Thursday, 6 October 2011

Can't see the forest for the trees? Make kindling

I love this sort of internet communication. It just brightens up my day.

Published by the overtly political 'news' organisation Newsmax the transcript of an interview promoting the 'Aftershock Survival Summit' is typical of a swathe of internet-based information sources. And it's precisely the kind of thing which gives the medium a bad name.

Forgetting completely that the company structure is specifically designed to promote a particular worldview it would be easy to get drawn in by all the button-pressing triggers it uses in its' attempt to convince the reader. But it's so professionally crude that a reader could almost be forgiven for not making the effort to resist rising to the bait.

The whole thing is beyond parody (though not satire, though I'll save that for another occasion, though I've already started thinking about it, though I can't really be bothered, though it'd really be quite easy, though my life is filled with enough useless crap as it is, though this could be the most important thing ever, EVER!).

Starting at the beginning, the edifice of respectability begins to be built up as soon as you reach the gateway - which should be the point at which your alarm bells start ringing, if you're not aware of the angle of entry before you reach the threshold then you really should be questioning what it is trying to reflect.

To the external air of respectability a measure of gravity is added with various sympathetic noises.

This stylistic technique breaks down the appearance of authoritarian barriers and is used to create a sense the report-producers and participant are on your side, and all of you together are fighting bravely against an undefined persecutor, who they can handily identify for you, although not really in so many words and at most indirectly. It sets a consumer up for instinctive responses which play to natural role formulations and thereby it lulls you into a state of passive complicity which is difficult to escape. Typically, feedback mechanisms such as discussion or commentary are separated from the source to devolve any question of reliability and remove the possibility of criticism (fair or otherwise), while simultaneously still benefitting from the measurable tornado of links that can be relied upon through the human tendency to gossip collegiately about half-understood ideas. So, even in the simple act of stimulating your solidarity, the method games you by deliberately setting you up so that they hold the keys and have all the means to keep you out. It's cynical propaganda at it's unobtrusive best - like a spider luring you closer into the centre of the web. It's trickle-up power accumulation. And you're left only wanting more.

The reader is swamped with information and baffled by allusions to 'facts' taken out of context.

'Crystal clear' distinctions are made and basic explanations emphasise a 'common sense' perspective - but common sense is not the same thing as good sense. Singular poll results are treated as objective gospel particularly if presented by ideological opponents (CNN says '48% Americans see a second Great Depression' - notwithstanding the 'Great' depression was less severe than the 'Long' depression), the basic maths allows distortions to grow beyond any sense (National debt measured in Trillions between 1900 and 2011 - not measured in adjusted per capita terms or as a proportion of GDP), while selected periods are provided without explanation specifically to justify the conclusion (Dow stock prices rose 300% from 1928-1982, and 1400% from 1982-2006 - which results in a comparison between peak-->trough and trough-->peak). It's pure populism preying on the petty-minded sensibility of the insecure masses.

It's commerce packaged as public interest news, wrapped up in free gifts.

While presenter and guest collude together in their own little world to discuss private obsessions (here market data and economics) the real motivating interest is assumed at all times and levels to be selfish (never mutual or altruistic, never enlightened and never balanced - how weak!). So long as you've already bought into the precept and been hooked by any one of the plausible peices of 'evidence' or their interpretations then you'll be content to seek any self-affirming post-rationalisation to reinforce the original false choice and deny your own culpability. Essentially the interview is an advert for a book produced by flavours of the month - the links to order free copies (shipping costs $4.95) is a simple data-mining exercise which reverse-engineers standard mass-marketing techniques and is easily cross-referenced with voter databases for targetting in campaign donations or for canvassing purposes. As they say, "No pressure - no gimmicks - no strings attached" - exactly, it's straight-up psychological blackmail, gimmicks and fraud (at least it would be in this country)!

It's not serious, it's very serious semi-serious, semi-entertainment.

To give them their due Newsmax and other political 'news machines' are relevant to the debate and they do fulfil a valid function, recognising and identifying concerned confusion at the state of the world. However the manner of expression fails at every level because it distorts perceptions by exaggerating and dramatising suitable aspects rather than reserving qualifications - failures of omission, not of commission. The very title foreshadows a revelatory 'final chapter they tried to ban', using shock tactics as a lure, building an irresistible anticipatory premonition with the prospect of access to 'valuable secrets' - yet if the logic of this pay-off were sound and would benefit wider society then wouldn't it be better if the insights were available to the widest audience possible? which makes any commercial restrictions look perverse or at least should arouse suspicion of their worth.

Some of the analysis in Aftershock is legitimate, but the doomsday scenario and shameless politicisation throughout destroys any vestige of objective credibility about it. Of course the mass market is not set up to easily consume answers with the complexity of unknown interactions between unknown numbers of factors, but it strikes me that by playing down to the demands of the consumer it becomes impossible to raise our expectations - or is that the deeper idea?

BTW Today saw the first public seminar as part of The Leveson Inquiry into media standards. Partisanship may be less high up the agenda on this side of the Atlantic, nevertheless according to Richard Peppiatt the matter of reporting facts to fit preconcieved conclusions is both pervasive and endemic.

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