Monday, July 14, 2008

Blog New World

If I had to choose one fiction book to preserve in case of a nuclear war, it would probably be Brave New World. It was the subject of my final research paper in college, and I can say with a high degree of certainly that it is the single most influential book I’ve read. The thesis of my research paper was that as society – specifically American society, but the increasingly global society as well – comes closer to resembling that of Brave New World the people in it must decide how to deal with the knowledge of its inner workings. Do we, as John Savage did, take the final exit and commit suicide with the knowledge that we will be powerless to change the overall society as individuals? Or make a different existential choice?

Re-reading my paper I stand by my thesis that suicide is existentially irresponsible, and what I’m interested in at the moment is the way in which society is looking increasingly like that in Brave New World (for the sake of brevity and clarify, I’ll refer to that society as BNW as opposed to the full title of the book.)

Brave New World often plays second fiddle to its cousin, Orwell’s 1984. Both are dystopian novels, but postulate two very different futures. Byfar the best summary of the differences is this excerpt from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

    What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
I emphasized what I consider the most relevant part of Postman’s summary of the two novels. In BNW people are conditioned from birth to have desires and wants, to have a driving need to consume but no capacity for reasoning why and when they ask why they are socially outcast and given drugs. Contrast this with 1984 and its poor, oppressive, tyrannical society. In short, BNW is a capitalist dystopia while 1984 is a communist dystopia.

Political and economic theories aside, what interests me as a digital strategist is the BNW take on information, specifically the flood of information that would ‘reduce us to passivity and egoism’ and ‘the truth [being] drowned in a sea of irrelevance.’ At the time Postman wrote that book, the Internet was in the hands of the government, the World Wide Web still a twinkle in the eye of some college hackers, and things like blogs, Twitter, RSS, social media and even forums completely alien. There was Usenet seven years before the Endless September, but was hardly a common media type.

In other words, with the explosion of the Internet, the Web, push-button publishing and what has become collectively known as Citizen-Generated Media (blogs, YouTube videos, podcasts, and so forth) the sheer amount of information to which we have access has increased. I’m not sure by what factor, but I’m willing to guess it’s in thousands if not the millions. In other words, that sea of irrelevance just got far bigger than the few hundred magazines, few dozen TV channels and local newspapers of Postman’s time.

We were already teetering on the brink of inanity before; how do we keep from completely drowning in it? What makes information accountable in digital media? Or have we already sunk so low into the ocean that we’ve simply been reduced to passive observers, willing to blog about something but little else?

There seem to be arguments for several sides and positions within this discussion. I’m reminded that while war and genocide raged in Darfur the citizens of Digg were more concerned with the suppression of the code that would have allowed them to steal HD DVDs. Two of the most widely-read blogs online are about celebrity gossip and captioning pictures of cats with grammatically incorrect jokes. This certainly seems to support the white noise and irrelevance argument.

Take Wikipedia, which despite having ranked higher than forums, blogs, social networks and other online sources of information in Edelman’s own Trust Barometer still has a (somewhat deserved) reputation as a source of credible information as long as you’re looking for references in DragonballZ, Pokemon, or Buffy. This xkcd cartoon from the other day illustrates the point in a humorous manner, and it sparked a conversation with Seth shortly after I read it and shared it. Seth turned me on to Wikipedia which, despite its flaws, is an amazing source of information. Sure, there is some inanity on it, but part of the Wikipedia user experience is to flag it or improve it for other readers (and myself). This is the important piece that makes Wikipedia work: it’s self-correcting and the vast amount of information therein can be filtered and adjusted as necessary.

Another example of the contrary argument is how quickly the online community picked up on Iran doctoring the press images of its recent missile launch. Less than 24 hours after Iran released the images to the international press, the online community noticed they Photoshopped it (poorly) to make their missile launch look more successful than it actually was.

It remains to be seen of course whether unmasking Iran’s Photoshop shenanigans will spark and real debate that might lead to actual change in the policies that have created that state, from internal and external influences. So it’s arguable whether there is any real ‘value’ in the online community responding so quickly and accurately as far as long-term debate and dialogue go. But it certainly appears that despite the vast sea of information out there, the truth is not drowning in the irrelevant white noise yet.

Or is it? As I have been composing this post, a fascinating post went up on the IdeaLab about Polymeme and diversifying what it calls the echo chamber. I particularly like the opening bit:
    The iPhone is released. The world stops.

    While surfing around on the Internet today, you would be entirely forgiven for assuming that the only news worth talking about is the release of Apple's 3G iPhone. Of course, there are plenty of other notable and interesting conversations taking place online (among them: the ethics of for-profit fundraisers, a Danish island's march toward energy independence, and how English is "evolving into a language we may not even understand") but most of us don't know how to find those conversations as we navigate through our personal echo chamber of bookmarked websites, subscribed RSS feeds, and the web pages they link to.
The post goes on to describe the Polymeme tool, a service that scours RSS feeds for related content to introduce users to new stories.

The idea that this moves beyond the echo chamber is what roused my interest. Digital Media’s greatest strength, and that which allows it to avoid becoming a sea of complete irrelevance, is also its greatest weakness in that the most relevant can easily be lost: it is an echo chamber for most. Even so-called news aggregators like Digg are fuelled by their userbase and what that userbase feels is important, which leads to situations like the HD DVD crack being the news of the day over Darfur genocide.

The takeaway here isn’t that it is still unclear whether the digital space will liberate us from our own BNW, or be the thing that finally encapsulates us in it. The popularity of the echo chamber versus discovery tools like Polymeme is disconcerting to say the least, but even my own Twitter group leads to me discover things I never would have before. At the very least we can stave off our willing slavery for a little while longer.

Image "Savages Row" from Ruddington Photos Flickr stream.

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