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This book had spent several years on my "to read" list before I finally got around to reading it, and it exceeded my expectations. I was shocked that this book had been written in 1985 as it is even more relevant to the world today than I suspect it was at the time.

The book is about how mass media and communication technology have fundamentally changed our culture, and specifically how the culture has shifted to having the production of entertainment as the chief driver of society and how this effects the way people obtain and process information. 

As of this writing the story about the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi has been the top news story for the last three weeks straight. While the story is a tragedy, it also happens to be close to the perfect news story for cable news: 

  1. It evokes outrage and anger that a journalist can be murdered in such a manner.
  2. It is unlikely that any meaningful new information will come out.
  3. There is really nothing anybody can do about it.
  4. It doesn't really affect most consumers of Western news in any way.

As has recently been demonstrated through the social media issues around politics, the best way to engage people is with a story that evokes moral outrage and condemnation. This one is especially good because, despite the efforts of certain US government officials, it is very difficult to take a position that what happened was not horrible and inexcusable. This means that this story isn't going to alienate half of the US market that may have differing political views. The fact that it is unlikely that any new information will arise allows the story to be drawn out indefinitely. The fact that there is really not much that can be done to right the wrong prevents the story from reaching a natural conclusion, which also allows it to be kept in breaking news as long as the media desires. 

The fourth point, about how this story doesn't really affect most people in any way is something that is discussed in the book. According to Postman, before the telegraph most news was local news. Without the ability to transmit information instantaneously across countries or oceans the news that mattered to people were things that actually mattered - things that will have direct impact on people. If the news is about things that actually effect your life, people will presumably have a greater context to put the day's news into.

Democracy in America was based on the assumption that people would learn about the issues, figure out their opinion on policies, and vote for representatives that would implement the preferred policies of the voters. Mass media threw a major monkey wrench into this because after the telegraph was invented news was no longer about local events but became a smattering of isolated and context-free factoids which have little to no bearing on the lives of most people. After the Fairness Doctrine was revoked in the 1980s, the news became solely about entertaining people in order to sell more advertisements and any pretense of serving a greater good largely disappeared. As this culture of entertainment grew we are now at the point where policies are largely irrelevant to political campaigns which seem to be mostly fueled by tribal divisions. Rather than picking my candidate based on which person's policies are closest to mine, I pick my candidates based on what political tribe I identify with, and if I even think about policies, I just pick whatever my chosen party espouses. No thought is required at all, I get all my opinions from cable news and if facts contradict my chosen position I can just discount them.

Similarly, the theoretical underpinning of free market capitalism is that consumers will get information about the various choices they have and make an informed decision based on that information. Companies are supposed to thrive or fail based on how well they cater to the needs of consumers. However with the advent of propaganda-style advertisement (where the advertisment contains little to no factual advertisment about the product being offered), corporations found a shortcut. Rather than improving their products to make them more attractive to consumers, it is usually easier and more cost effective to convince the consumers that they want your product regardless of any factual information about it. Today's advertising doesn't try to provide information, it tries to associate a feeling with the product, convincing you that you will be happier or a better person just by having the product. A "brand identity" has nothing to do with any attributes of products and everything to do with trying to convince people that certain types of people purchase that brand and if you buy that brand you, too, can be one of those people. 

I have recently been wondering about how the ubiquitousness of TV has affected society. I imagine that before TV was in every house people learned how to behave and what to believe from the people around them. No one wants to watch normal people doing normal everyday things on TV, so everything must be dramatized and distorted for maximized entertainment value. I speculate that this could cause a feedback cycle where the real world emulates what it sees on TV and the movies, and entertainment then needs to exaggerate the real world more and more to keep itself interesting. While I have no concrete evidence for this hypothesis it seems to evidence itself in the quality of American entertainment, and it seems to be speeding up. 

If only the world had listened to Mr Postman sooner.

Libellés: books, politics
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I was familiar with the case of Edgardo Mortara from having read Henry Charles Lea's "History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages" and I am very interested by the subject of the crazy things that are often done in the name of religion, so when I found out that this case had an entire book written about it I was anxious to read it.

