I am an information addict. Yes, I admit it. Most all my information comes to me online. Emails. Twitter updates. Websurfing. And sometimes even ranting late night chats on anonymous message boards. So much information, in fact, that it becomes impossible to distinguish what out there actually rings of truth.
Friday morning, for instance, I received a Twitter update from @nytimes about how Europe's recession is deeper than expected. I followed the link to read the following sentence:
According to the European Union's statistics office, the economy of the 16 countries sharing the euro currency declined by 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter. On an annualized basis, that would indicate a contraction of 6 percent - considerably deeper than the 3.8 percent annual rate of decline in the American economy in the same quarter.
Overlooking, of course, the fact that this article was oddly dated February 14th, 2009 even though Friday was actually February 13th, does that make any sense to you at all? Seriously. If you just skimmed that sentence, please go back and read it again. The damn thing makes my brain twist.
I'm no economist. In fact, I'm quite the economy-idiot, but I'm pretty sure you can't just add up projected percentages of economic shrinkage and present that as some sort of sign of anything? Let's say we went back to 2007. Would the last quarter's dollar loss or gains have been an adequate representation of what would happen in 2008?
Then, when I returned to the article this morning, I found the story has changed.
The economy of the 16 countries sharing the euro currency declined by 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter, according to the European Union's statistics office. That is even worse than the 1 percent decline in the United States economy during that period, compared with the previous quarter.
Am I alone in finding just a tinge of the Orwellian in this?
Now yes, that could just be that the editors realize the problem and fixed it. Good for them. Applause! Applause! But it doesn't account for the fact that the current text is still imprecise. The sentence seems to be comparing the Euro based in the economies of 16 different countries to the American economy. Sure, we can assume they actually meant to say dollar, but since I have no sources for this information, how can I be sure?
You can call this nitpicking, grasping for straws, maybe even paranoia. In this world of constant information with tidbits about economy, war, terrorism, pleas for fundraising to provide clean water, support the victims of tsunamis, earthquakes, war and endless other bytes flying in from every direction, shouldn't we be asking questions? Lots of them?
I can pinpoint the moment I stopped trusting the press. September 11, 2001, around 3:30pm. We didn't leave the house that day. We couldn't, unless we wanted to brave an enormous plume of smoke and the charred debris that rained down on our neighborhood for days after the attacks. I sat on the couch listening to the radio and hearing a news stories, then waiting for updates. As the day wore on, the stories changed. There was one in particular. Ten men were found on an airplane in Newark airport. They were thought to be terrorists as well. A bit later in the day, the story changed to five men and a woman. I waited all day long with the radio on, waiting to hear what happened. The story simply disappeared.
The same happened with a truck found near the George Washington Bridge, thought to be filled with explosives. And a few months later, when I got stuck in a cab on the Brooklyn Bridge, traffic backed up for hours on both sides. There were police everywhere, some with sniffing German Shepherds. When I finally arrived home, I turned to the news. Radio, online, TV. Nothing. Silence.
When I turned to my friends who worked in media for answers, no one knew a thing. How is this possible in our world of constant information, blogging, video cameras and recorders?
My thoughts, once again, return to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited:
Both [religion and entertainment] are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx's phrase, "the opium of the people" and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures.
So let us be vigilant, shall we?
It seems that we have our autonomy. Any of us can write, record and speak as we will. Each of us has and develops an audience. Yet, we are still forced to rely on the information we receive from those around us.
How many news reporters rely entirely on AP and Reuters as the basis of their stories? Then we must ask ourselves, what do they add to those stories to make them more readable, more likely to capture the attention of the masses?
Effective rational propaganda becomes possible only when there is a clear understanding, on the part of all concerned, of the nature of symbols and of their relations to the things and events symbolized. Irrational propaganda depends for its effectiveness on a general failure to understand the nature of symbols, says Huxley in his chapter on The Art of Selling.
So I refer back to last week's NYT article. What is it, exactly, that we are meant to buy? Are we meant to feel relief that the European Union is in as dire straits as the United States, economically speaking. Perhaps a way of saying, we're all still in this together. The US has not lost it's edge. Or is it meant to further deepen the already omnipresent and perhaps omnipotent sense of doom and gloom we keep hearing from the United States. We're all going down at the same time!
Find some common desire, some widespread unconscious fear or anxiety; think out some way to relate this wish or fear to the product you have to sell; then build a bridge of verbal or pictorial symbols over which your customer can pass from fact to compensatory dream, and from the dream to the illusion that your product, when purchased, will make the dream come true, he continues.
Our symbols here are economy, dollar, euro, recession. Each word strikes a specific meaning for each individual. Perhaps you hear these words and you worry about your child's college fund. Another of us just lost a job and is now desperately fighting to meet payments on his house? Or perhaps another is simply relieved that her vacation plans for the South of France this summer are not quite as dashed as she'd originally thought, because it seems there's hope the dollar won't be quite so weak against the Euro.
Even the question of when will this recession offically be declared a depression? Are these definitions as supplied by The Economist -- can we agree this is a fair source to define terms -- really so distinct that we can draw a fine line between the two and say, yes, not to worry, it's still just a recession. Recession just isn't quite as scary as depression. No one is starving on the streets, throwing themselves out of windows; no one has lost everything. Right?
Even more disturbing, the information we put out there for general consumption is quickly usurped for other purposes. Facebook, I'm looking at you. Did you really just revise your Terms Of Service -- TOS for those who aren't up on the lingo -- so that now you own every image, piece of writing and bit of information we've posted on your site? What are you going to do with it?
Side note: I'm here thinking perhaps I should take down that nifty automatic link I have that serves my blog entries directly into the Facebook information catcher's mitt.
Let me now qualify, my own information. I'm sure you want sources, proof, definites. Of course you do!
I found this information first on @ZAGrrl's Twitter profile page. The link there takes you to an Adrants blog entry for more information on the same topic, complete with a list of all Tweets on the subject. Adrants source for this revision comes from another blog, Socialized. Socialized, finally, sends us on to the Facebook TOS so we can read for ourselves.
Another side note: May I take a quick time out to point out that ZZGirl's original comment is made to @yokoono. Is that really Yoko Ono? Quick, let me take a break from writing to follow her. OK, I'm following her now.
Of course, I have to admit, I didn't read the TOS when I first signed up for Facebook. Did you really read it in it's entirety? Now or then?
I have no way of knowing that they actually changed except to simply accept that what all these others are saying is true. After all, it is a lot of people saying the same thing. It must be true, right? That, and even if it has indeed changed -- as I would assume Facebook would pitch a legal fit if all these bloggers, twitters and the rest were slinging TOS slander -- I'd be willing to bet that the original Facebook TOS included something that allowed this sort of change. That bet, by the way, is based on my legal dealings when I worked at MTV. In my experience, large companies of the 300-pound-gorilla variety cover their asses for all time in perpetuity.
So there you have it. I've added my voice and opinion to this swirling pot of information. I, too, have included sources. I have cited my terms. I have even been so clear as to say when and where my statements are based simply on my own opinion and experience.
Are you all now as confused as me? I? Me? Eh, fuck it, I give up. Let me end simply by citing Huxley's quote of Thomas Jefferson:
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.... The people cannot be safe without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.
So there you have it. All is safe.