Can’t you just picture two spry and amiable old men from the small town of Kent Falls, Ohio meeting up at the corner grocery. It’s a fine warm day in late autumn. It’s one of those days when the trees are starting to glorify the reddish rainbow and the nights are nippy. Yet, in late afternoon, it is warm enough for shirts and trousers; the sky is clear; when two acquaintances meet, what do them say?
And, when one of the small band of kids that often gets together for some pick-up game at the school baseball field is joined by Susie who was off visiting her Uncle in Dubuque for a few days shows up, her friends ask:
And, when the knitting circle/book club shows up at the local library every Tuesday night, before they get into the details of their latest pick, “Turing’s Nightmares,” one of them is sure to be heard saying:
“Hey, Doris. What’s new?” Elaine queries her companion. In some parts of the world, the acoustic wave forms might be slightly different; e.g., “Comment-alez vous?” (How goes (it with) you?) or “Vie Gehts?” (How goes (it)?) I only know a smattering of the expressions among all the languages of the world, but I am still willing to bet that strangers who trust each other as well as friends and acquaintances everywhere try to elicit news from others. This process tends to increase social capital. Your asking the question shows that you trust this other person not to lie. Their telling you (a truth as they see it) increases your trust in them. Further, the fact that you are communicating is community reinforcing because you are using the same language; more than that, and more deeply, you are sharing information. You are saying, in effect, “I don’t know everything. I want to learn more. We are members of a species who can communicate with each other so we can share knowledge. How cool! Let’s do it!”
And we are right to celebrate this ability to share information. We literally would not have survived as the human species to this day if we could not have. And, beyond that, our ability to learn from and communicate with each other has allowed us to grow to 7 billion in population. We are not feeding everyone. But we could. We are not housing everyone. But we could. We are not getting fresh clean water to everyone. But we could. Because our ability to learn and share information collectively has allowed people to specialize their knowledge in a million different ways and cure diseases, and invent in the fields of computing and telecommunications. That in turn, meant that people could communicate way beyond their own town, not just in books, but nearly instantaneously.
There is way too much for any one person to ever learn. And, on the other hand, you also share a tremendous amount of information with others. So, it is completely reasonable to ask, “What’s New?” You don’t want to hear, yet again, for example, that 2+2 is 4. You already know that. You want to know what’s new.”If you’re like many people, particularly in the “Global North” you have little patience to hear about something you already know.
Imagine that, out of nowhere, a cold wind blew up and it began to drizzle then pour down rain in big floppy drops. Your friend says, “Hey, it’s raining!” If you’re type A, you might say, “I know! I know!” or even “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know!”
As I’ve mentioned before, in modern societies, almost everything we do has an instrumental quality or aspect to it. In addition, many activities also have various intrinsic qualities. The rain itself may have an instrumental value in that it will be good for the crops. But rain also provides a range of potential experiences for you (and your communicating friend right now). You can feel it the soft patters on your scalp and shoulders and face. You even feel your skin shiver perhaps. You hear the plish plosh staccato drum on the pavement. You see everything become grayer, foggier, less clear and a bit of steam rising from the still warm blacktop. You smell the clean clear smell of new rain. It may even remind you of walking, as a child, through rain-filled gutters. Even the fact that the rain surprised you — shocked you a little — energized your consciousness. Suddenly, you had a purpose. Find shelter. Stay warm. Re-organize your plans for the day. These are all things to be experienced and enjoyed in that moment. It does not require your friend’s participation, but if you both experience it, it is bonding and makes the experience a little more pleasurable. If your friend says, “Hey, it’s raining” he or she is not trying to inform you in an instrumental way. He or she is just inviting you to share the experience.
It is not at all uncommon to hear in the halls of modern commerce phrases such as: “Bottom line it.” “And…you’re point is?” “Just give me the 10,000 foot view.” “And, therefore…?” or even simply, “So?” Every one of these phrases is coming from the same place: looking at information exchange purely from the standpoint of what it means right now for this specific part of this specific company and how do we make more money, spend less money, or avoid prosecution. I mean, just let that sink in for a moment. You may be so used to it that you no longer see how truly bizarre it is.
