air out of our grand experiment in connectivity.

Caitlin is the digital culture critic for The Washington Post and one of the hippest web denizens around. She’s a brilliant and funny writer and also produces a weekly must-read newsletter (Links I Would Gchat You if We Were Friends) that I’ve been enjoying from the beginning. When she speaks, we need to listen, and here’s a part of what she wrote this week:

Friends, I am homeless. Not physically. I mean this in a virtual sense. I *write* about Internet culture, and I feel like I have no home base on the web. I tweeted about this last week in the context of Twitter, which I haven’t been on too much since. (Trust me, when you’re off Twitter, you miss n-o-t-h-i-n-g of significance.) But it also applies to Facebook, which I’ve never been too active on because it creeps me out. And Instagram, which I’ve tired of since the ads hit my account. Even Pinterest, which I unironically love and have long considered a form of relaxation on par with watching HGTV, is drowning in bad ads and “promoted” pins and other crap that ruins it for me.

I dunno, guys — am I getting old? Am I the world’s least-suited Internet writer? There has to be a place for people like me, but maybe it’s not yet on “THE CYBER.” I like Snapchat alright. Reddit is good. Idk, I have Goodreads? Like are the mainstream social networks all terrible now, or is this just me?!

It’s not just Caitlin, and it’s interesting that she’s seeing this and writing about it today, for the canary-in-the-coal-mine analogy is accurate. The Evolving User Paradigm is a relentless taskmaster that sits still for no one. Change is a constant online, but advertising based in the modernist mindset requires controllable equilibrium, and therein lies the rub. Closed platforms are required for what’s viewed as “success,” but as we learned as far back as AOL, they cannot sustain user interest forever. Chaos will win everytime when web denizens grow beyond the highly managed boundaries of platforms. Caitlin Dewey isn’t unique; she’s just way ahead of the curve in terms of use and understanding of the internet. Others will get there, too, and eventually everybody.

The first round of digital media innovation, which has created the commercial web that Caitlin is lamenting, is on the verge of collapsing, because the innovators have given away possibility in the name of old fashioned profit, and who could blame them? The problem is that the inevitable end of pouring new wine into old wineskins is explosive ruin, and that’s what’s been happening over the last twenty years.

Madison Avenue knows only mass marketing, which relies on basically two strategies:

  • Accompany content, which is the method of operation for print media.
  • Interrupt content, which is the method of operation for broadcasting (and increasingly the web).

So despite elaborate and sophisticated data used to create highly efficient targeting, advertisers still fall back on these two strategies, and it’s what’s destroying the experience to which Caitlin refers. Both are clumsy and the enemy of participation, and neither will sustain the status quo for long. It’s also what creates the addiction to platforms, a.k.a. apps, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – she calls them the “mainstream social networks.” THE network can do so much better, and that will be the next level of innovation.

davewinerBlogging’s most original thinker Dave Winer has already figured out ways to build simple open source outliners and other tools that stand alone in a browser, and I always pay attention to Dave. Moreover, Dave is seeing the same thing Caitlin is suggesting, which adds to the weight of the prophecy above;

When Jerry (Garcia) died in 1995, I wrote:

Like the big tree that fell last March, the death of a huge human being like Jerry Garcia frees up a huge amount of space. Once there was a tree, now there are seedlings. After the sadness, there will be huge creativity.

Same would probably be true if Facebook ever relented and stopped stifling the web and embraced it instead. Then the growth could flow through them instead of around them. Ultimately I think the web will go on, treating Facebook like the outage that it has chosen to be.

In a comment to this post on Facebook, Dave also stated: “I have a BAD FEELING about Facebook because they are being such bad net citizens.”

My friends, the promise of a horizontal society available via the network will survive attempts to wrestle its chaotic nature to the capitalist ground. Investing in such attempts may produce results for a season, but none will be lasting, especially when growth is a necessary element of such. It’s not like IRL, where control is obtained from the top-down, and I’ll continue to keep my eyes on the visionaries of our time.

Where they inject reality and clueless people with money piss all over it, get your popcorn ready, because the show’s about to begin.

Of Spectators and Participants

spectatorsIn response to many questions years ago about the nature of postmodernism as a cultural era, I described it as the “Age of Participation,” for technology was making it possible for us to participate in culture in ways that were once impossible. As a young boy, I used play “bombs over Tokyo” with marbles in the back yard. We were about ten years downstream from World War II, so the name of the game was a reference to the war. When we were able to buy toy planes, we’d play the same game, but it took a great deal of imagination to actually put ourselves into such a game of good guys and bad guys.

Such it was with just about everything we did, from cowboys and indians to our little rubber models of Disney characters. It was all about making up some story and interacting with each others toys. Not so today.

