Knowledge 2.0: new media and the jamming of everything

If some hack out there steals this for their next book title: I’m coming for you. In the famous words scrawled on a wall in Newtown, Sydney, after Howard won the 2004 general election:

Newtown graffiti

I don’t know where you live, but I’m very good at research.

Absent any interesting economics (oil prices, meh) or political (Costello less popular even than Howard, meh) news, openDemocracy has provided a very good essay today, and one last week, on media, information, knowledge and wisdom. Tony Curzon Price, new CEO of openDemocracy, has written about an ongoing, if not enduring, interest of his: knowledge-based understanding, and how new media influences it. A week ago, departing editor Isabel Hilton wrote a fond farewell to her friends. More on that later.

To begin with the Price article:

Neither panacea nor plague, the web continues to confront us with the hard questions of knowledge making. Today, it is clear that the Enlightenment faith in understanding must have consequences for how we produce knowledge, and that the new technologies of knowledge-making will change what we can know. In the ideal, understanding subsumes authority: nothing is taken for granted, no opinion believed just because it comes from the pulpit.

This ideal, influenced both by technological utopianism as by a consumer-centric world view, pervades current social attitudes towards media and other knowledge-making institutions. Increasingly people want to base what they think and believe on their own experience and authority and do not want to be preached at.

I liked this point:

Increasingly people want to base what they think and believe on their own experience and authority and do not want to be preached at.

I’m not sure I agree exactly. In a polarised world (up yours, Joe Lieberman), I think our experiences are the that the numbers, the split or the ratio of people who fit Price’s first category are probably increasing, but more importantly how strongly each believes that has increased more. I would suggest that the masses being lectured to, or more importantly talked down to, by Fox “News” (come on, seriously now), CNN, etc., are more and more vehement that they continue to be infotained in that fashion – and react with near-violence to ‘our’ attempts to point out that such media outlets are not informing them, but lying to them. Making them more stupid, more fearful, poorer citizens (I can’t imagine why they take it so personally).

Meanwhile my exposure to this, and the time I spend thinking about this, is not a patch on that of Tony Curzon Price, so I would still concede his point, if pressed. Mostly I don’t believe my disagreement makes a difference, in the end.

How does this relate to culture jamming? Consider the three illustrating examples Price offers:

… people are also finding it harder than ever to know who or what to believe. To take three examples:

  • science no longer enjoys the respect and authority it did a generation ago: from reproduction to genetic modification, from creationism to technophobian ecology, science is doubted or ignored
  • the defining media, such as CBS and NBC or the New York Times in the United States, the BBC and the Times in the United Kingdom, Le Monde in France, which were once highly trusted sources are now much less so
  • organisations of commitment such as political parties, churches, unions, are much weaker

I would consider the latter two good things, products of healthy skepticism and a step forward on a given path of enlightenment and intelligence. I would consider the first a step backwards. I have a colleague, with whom I otherwise agree, who would disagree with this (he is skeptical of climate change science and I believe is basically creationist, for example). I have a great friend and former colleague who would consider all of them wonderful – he is a big believer in culture jamming. Sometimes I am with him, other times not. It depends on how much I wish to have a trustworthy source at a given time.

We, as ‘consumers’ (and here I am possibly defining completely different people to those Price is), have come to distrust what were formerly considered to be eminently trustworthy sources of information, and it is thanks to the internet and new media, who blew their cover. For those of us who do know better, it is our access to dozens of sources of the same story that tell us that CNN is lying, that the New York Times is pushing the Bush agenda on domestic wire-tapping, that the BBC is a more measured source of journalism, generally, etc.

This is what Price calls the “crisis of trust”:

“How much can you trust this institution to do what is right?” When asked this in an Edelman “Trust Survey”, European and north American respondents place media lowest, with government next and NGOs and business coming top. The downward trend for media has been worsening in the past five years, and is consistent in Europe and the US. The trends there suggest that trust is coming from commitment: people trust “doers” rather than “talkers”, people whose everyday actions in the field exhibit commitment.

Drilling down to different sources of media, the new digital media do poorly. Throughout the world, nationally-based television and newspapers achieve – at least relative to other media – high trust ratings, while blogs and news websites achieve the lowest ratings. Despite this, when an individual loses trust in a traditional media source, they tend to switch to online sources. Therefore, the trend is of a growing audience for the least trusted sources of news. In fact, the fastest growing source of information is online media, and it is also the least trusted. There is a real need for ways of establishing trust in online information.

I think, first, that the problem lies in the question (and/or, for me, the ‘American’ part, given that I am not). How can one distrust ‘new digital media’? I can (and do) distrust ‘old print media’, because each is a source, usually not fact-checkable without other sources, usually new media ones. In the famous words of the Herd, never trust a cop, a politician or a TV set (and I suppose they just don’t read newspapers, much). A respondent to such a question, though, cannot consider ‘a’ source for new digital media. I don’t trust any single source online, no: some are more trustworthy than others, to me, but I know to screen Jim Kunstler’s Clusterfuck Nation, for example, according to what I know his views to be.

There are others such as the Oil Drum, David Corn or even the Guardian that I have come, through time and – crucially, to Price’s argument – experience, to trust implicitly. Not, though, with blind loyalty. If I found David Corn taking positions with which I did not agree, or making statements that I would discover to be false or misleading, I would not trust him again in that way. Just as I came to realise the New York Times was, in fact, not trustworthy.

