Saturday, October 22, 2011

Uriah Heep and the Internet

"In a city cut off from all news from the outside, there were more newspapers being published than ever -- thirty-six or more -- and representing every shade of political opinion. Hungry for news of almost any kind, Parisians now read newspapers as they walked down the streets. Yet at the same time there seemed even less faith that much of anything published could be trusted for accuracy."
--David McCullough in his book, "The Greater Journey," writing about the siege of Paris, 1870-71
The Internet siege of the 21st Century bears marked resemblance to the siege of Paris by the Prussians, without the need to eat rats to survive the lack of food. Information surrounds us, permeates our environment, is read as we walk the streets. Yet, perhaps even more than in the Paris of 1870, the information we take in is often wholly unreliable, drawn through filters that provide only a small portion of the total and, worse still, often either completely false or at least skewed in one direction or another.

In a way, such easy access to information is worse than having none at all. Emails containing every manner of falsehood are forwarded without thought to the original source as if anything found on our computers is true. More often than not, it isn't.

As McCullough points out, there's nothing particularly new about this phenomenon, except for the the ubiquity of the perfidy. It's not just the fault of bloggers, political hacks or fake experts. The "news" media, in their attempt to get it first or lure increasingly distracted consumers, think nothing of putting garbage in front of us.

Discerning the waste stream from legitimate news is no easy task. I've written and spoken about this until my acquaintances have taken to rolling their eyes -- "there he goes again." But this is one of those issues that requires repetition, if for no other reason than to make the point in as many ways as possible.

It's to the point that our first assumption should be that anything we read or hear is wrong, because those are the odds.

"We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know because they have never deceived us," wrote English author Samuel Johnson -- in the middle of the 18th century! Worse yet, we seek to confirm our own biases instead of challenging them. This is called confirmatory bias and, again, it's hardly a new thing.

In some cases this is a conscious choice, but more often it happens more subtly, and no one is exempt from it. Charles Dickens' character Uriah Heep in his book David Copperfield is the quintessential example of this, as everything he experiences becomes a confirmation of the biases that came out of his humble upbringing. We all have something of Uriah Heep in our character.

The difference today is that there are so many sources so easily available that confirming our biases has become all too easy. Without constant, conscious effort, it's likely only to get worse.

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