Video games are so advanced today that the Armed Services actually use them as simulators to train the people who defend our freedoms, and this is what I mean about the Age of Participation. We are no longer forced into a spectator role in our games and entertainment; we can actually be a part of the experience, and this is only going to become more and more immersive.

But it’s way more than just games and entertainment. The Age of Participation will unfold as one in which free people are deeply connected and able to participate in a great many other walks of life. This is a staggering threat to our cultural status quo, which demands that the have-nots be spectators and not participants. It’s right out of the mind of social engineer and father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann, who with his buddy Edward Bernays wrote the books on how respected intellectuals should run things for everybody else.

Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

In his 1955 essay “Walter Lippmann and Democracy,” Herbert Aptheker refers to Lippmann as an “offended and frightened snob” to say such things as these:

“…there is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of social existence.” Forgetting “the limitations of men” has been our central error. Men cannot plan their future for “they are unable to imagine it” and they cannot manage a civilization, for “they are unable to understand it.” To think otherwise, to dare to believe that the people can and should govern themselves, that they can and should forge social systems and governments enhancing the pursuit of their happiness here on earth—this is “the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation…”

In writing about Lippmann, contemporary intellectual Noam Chomsky published the following insightful paragraph:

“The public must be put in its place,” Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” whose “function” is to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As we look at the chaos of today’s election season, we would all do well to remember that the whole system needs the kind of reinvention that only an informed and involved public can produce. In this sense, I have hope that 2016 is a part of the forthcoming cleansing and not something to be feared, an awakening on many levels that we’re all tired of being led around by Chomsky’s “respected intellectuals” for their own benefit and not ours. This will require a different kind of education than what’s being discussed today, one that I view as inevitable so long as we are connected and able to share freely amongst ourselves.

I’ve written many times about historian Chris Lasch and his wonderful 1990 essay, “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” This lengthy essay is eye-opening, especially as it relates to Lippmann and Bernays, for Lasch makes the case that the fall in citizen participation in the political process in the US is directly tied to the rise in the professionalization of the press. Participants need argument; spectators need a view of the arena in which others play, and that has been the role of an elitist press for many years.

We need lessons on arguing a position instead of simply passing along memes that tickle our ears but were created by somebody else. That’s simply lazy.

  • Let’s argue and not inflame, knowing that those who wish only to inflame are playing us through our emotions and fears. The only people in this for us are us, and we need to resist the temptation to be conduits for somebody else’s gain. In politics, nobody speaks the truth, for truth is not the goal of politicians. It must, however, be ours.
  • Ad hominem attacks are never allowed. Following this simple rule alone would lower the decibel level considerably as we worked out our differences publicly. Sadly, those who are smart in the ways of marketing know how easily people fall for character attacks in the place of reasoned argument, which makes the American public complicit in the hubris and hyperbole coming from those they support.
  • Argument is not a dirty word. It’s just a noun. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the first definition reads like this: “A reason offered for or against a proposition, opinion, or measure; a reason offered in proof, to induce belief, or convince the mind; followed by for or against.” In other words, it’s simply stating your case with reasons. Too much of what we have today is the parroting of marketing or propaganda without reasoning, neither of which come close to Mr. Lasch’s use of the word “argument.”
  • Reasoning must be fact-based. Following this would be the most useful rule, because much of what we pass along today are emotional responses to triggers we “just know” we understand. This is useless in the creation of an argument, but it is so clearly satisfying to those resonate with the message solely on an emotional level. Smart marketers are able to use emotion in stating what they’re selling, and we all badly need to be educated about this trickery. Emotion is not to be confused with passion, for there is certainly a place for passion in the expressing of one’s argument. Those who argue that passion is the enemy of reason are blinded by their own arrogant convictions of rightness.
  • Facts from both sides in an argument must be on the table. This is why reason is so important to the art of argument, because the idea isn’t to blow the other guy’s facts off the table; it’s all about proving those facts to be otherwise. If that cannot be done, then your argument is weak, and this is why public debate is so useful. We’re all entitled to our opinions, propositions, and convictions, but unless we can state them in an argument, we run the risk of falsehood creeping into our consciousness.

The outcome of public debate will often depend on consensus, and we must be prepared to accept that, although we can always go back and hone our argument so as to make it more convincing. There is no appeal process. We accept and we move on. We take the matter up again the next time public debate brings it to the table in the process of our participatory culture. Nothing can be set in stone.

If we no longer wish to simply exist as manipulated spectators, then we must agree that participation involves a willingness to set our own wishes aside occasionally for the betterment of the whole. That means being prepared to listen along with stating our own case.

Call me idealistic, if you wish, but I don’t view the future through dystopian lenses. Life wants the human race to survive and thrive. I’m convinced that the explosiveness of the early twenty-first century is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, because as big as the world seems, it’s really just an island that we share in the midst of a vast and mostly dead universe.

We need each other. We really do.