For those who are not familiar with this affair here is a quick summary: In Italy in 1858 the pope was still the temporal leader of at least part of the territory, and church law said that a Christian child could not be raised in the Jewish faith. Jewish families frequently hired Christian servants because they could do things prohibited to the Jews on the Sabbath, such as light fires. The Mortara's had such a Christian servant, and when one of their young children was ill the servant thought he might die and secretly baptized him so that he would not go to hell. Years later, the Church found out about this and came to take the child away so he could be raised Catholic. 

If you are interested in the full details of this case, this book provides a very detailed and rich description of the kidnapping, the laws at the time, public response to the affair, and the eventual political consequences, which include the pope's temporal powers being dimished by the unification of Italy.

It was rather shocking to learn that at the same time as the Civil War was being fought in the United States the laws of the Papal States were still incredibly anachronistic and had not evolved all that much since the Middle Ages. Pope Pius IX, who initially had seemed to be a reformer who would bring the church into modernity, ended up becoming reactionary in response to the Italian unification movement and the threat of losing his temporal kindgom. While he had initiated some reforms regarding the Jews, such as tearing down the gates of their ghettos and relaxing the restrictions on them, in this matter he refused to budge and Edgardo never returned to his family and eventually became a priest who tried to convert other Jews.

I would say this book is a must read for anyone interested in this period of European history, Italian history, or the history of the Catholic church.

Libellés: books, politics, religion
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Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

mardi 20 mars 2018

The subject of this book is something I think about quite a bit - how Americans will pretty much believe anything, no matter how ridiculous. It may sound somewhat similar to "Bunk", but the books are completely different. While "Bunk" focuses on the hoax as a sort of benign joke, this book is more about how people are completely indifferent to facts of any sort.

The seed was planted with the Reformation. The main idea was that rather than just believing whatever we are told, we should think for ourselves, in this case that specifically meant read the bible yourself and draw your own conclusions rather than just believe whatever the Catholic church says. This is a very good thing - people need to think for themselves, but over the intervening hundreds of years that seed has bloomed into the current philosophy of "I will believe whatever I want and facts be damned." The book traces how that transformation happened.

One import milestone was the colonization of America, which gave people whose beliefs were not tolerated in Europe a place to go where they could be with other like-minded people. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, except that a lot of those people were Puritans whose peculiar philosophies largely influenced the new American culture.

Another turning point was the 60s in the US, when anti-establisment sentiment started making any facts that are said by "experts" suspect as elitist. This, combined with the New Age stuff that became popular at the time, really was the turning point when the "reality-based community" was overwhelmed by the fantasy-based community. It should be expected that when people discover they have been lied to by the government, they should start to question everything the government has ever told them, and again I don't really see this as a bad thing. I personally believe that one should not believe anything one is told unless one confirms it independently or can verify it on one's own. However the difference is that my way involves confirming alleged facts, while the American way is mostly to disregard them if they contradict your opinions, no matter how reliable a source they come from.

I have been watching this series on YouTube called "Retro Report" which is about old scandals. The funny thing is that most of the things that people got worked up about - be it Dungeons & Dragons, Satanic pre-schools, the "dangers" of vaccination, or "super predators" - turned out to be completely baseless. But even when the mistaken beliefs are confirmed as being false people don't really care - they still continue to believe them. A lot of this is attributable to cognitive biases - specifically the availability heuristic - which says that if you hear about something a lot - like someone who's child has autism and was also vaccinated who believes the latter caused the former - you will tend to believe it no matter how much evidence contradicts it. 

Although based in psychology, this phenomenon is somehow uniquely America. Living in Europe I find most people to still be a part of the reality-based community, of course there are conspiracy theorists and such everywhere, but the distrust of experts and science and evidence seems to originate in the USA. This is an extremely worrisome trend, and this book is a very interesting exploration of it.

Libellés: books, politics
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More on Bilag

dimanche 14 janvier 2018

After having written that last post about the Bilag, I just read yesterday that there is a referendum coming up in March to get rid of the Bilag. While it is possible that the small size of the Suisse Romand market would place constraints on the lengths to which media will go to compete for viewers, I still think that getting rid of the Bilag would be completely disastrous. 

I assume the main driver behind the movement to get rid of the Bilag is the CHF 450 that people would save every year. Unfortunately, the Swiss citizens have no idea what they would be trading in exchange for that sum, having never witnessed American television and it's endless advertisements. Getting rid of the Bilag would put the media in the hands of corporate advertisers who have no cares at all about the quality of information or programming available - their concern is to make as much money as possible, and this pertains to media as far as getting the widest reach for their advertisements. 

