On the shutdown: call out bullshit, then question your own.

congress-is-stupid

As you know by now the US government’s been held hostage by right-wing extremists. These people thought Romney was going to win in a landslide, so reality isn’t their forte. We should absolutely call them out on their bullshit, especially when the result of it is a government shutdown that’s going to cost the American people billions of dollars.

But while you do that, question what bullshit you might hold dear. Because there is some. All of our brains want, more than anything, to be told that we’re right. To be told that our ideas are legitimate, and that anyone who disagrees is immoral, misinformed or somehow inferior to our superior selves.

And we’ve all got personal internet bubbles set up. Facebook filters out people we don’t interact with, you only follow people you like on Twitter and even your Google searches are determined by what Google thinks you like. Our stupid brains love this, but reality becomes increasingly subjective as our filters grow to service them.

Again: only one party decided to use a basic government protocol to hold hostage a law passed years ago by a democratically elected congress and supported by a recently re-elected president. They absolutely deserve the blame here.

But the deeper problem is a cultural inability to agree on what is and isn’t true. This nonsense is only a symptom – albeit a batshit crazy one.

Hey, media: stop letting Apple use you as its PR department.

apple-new-ipad

For all the talk of social media being the future of marketing, one company stands outside it all: Apple. This company’s every move is speculated about constantly on every social network, but how many people follow Apple on Twitter? None; they don’t have a Twitter page.

Apple knows a truth about social networking no supposed social media expert ever talks about: starving the beast is more effective than stuffing it. Information is only powerful if revealed on your terms, and Apple is the master of this.

So much speculation is built up by the time an Apple announcement happens that every journalist and blogger is compelled to write about it, even if they don’t think the actual announcement is that big a deal, because of the time investment they’ve already made.

Speaking of not being that big of a deal: the new iPad. Numbered-names are gone, and the resolution is higher. The device is more powerful. Also: Apple told journalists the post-PC age is here, and they all dutifully wrote that down and published it.

Here’s a hint: new versions of products come out every year, and they’re going to be better than last time. Other companies will copy the feature. It won’t magically connect you with other human beings or make you happier, but advertisements will subtly tell you otherwise.

In other words: Apple is a company making money by selling products. Journalists know not to cover every politician’s press conferences unless there’s reason to think something interesting will happen. It’s high time we did treated Apple the same way.

A version of this article appeared in episode 13 of Technophilia Podcast.

Network: When Satire Becomes Reality

network satire resembles reality

I just watched Network, the classic 1976 film. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: our reality today resembles the satire of the past to an alarming degree.

Network predicts the blurring of entertainment, opinion and news on television almost perfectly. It’s as though screenplay author Paddy Chayefsky traveled to our time, watched a couple of hours of cable news and, upon returning to the 70′s, started work on his screenplay.

Already in the 70′s, ratings determined the editorial direction of each news broadcast. Telling the truth is one value; getting as many people as possible to watch your show is another.

If a journalistic institution is doing well, truth has a chance. When times get rough, it’s time to focus on ratings regardless of truth.

Network takes this truth to its logical conclusion. Howard Beale, a respected newsman about to be fired because of bad ratings, calmly states he intends to kill himself on air. The resulting publicity makes him a sensation, and his follow-up rants only accelerate this.

Beale’s rants are perfectly out of sync with the cool headed TV journalism of the 70′s, but wouldn’t seem out of place on Fox News today. At all.

This is what makes watching Network in 2011 so compelling: the shift away from reason and towards a shallow populism is predicted as the inevitable result of the quest for ratings.

The media landscape is radically different today than it was in the 70′s. There are hundreds of TV channels competing for time, and then you have the Internet.

Do we ever have Internet. It’s gotten to the point where a two hour story is considered old, and as such not worth digging into more.

The quest for attention, for ratings, is triumphing over truth. Write the most sensational headline possible and you’ll get high ratings. Throw in some search engine friendly terms, because we’ve got to get traffic up. Avoid overly depressing topics; they won’t play well on Twitter or Facebook.

