Monday, May 23, 2011

Reddit, the Abortionplex, and the Infinite Rabbit Hole

Fake news, people that think it's real news, and people that want people to know that there are people who thought the fake news was real news.

On the 18th, The Onion ran an article detailing a new $8 billion Planned Parenthood facility called "The Abortionplex". In typical Onion fashion, the article was gleefully tongue-in-cheek, timely, and completely, utterly false. The Onion is, of course, a satire news site.

That doesn't necessarily stop people from believing it. This wouldn't be the first time that the masses have bought an Onion line. Nor would it be the most ridiculous thing the general populace has believed. That being said, this graphic (click through) shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone—and yet it's one of the most interesting internet artifacts I've seen, as there is no attempt at all to prove that it is authentic.

I want to be sure that I go one record saying that I don't have any doubts as to the legitimacy of the graphic. However, if someone wanted to create a false graphic on this or any other theme, the ubiquity of Facebook thumbnails and Photoshop makes it possible for them to get involved in made-up guerrilla journalism. The Culture Wars no longer require facts (but they do need the lulz).

Eli Pariser notes the advent of the "filter bubble": the way that Google, Facebook, et al. filter content that you receive based on previously expressed preferences. His TED Talk approaches the most obvious problem with the filter bubble, which is that as websites tailor content automatically, people aren't exposed to opposing viewpoints. There's another angle here, which is that these filter bubbles protect false ideas from being debunked except by untrusted "outsiders". It's clear that the Obama Kenyan birth certificate is a fake, that vaccines do not cause autism, and that the Bush administration did not conspire to cause 9/11, but these ideas continue to spread.

Consider this: we are creating a world in which large social groups not only have different views as to how the world works, but can actively produce proof that their worldview is correct. Worse than that, the low barrier-to-forgery makes it easier and easier for us to disregard facts we find inconvenient to our preconceptions.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tolle Paradox: How Buzzwords Kill Big Ideas

Whether you love, hate, or don't know Eckhart Tolle, he's an important guy in modern thought. He's been on Oprah's show multiple times (which is really the modern touchstone of influence), his books are bestsellers, and the London-based spirituality group Watkins Review rates him the most spiritually influential person in the world. (Note: The author of this article is largely not convinced of the value of Tolleanism in general, but will not deny his importance.)

You may have heard some of his principles. The two pillars of his work are 1) the rejection of humanity's tendency to live in the past or the present, and 2) the idea of experiencing ideas and objects without categorizing them. That is, experiencing a flower or a day at the beach as an object and a time period, respectively, without assigning them "labels".

You may have even heard "labels" as a negative (which predates Tolle, but has a new meaning in his context)—"don't 'label' this moment," and the like. You probably have heard people ask you to be "present in the moment". Unfortunately, these shortcuts deconstruct the entirety of Tolle's thought. By using labels to describe the act of not using labels, the entire purpose of separating the mind from the self is defeated. The buzzwords kill the idea. The buzzwords become a cudgel by which any number of ideologies are forced upon an audience.

Why is this? I don't have any studies, but let me posit a theory: Buzzwords deconstruct by their nature. Thinking sorts spend months and years on their frameworks, working out exactly what they mean, and running their words through editors and publishing houses and colleagues before releasing them to the public. Their disciples struggle, but eventually work out a practical way to implement their words. Then the work becomes famous, and there arrive on the scene people who want the power of the movement without its substance.

It's easy to learn the jargon of a philosophical movement, then use this new language to identify yourself as sympathetic to the movement itself. One such an intruder overlays his or her own personal philosophy over the jargon of the movement, a weapon of ideology, the buzzword, has been fashioned—it's a funnel by which people can be moved from one school of thought to another without recognizing the shift.

Unfortunately, it's not just something that happens in the ethereal world of new age spirituality. Agile software development is a method for developing applications that has changed the face of coding. The basic principle is this: One builds out fully-formed features of software in small time increments. Every iteration of the process yields a feature for the application that could be brought to market by itself.

Agile, like Tolleanism, is widely accepted and preached, and is mostly harmless. No one would really take issue to focusing on present experience, nor on building software on a marketable piece by marketable piece basis. However, in both cases, powerful rhetoric gets changed into a tool that serves its wielder's interest only. Being asked not to "label" things becomes learning not to talk back to your boss; a "scrum" becomes a sweatshop.

Those burned by the tool-wielders then tend to backlash against Tolle and against Agile, without realizing they've been had by masters of narrative engineering.