Some things are too important to be left to free markets - notably healthcare and information. The theories of free markets depend on consumers having valid and comprehensive information with which to make their decisions, and putting information in the hands of the corporations will completely destroy any semblance of efficient markets. 

To date, Switzerland seems to have isolated itself from many of the drawbacks of neoliberalism. Getting rid of the Bilag would be a huge disaster and, in my opinion, would be a big step to Switzerland's losing much of the character that makes it unique and makes it a great place to live.

Libellés: politics, economics, switzerland
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Manufacturing Consent

jeudi 21 décembre 2017

“If we can’t sell this to the American people we ought to go into another line of work." Mitch McConnell said this after the Senate passed the unpopular tax plan. Isn't that backwards from how democracy is supposed to work? In a democracy isn't the government supposed to implement the will of the people, not convince the people to want what the government has already done? In today's world both the way politics and the marketplace are supposed to work have been flipped upside down by advertising, which is really just propaganda. 

The theory behind free markets is that the consumers will choose winners based on who delivers the best product at the best price. The theory assumes that consumers make rational choices, incorporating all available information into their decision. This is already a very unrealistic assumption for anyone who is familiar with cognitive biases and the way decisions are actually made. It becomes an absurd assumption when we consider that most of the information consumers have comes from the media and advertising. As discussed in No Logo, by Naomi Klein, corporations now realize that it is more effective for them to focus on marketing and branding than on R&D or actually producing high quality products. Many "brands" sell what are essentially commodities and the only value they add is in creating a brand image and brand awareness and convincing people that their products are better than their competitors' when in reality there is negligible difference. Why spend money improving your products when it is far cheaper and more effective to just convince people that your products are better?

A similar thing has been happening in politics, especially after Citizens United opened the floodgate of money. Rather than politicians responding to the will of the people, the politicians use their corporate money to convince the people to do whatever the donors want. The rise of partisan cable news networks, which parrot the official party lines non-stop all day every day, ensure that the viewers will only have the information which support the views and are constantly bombarded with rhetoric about how bad the other party is. In this post-truth era, any facts or data that contradict one's viewpoint are just dismissed as incorrect or "fake news." The confirmation bias predisposes us to reject information which is contrary to our opinions and the availability heuristic ensures that we will tend to believe information that we are exposed to more often, so can remember better. Combined with today's technology and the media saturated environment we live in, these biases basically ensure that people can very easily be manipulated into believing most anything.

I had just finished reading "Manufacturing Consent" by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky when the McConnell made the statement quoted in the first line of this article. The book was written in 1988 and focuses on how the government and the mass media conspire to make sure that the public supports the actions of the government. This is not a typical conspiracy in the sense that the government and the media don't collaborate to come up with these plans, it is baked into the system - the media gets its information from the government and reports it as facts. The examples described in the book are all cold war influenced incidences where the media supported the US government doing things in the name of anti-communism that they would have raised hell over had the Soviet Union done the exact same thing.

What is surprising about the book is not that these things happen at all, but how much these things have become normalized over the three decades since the book was first publlshed. In fact, I would say that the types of propaganda described in the book are no longer exceptions, but now are the rule. The most recent foreign policy example of such things would be the justification for the Iraq invasion based on non-existent WMDs, which had almost all major US media clamoring for war. But domestically, propaganda has basically taken over politics. The recent US presidential elections featured little to no discussion of issues of any sort. The focus was on personal foibles and defects of the candidates. Rather than offering policy proposals, advertisements focused on attacking the other candidates. In the end the election was solely about which candidate you personally felt greater animus for. This is a far cry from how democracy is supposed to work.

The rise of the internet and big data is only going to exacerbate the problems. The ability to target messages to individual people is just taking advantage of cognitive biases to further deteriorate the state of politics and the economy. Technology and automation is going to concentrate greater and greater wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people who can use that wealth to either persuade the politicians to do their bidding, or in a worst case scenario just convince the people that what the wealthy want is good for everyone, such as how McConnell was talking about trying to convince people that the tax bill is good for everyone, when it in fact seems to mainly be good for corporations and holders of capital. The influx of money into American politics combined with technology promises to make it easier to manufacture consent for whatever is already done rather than doing what the people want.

Libellés: books, politics, economics
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