Imagine a typical 12 person conference room gathering for the weekly progress report. Everyone has 5 minutes tops to discuss progress and problems. I walk in one minute before the start time with a wide-eyed stare and announce, “I just came in. There is a wildfire headed this way.” My boss says, “OK, well, this meeting is about progress on release 4.6.2.02 — what’s your progress on that.” Or, perhaps, they might even use the terser, “So?” This might be a slight exaggeration, but trust me, not much. People are so trained to think of information in instrumental terms that they don’t see any value in the intrinsic experience of information, at least in a business setting. Beyond that, however, they don’t just limit information to instrumental communications. They predefine small category boxes to be slotted into small agenda boxes at the appropriate time. That a wildfire may be about to destroy the building, the machinery, some of the data, and — did I mention —- the people is very instrumental. But it is not instrumental to the predefined task at hand.
When we walk up to friends, acquaintances or even folks we’ve seen in town before and we say, “What’s New?” we are “making small talk” and increasing social capital. It is conversation that has intrinsic value. In some cases, it also has instrumental value as well. If the person outside the Kent Falls barbershop says, “Well, did you hear about the cholera outbreak in Kent Corners?” or “Are you going to the big barn dance this week end?” or “My kid’s trying to get into the double’s tournament but he needs a partner.” or any one of a million other things, information has been exchanged that you might have an interest in. You might want to (respectively) avoid going to Kent Corners, ask your spouse if they want to go to the barn dance, and ask your kid if they’re interested in teaming up for a tennis tournament.
This person you meet could, of course, be lying. They could be saying whatever they are saying as part of a con. This could happen. But it’s very unlikely. Why? Because you know who this person is or at least you recognize them. You’ll find out the truth eventually and when you do, if they are lying, you will have often have the means to ostracize this person or even have them jailed for lying. You also have the advantage that you can look them in the eye, ask them questions, and generally be able to verify things pretty quickly. For instance, assuming Kent Falls is near Kent Corners, you’ll fine it easy to discover whether there is really a cholera outbreak. Some people can look you in the eye and lie pretty convincingly, but it’s not that easy. Not only can you see directly who is talking; the speaker knows that you are looking at them. They know you can pretty easily verify their statements. They know that if they lie, they can get in big trouble. So under these circumstances, lies tend to be few and far between.
With on-line media, however, the situation can be quite different. Someone famous tweets something and you don’t see that person actually do it. All you see are the 140 (soon to be 280?) characters. They may be tweeting, not about the next town over but about an island thousands of miles away. You have no easy way to verify what they say. Even worse, what they say may be “verified” by a so-called citizen’s group or news agency which is actually nothing like a citizen’s group or news agency. It is merely an invented tool to lend credibility to the lie.
If such lies become widespread on a national basis, coordination of ordinary activities becomes extremely difficult. In the case of the small town, if people begin to circulate false rumors of barn dances, eventually no one will bother to attend or organize a real barn dance. What if you’re told that Kent Corners is not suffering a cholera outbreak but that they are part of the zombie apocalypse and you need to burn down the village before they come for your town?
In a large country, even worse lies can be harder to track down. Imagine, for instance, that banks no longer feel obligated to tell you how much money of your money they actually have or imagine that they create new accounts and charge you fees for those accounts without asking your permission or telling you about them. Imagine doctors are paid by you to be their physician but unbeknownst to you, they are also being paid way more money than you can afford so that they will prescribe specific drugs that are actually not best for you. Imagine that wealthy bankers develop a system so that they make what are essentially long odds bets and when those bets pay off, they pocket the winnings. But when they lose all their money, they charge the taxpayers for those risky bets. It isn’t just that people are telling these specific lies to cheat you out of your money, time, or attention. That’s bad enough. But what they are also doing is destroying our ability to coordinate and trust and collaborate.
