Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Truthiness Is Reality

Two of the ongoing themes I like to write about in this blog are politics and the power of stories to inform our identities, beliefs, and views. A book that combines these two themes is True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo. Here's a review:

"Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?" --George Carlin

"This isn't about what is . . . it's about what people think is. It's all imaginary anyway. That's why it's important. People only fight over imaginary things." --Neil Gaiman, American Gods

"If they think it's the truth, then they believe it, and if they believe it long enough, then it becomes the truth." --Jason Carter Eaton, The Facttracker

"Each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective, the product of a dispassionate, realistic accounting of the world. This is naive realism, though, because we are incapable of recognizing the biases that operate upon us. . . . The bias we see in the news isn't strategic. It's real. It's real to us, at least, and that's as real as it gets. . . . We all harbor a different idea of what an objective news story should look like. . . . we all want objectivity, but we disagree about what objectivity is." --Farhad Manjoo, True Enough

Naive realism is just one of the dynamics Manjoo considers in this book as he looks at the polarization and fragmentation of opinions in modern society, opinions not just about how we should react to facts, but about the very facts themselves. It's a fascinating exploration, weaving together psychological studies and explanations, stories and examples from many realms, and major political examples. Was John Kerry a war hero or coward? Was the 9/11 world trade center attack planned by our government? Was there vote tampering in the 2004 presidential election? It all depends on who you listen to and how you interpret what they have to say. Those might seem like fringe examples, but Manjoo also considers much more everyday situations and makes a convincing case that there is no way for anyone to escape these dynamics. And that our modern media and connectedness has exacerbated them significantly.

While the title says the book is about "Learning to Live" in this kind of world, it's only in the epilogue ("Living in a World without Trust") that Manjoo really goes into what we should do about it. In this case, knowing is at least half the battle. We spend so much energy and time arguing about our convictions, convinced we're right, never realizing just all the factors at play in making us so. We would be better served if we'd all spend a bit more time carefully examining ourselves and our sources of information, uncovering the biases inherent in all of it, and being a little less strident about insistent upon our correctness.

What arises from all this, finally, is the condition Stephen Colbert diagnosed as "truthiness." Truthiness means you choose. But you're not just deciding a reality; you're also deciding to trust that reality--which means deciding to distrust the others. Whenever you choose, you're making a decision to form a particularized trust. This is the essence of the new medium. Navigating it requires forming bonds with those who are going the same way you are and rejecting those who've decided to see things differently.

Choosing means trusting some people and distrusting the rest. Choose wisely.

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If you're intrigued enough to keep reading, I think Manjoo sums up his book really nicely in this excerpt:

Investigating the rise of carelessness toward "reality" is, of course, the headlong purpose of this book. But I've been driving at a theory more pervasive than the peculiar psychology of one president, the transgressions of a single dominant political machine, or the aims of certain powerful players. The truth about truthiness, I've argued, is cognitive: when we strung up the planet in fiber-optic cable, when we dissolved the mainstream media into prickly niches, and when each of us began to create and transmit our own pictures and sounds, we eased the path through which propaganda infects the culture.

Video news releases and satellite media tours suggest the ultimate cultural expression of these forces: they show us what might become of the world--or, indeed, what has become of the world--in an age of easy lying. Today, marketers, political operatives, and others who want to convince you of the virtue of some thing or idea--whether it is a Swiffer duster, a Nokia headset, a presidential candidate, a certain education policy, or the "truth" about global warming--can go about the business of persuasion covertly, without divulging their motives or even
the fact that they're engaged in persuasion. Propagandists have become experts at mining the vulnerabilities of the many-media world (for instance, the dubious ethics of bottom line-watching local news operations). They've adopted a range of methods to exploit the current conditions--some are as benign as the covert placement of products in films and TV shows, but others are more questionable, such as planting VNRs on the news, or buying up pundits, or spreading their messages anonymously and "virally" through blogs, videos, and photos on the Web.

Technically, what these operatives aim to do is capture one or many of the forces I've discussed so far:
selective exposure, in which we indulge information that pleases us and cocoon ourselves among others who think as we do; selective perception, in which we interpret documentary proof according to our long-held beliefs; peripheral processing, which produces a swarm of phony experts; and the hostile media phenomenon, which pushes the news away from objectivity and toward the sort of drivel one sees on cable.

In practice, what propagandists are doing is simpler to describe: they've mastered a new way to lie.


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