Throw a cat picture in there; that will attract some attention.

The Internet is a social medium lacking central control. It’s still evolving, and it’s not too late for us to make it productive. It’s not going to be easy, but let’s see what’s possible. Who’s with me?

Stewart, Maddow and the real problem with cable

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During the Rally To Restore Sanity Jon Stewart focused on how America’s media in general, and cable news in particular, exaggerate partisan divides to an absurd degree.

“The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems,” said Stewart, “But its existence makes solving them that much harder.”

Conservative pundits largely ignored this criticism, because it adds nothing to their “us vs. them” narrative. Liberal pundits didn’t feel they had that luxury.

Terrified of being lumped in with the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, MSNBC’s liberal talking heads quickly went on the defensive. As an olive branch, of sorts, Jon Stewart appeared on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” to clarify his points. Here is the full, uncut interview:

I like a lot of what Stewart says here. His inability to not control the way his creation is interpreted reminded me a lot of adventures I and my friends experienced in college.

But I don’t think the focus on left-versus-right controversies is the problem with the American media. I think it’s a symptom of a deeper issue: the almost complete non-existence of international political news on those channels.

American news networks do cover the rest of the world, occasionally. If there’s a natural disaster, for example, or if America’s president/army is visiting/invading a given country.

Beyond that, though, international news is a novelty here. You’ll certainly never see an in-depth discussion of Nigeria’s economic policies, unless of course they have a direct impact on gas prices here in America (and you can bet the gas price narrative will be what dominates the story.)

Changing this would help in two ways. First, covering a planet’s worth of news leaves little time for the sort of talking head nonsense Stewart is complaining about.

Watch CNN International, then contrast it with CNN’s American broadcast, and you’ll quickly know what I’m talking about. Even better: watch Al Jazeera English right now. I guarantee you’ll see more substantive reporting in a half hour on Al Jazeera than you will watching CNN, Fox or MSNBC for two full hours.

So covering international news reduces the amount of time a network has for nonsense. Beyond that, though, international news could give Americans context for news happening in America.

Learning about international politics puts one’s own nation into perspective. Lacking this perspective, Americans tend to look at their policy choices in a vacuum. It is this vacuum, I believe, that allows the political environment to become so toxic.

Calling Obama a communist and Bush a fascist seems silly when you compare them to the way real communists and real fascists are behaving right now. Real international coverage could help point this out.

Overall I thought Stewart did a very good job of expressing his point of view, both during the rally and in this interview. I just wish he, and the rest of the American media, did more to tell Americans what’s going on outside their comfortable bubble of a country.

‘Digital Drugs’ and the sad state of TV journalism

drugs

Yep, this video is hilarious, and not only because it’s completely out of touch with reality. It’s hilarious because it parodies contemporary journalism better than The Onion or Stephen Colbert could hope to. Here’s why:

  • Several of the people interviewed hadn’t heard of the phenomenon before being interviewed, but got to talk about it on TV anyway.
  • Everyone interviewed came to the conclusion that this “drug” is harmful and will lead to real-world drug use.
  • No context whatsoever given to binaural beats, a technology that dates back to 1839.
  • No explanation about how binaural beats even work. Seriously, at least read the Wikipedia entry.
  • The sentence “I heard it was, like, some weird demons and stuff through a iPod or something” was filmed. At some point the producer decided to include this sentence in the story, and that producer wasn’t working for Comedy Central.

It’s pretty obvious the team behind this story has no idea how to use the Internet, but if you haven’t come to the conclusion check this out:

Yep, that’s right: they’re using IE 6. You can clearly see YouTube telling these people to upgrade or switch their browser, but they don’t know what that means…and are too busy using the amazing power of journalism to rid the web of virtual drugs.

Good job, News 9 Oklahoma City! You’ve demonstrated in three minutes just how close Idiot America‘s come to taking over our lives.