What’s amazing about such stories is that the events underneath these stories have a tremendous impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Yes, the stories are often, long, complicated, and filled with detail. Perhaps that is why the media put far more coverage on sports teams and movie stars than on these scandals which, in actuality, are galactic in scope.
I implied earlier that every communication has a relationship impact. Compared with face to face communication, distant communication has a less positive impact on relationships. At best, it is simply not as warm. At worst, it can exacerbate arguments. Introduce an intermediary who is vying for everyone’s attention in a raging ocean of screaming voices also vying for attention. Only the loudest screamer gets heard. But this has the unfortunate effect of making everyone scream as loudly as possible. Similarly, the media have some push toward screaming as loud as possible. This tends to exaggerate differences, but let’s not also forget that it tends to further decrease the potentially positive relationship aspects of communication. In face to face meetings, it is always possible to have the two sides proffer hands and come to agreement. With news feeds going specifically to people who already believe what is about to be reported, the illusion among those people also grows that their view is the correct view. All of this happens even without fake news.
Now, let’s add fake news. It increases divisiveness. It further decreases any shreds of a felt commonality across the divides. But it also makes each communicative act less of an activity of warmth or connection. When newspapers report on facts, even many reputable ones end up having a general bias left or right. So, when they report on facts, the stories may emphasize different things. When people read stories from these different newspapers about events, they tend to read the papers who often look at things the way they do. So there is some isolation happening already. Two people may therefore read two somewhat different accounts of the same events and continue the disagreements inherent in the different slants.
However, with online fake news an entirely new dimension comes into play. This is not reputable newspapers looking at the same events from a different perspective. This is an online source, e.g., DarkBart, making crap up and reporting on it as news. Typically, there are multiple apparent sources reporting the same (totally made up) story. Often, to increase credibility further, they will post a picture of something that happened long ago or somewhere else. Though perhaps not stated explicitly, the import is clear in context that this is supposed to be a picture of the event talked about in the story. Other fake news sources will be delighted to rebroadcast any popular story whether true or not.
If someone, say, Joe, has a vested interest; e.g., let’s say Joe’s job depends on big oil, and a story comes out in fake news that protesters against the Dakota pipeline were paid to protest by the czars of a wind and solar company. That person might tend to believe it because it’s in their interest to believe it. On the face of it, it’s a pretty absurd claim. Chances are, Joe doesn’t fall for this one. At first. But now, he sees the same story repeated on numerous on-line fora. Of course, the protestors deny this, but when CBS interviews the protestors and airs the interviews, this is a completely predictable event to DarkBart because they knew the story they ran was fake. So, they are all ready to go with the counter-story. CBS is heavily invested in by some of the same dark forces behind the Dakota protests. Or, CBS is fake news. Or, even, “We should review the license of CBS to see whether they should be able to keep their license.”
There has always been some degree of lying. What’s new is that people can lie now to millions of people at once. What’s new is that people who run media are not paid purely to tell the truth. The are partly paid to be attention-getting. What’s new is that the people who run media companies are not in your neighborhood. If they do lie to you, there are very little consequences. What’s new is that, while you and I have never been trained as journalist, by reposting and liking and retweeting, we are, in effect giving some sort of amplification to stories. What’s new is that some on-line news sources are only in it for the ad money. What’s new is that this entire system has been used by a foreign government in a kind Trojan Horse move to divide and mislead people.
In ancient times, kings kept their subjects in the dark through power and intimidation but also by not letting them be educated. The printing press made that more difficult. Over the last few centuries, there has been a general trend toward enlightenment, democracy, and freedom. But don’t be fooled. There are plenty of people out there who would love to enslave you every bit as much as those ancient kings did. It’s too late to fool the current generations by withholding information. But it’s not too late to fool the current generations by flooding the information channels with fake news while every freedom and every penny is taken away or until power is so consolidated that it’s too late to do anything about it. At that point, there won’t be any news except what those in power want you to hear. That’s What’s New.