Findings, Nerdery

Rumours, Belief and How Human Culture Trumps Technology

This Internet thing was supposed to help inform people — universal access to inexhaustive information.

But, that’s not quite what’s happened or happening.

So far, more than half a dozen lawsuits have been filed alleging that Obama is not a “natural born” citizen. One plaintiff, an Army reservist from Georgia, argued in court that he couldn’t be sent to fight in Afghanistan because the military lacked a Commander-in-Chief. In a poll released over the summer, twenty-eight per cent of the Republicans surveyed said that they did not think Obama was born in the U.S., and thirty per cent said that they were unsure, meaning that fully half took birther ideas seriously enough to doubt the legitimacy of their government. When a video of the woman in red was posted on YouTube, it quickly went viral; within a few weeks, it had received some eight hundred thousand hits.

That such a wacky idea should be so persistent is, to put it mildly, disquieting. Here we are, quadrillions of bytes deep into the Information Age. And yet information, it seems, has never mattered less.

According to Cass R. Sunstein, the situation was to be anticipated.

The Things People Say — Rumors in an age of unreason by Elizabeth Kolbert documents the built in biases we have for information gathering, belief development and social reinforcement.

“The acquisition of knowledge is, as Sunstein points out, a social process: it is shaped by language, by custom, and, since the Enlightenment, by certain widely accepted standards of evidence and rationality.”

Except the Internet makes it more possible than ever to filter the information we receive and compound “group polarization.”


Anyone Can Do It But Few Do It Well

Gartner's Hype Cycle shows the pattern of adoption of new technologies.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle graph.

Grandiose claims have accompanied the spread of the Internet like wetness accompanies water.

Variously, the Internet was going to democratize production and distribution. Was going to disintermediate incumbents. Was going to revolutionize this or that business and business process.

Sometimes these claims came true. More often, they partially came true. Most often, they partially came to fruition and scared the hell out of people. And always, they remain evolving works in progress.

So when I read an article full of triumphalism like Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest about the failure rate of blogs, I know I’m reading a writer who’s missing the story.

  1. Because the failure rate of any new human activity is incredibly high. Diets, anyone?
  2. Because the pronouncements sound so tone deaf to history. They aspire to authority but it’s a trick. They don’t know. They’re guessing too.
  3. Because the best way to get perspective on the way media cover stories is to read old stories. An edition of the NYTimes from a year ago provides way more insight into the way the news gets covered than today’s fresh copy.

As an example, a year ago you could have read that Consumers were facing shrinking lines of credit from banks.

Washington Mutual, one of the nation’s biggest issuers of second mortgages, said in May that it had reduced or suspended about $6 billion of available credit under existing home equity lines. Countrywide, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase have made similar moves.

You could also learn that tomatoes contaminated with e-coli bacteria were sickening people in 16 states. But nothing will change and more shit (literally) will get shipped in food.

A mediated worldview emphasizes the far over the near, the exceptional over the mundane and the sensational over the practical.

As a result, people fear dying from terrorist attacks instead of car crashes. We watch reality TV while our natural world degrades.

So while technology has made many things more accessible to us, human nature remains stubbornly resistant to lasting changes. And the changes that get incorporated into our lives seem like they’ve been there for a long time.

The truth remains that anyone can start a blog but few persist. The truth also remains that many people now read and keep blogs and don’t have as much use for the NYTimes.

And this will change too.