The point is this: the key advantage to establishing trust in new media is its ability to offer us the advice of Ronald Reagan: trust, but verify. New media doesn’t, for me, consist of sources. It might as well be one big newspaper, for how I utilise it. Does old media do this? They cannot prevent the verification part, although they appear not to encourage it. Hilton’s article fits in here nicely. Her experiences were that, as she left print media, most people considered online media derivative, at best. What she found was the reverse.

At openDemocracy we kept a tally of distinguished print journalists whose latest articles were thinly reprocessed versions of something that we, or other sites, had published – material that had been plundered unacknowledged, in a manner that would have been unconscionable for the same guilty parties had the source been in print. Anything on the internet, they seemed to feel, was not only free to read, it was also free to plagiarise.

(incidentally, Hilton has left to attend to the site http://www.chinadialogue.net/, a site about which I had never heard, and which is thoroughly fantastic. Give it a read).

Which is, again, why those of us who know better do know better. We’ve found the same story online weeks previously, we’ve read the blog article about the plagiarism, etc., etc. We read Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo site. In terms of the strength of the divide, which I mentioned just previously, consider this. I would be surprised and disappointed if David Corn let me down (if he’s reading this: you’ve been warned!), but it would not fundamentally shake my faith in anything. I would not have to rethink all that I had considered fact for the last however-many years. It simply would not be a watershed moment in my trust of news sources, because I have so many already.

Take some guy in the middle-of-wherever and do the same with his allegiances to Fox, or his local Murdoch newspaper, and that would, probably, be the case. There are people with a lot more invested in the source, or sources, that they trust. And when that source (say, old media) starts on about how the new source is out to get them, they will resist. Each of these people, with limited exposure, are the wagons that old media can circle around themselves. My parents would be good examples. The same newspaper every day, for as long as I’ve known what a newspaper was, and pretty much the same network or two or news programmes, of an evening.

This, then, is the second problem. New media, online media, etc., cannot go around getting broadband internet and laptop computers to the uninitiated (or the time to use them, or the habit of using them), which is where I think the biggest disadvantage lies, as always (Indigenous people never got their stories, editorials or political cartoons into the newspapers while they were being wiped out, either). The point of Price’s article (you will have read it by now) is that credibility needs to be established amongst new media. Established in a manner such that when we read a story on openDemocracy about net neutrality, we know that it is credible because openDemocracy held, hosted, participated in a conference about the issue, for example:

…we need to bring argument and content that comes from the domains that carry their own signals of credibility – activism (including corporate and political action), academia, “people like you and me” – while combining them with the virtues of the best outreach and journalism: accuracy, relevance, and narrative.

Again, though, there’s that problem. We have to know that this credibility exists, and why (which is fine: we will build up that trust over time, and filter out past or current activism as another form of editorial bias), but many people will not know this. They do not have access to the knowledge, and the knowledge does not have access to them.

Do I have an answer? Of course not. If I did, I’d probably ask Tony Price for a job. I just teach economics, and try to convince a couple-hundred students per semester to believe me enough, to give me enough of the benefit of their doubt, to put my argument to the test. To compare what I tell them with that their parents and friends tell them, with what CNN, Fox or the Lehigh bloody Patriot (campus conservative newspaper) tells them.

That is probably the difference, and possibly one of the hurdles to achieving proper cohesion. I’m not trying to work on readers of openDemocracy, and Tony Curzon Price is not trying to work on my students. He just tries to mold the online community under his remit, and I just try to convert my students to knowledge-based understanding, just like any other lecturer. Actually I probably swear more than most lecturers, but the rest still holds.

It’s something for you to think about, anyway. How do you absorb or consume ‘news’? How do you verify what you do hear or read, and how do you engage with the same behaviour by your friends, family or co-workers? Do you trade sources of facts when you disagree? Do you debate which is more reliable, or which sets of beliefs of prejudice may have affected the production of those facts? I hope so. If you do not, I recommend it. At the very least it’s as challenging and rewarding is bloody sudoku, or whatever is popular these days.

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1 comment so far

  1. tony curzon price on

    Casey,

    Thank you very much for the careful reading and commentary of my piece on oD.

    I agree that there is a pretty deep problem with the economics of knowledge that the vast literature on the economics of information does not _really_ get to grips with: whatever meta-data you have, you still have to make some ultimate epistemic judgment about the about; and if you don’t have the meta-data, how do you know it is lacking? it could just be a case of ignorance of ignorance?

    This is closely related to the question of whether you can be confident of any practice or signal that it is not being faked. I think we given more credence to doers because “faking doing” is harder than “faking thinking” … but it is far from impossible — all the economics literature on Principal/Agent is really about “Faking Doing”.

    I once tried to convince the game theorist Ken Binmore (the m supervisor) that it is impossible to lie at poker: because poker requires you to misrepresent your hand, you cannot be said to be deceiving anyone in the game by doing so. I tried to propose that one might interpret Plato’s claims on the impossiblity of lying in the same way: if we know the context (the game), we know everything about the epistemic status of a signal. Ken wouldn’t buy it – too kind on Plato for his liking. But maybe there is something in what we try to build as a “brand”: a symbol that stands for the game we’re in.

    Anyway – to repeat – thanks for the commentary … and please think of oD as a place to disseminate some of your work.

    Tony


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