Archive for the 'media' Category


Who Tells Us What

When you have data and a nuanced, long-view, of an area, it’s easy to say profound things. It comes naturally. Look at this sentence from a very recent pew report on the state of the media.

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

The point is striking, but I never thought about it before. When reporting manpower goes down, but total content output needs to stay the same, then something must give. In this case, Pew seems to think that other entities step in to provide content in a more packaged or ready-to-press form. This shouldn’t be surprising. If you go to, you’ll see that some of their content is put together straight from advertisers. There model is not really reporting so my analogy is flawed, but there is definitely something convincing about the hypothesis that as reporting and analysis dry up, powerful groups such as the government and the market can dictate the terms of content promulgation even more.

Again, I don’t want to shortchange the rise of bloggers and specialists. I’ve learned a ton from individual people who just decided to drill down on a complex issue. It just doesn’t seem to me like the burgeoning independent journalism sphere yet makes that much difference. It seems like there are established message channels and that they are still up for use/hijack depending on how you see it.


Big Data and Creativity

I was listening to a podcast the other day from public radio international. The show was Warren Olney’s To the Point. I’ve listened to probably thirty or so episodes of his by now, and I’m growing more and more frustrated. His questions are pretty good I guess, and he’s civil and smart. All plusses, but more and more, I notice that he’s kind of a hack. The stories that he chooses to follow are almost UNIVERSALLY stories about income inequality, environmental problems, or just some conservative mistake (like the challenge to the civil rights act that’s ongoing).

It’s very hard to quantify media bias, in fact, I think impossible, because one side’s bias will always be considered the other side’s honest truth. However, I have noticed a persistent streak in the way that Warren treats guests, positions, and stories. And this is a shame, because it’s not that I want to hear one side be right or wrong, I just want to hear the best arguments from one side, and the conservative guests can rarely deliver. So I leave thinking that their position is silly even though I know, from being exposed to countless philosophical and public policy arguments over my lifetime, that the issue is probably much too complex for simple solutions.

ANYWAY, Warren’s stories about cultural topics are usually much better because this stuff doesn’t get in the way. He talked about how massive agglomerations of data (“big data”) are being used to create novels and TV shows, the prime example being NETFLIX’s show “House of Cards.” Apparently this show was commissioned by Netflix after it found out that a certain director, set of actors, and plot point, would be enthusiastically received by viewers, BASED ON THEIR PAST WATCHING HABITS.

There are arguments that this is both good and bad, for creativity and culture. Good arguments that I’ve heard for the “pro” side are that this sort of targeted and ex ante investment in a show increases creativity. The director of “House of Cards” got the freedom to write a set amount of episodes as well as the ASSURANCE that there would BE x episodes. This is very different from network shows which are written on the fly and must fight to stay justified in their time slot or whatever. With predictability, a director can focus on telling a story. Also, there’s the fact that a lot of people will probably like the show. That’s what big data says.

Then there are counter arguments about cultural literacy. Is there anything important about the fact that a show is not usually available all at once. I’ve heard people talk about the effect of watching a show AS IT EVOLVES because other people are often engaged in the cultural activity as well. When all the episodes are available at once, there is the spoiler risk, but also the cultural disconnection of the fact that there is no event surrounding the time-constrained progression of the episodes. Also, some of the guests on Warren’s show talked about how some books are being written with alternative endings that change based on marketing information about you or about your mood. And if shows become just algorithms, where will creativity go? I don’t think we’ll see the end of creativity — more and more I’m convinced that that is impossible because the urge to create is such a fundamental part of human society. However,   there’s no doubt that something will change about the cultural landscape when computers spit out the actors and plot points for shows.


Bing It On

Bing should count it’s ad campaign as a massive success, because I actually got curious enough to see what was about.

I took the test. It’s set up well. 5 searches, and you decide for each one whether you liked the right or the left. I guess they vary which side google and bing are on.

Unfortunately for Bing, I chose 4 out 5 for google and for the fifth one, I chose a draw. I think it’s partially my style of search, which involves no “social” aspect and usually involves philosophical or psychological concepts. I tried to do a range of searches though and my search “restaurants in LA” was decisively won by google because they show you the map of things in the area, which also makes it really obvious that the side with the mapped options is the GOOGLE SIDE.

That said, the Bing pages are almost exactly like the google pages. There is almost no difference. This is bad news for google in one sense, because it shows that for most of our (my) searches, there’s not too much difference. This should help chip away at the idea that google’s algorithm is somehow special.

On the other hand, it’s pretty good news for google because Bing, even though it has basically cloned google’s product, is still seen as inferior.

As a smart bonus, Bing tries to hook you on their search by exclaiming at the bottom something about how searching with Bing has some reward system. I didn’t read the thing, so I’m not sure how it works, but at least they are trying to capitalize on the ad campaign that got me to their ridiculous challenge by trying to get more searches out of me. Too bad their product just got totally dominated.


I don’t think reality is broken

I’m reading a book right now called Reality Is Broken by Jane (?) Mcgonigal. My parents saw her lecture and her book is about how we need to gamify our world. In other words, to use games to help us be happier and more productive.

The book has some really interesting psychology behind it, and I love video games and so naturally gravitate towards a writer who knows the games she’s using as examples.

I am very interested in the philosophy of games and not necessarily the psychology. For instance, M is concerned with how games make us happy. She introduces the italian word Fiero which is like pride, but something different. We don’t have a good english equivalent, but games are supposed to help us achieve this state. I agree that games do this, but the benefit of games is not in terms of how they can be used to make us feel a certain way. Sometimes I recoil at her instrumental language, as if we just need to gamify everything in our life. At one point she says that games can help the elderly “feel” connected to the world. I think she means that in a good way, but I can’t help hearing it as a kind of accommodation. The elderly should not be made to feel better, they should be made better off and their feeling better will follow from being better.

Games for me are not just fun. They are a particular type of rational creativity. McGonigal thinks reality is broken because it doesn’t reward us in the same clear ways that games do. Thus reality stresses us out but games put us in the “zone” where we are fully activated as agents. This activation is crucial, but we should not think that this means that reality is broken. Rather, reality is the fundamental and inescapable game that we all play and love it so much that we don’t stop playing it even when some philosophers try to tell us that determinism makes it useless to act and that there is no way we could ever be in touch with the “true” external world. We absolutely LOVE reality. In fact, look at the evidence. Video games are not becoming more and more addictive by helping us leave reality or by simplifying.

Take two examples. Massively multiplayer games and the morality systems of games that have not ever been fully successfully implemented. Games get better by making them MORE like ordinary social life with all it’s frustration and pain and rewards. The morality system may never be able to be implemented in a game because the fun of playing the game of morality involves there to be certain things at stake, namely, other people’s feelings. Games can change what happens based on what we do, and so, in a sense, can have an ersatz morality mechanic. But since our actions, IN SINGLE PLAYER GAMES AT LEAST, can never be fully moral, insofar as we realize that aren’t interacting with real humans who have interest. Of course, we often don’t take into account the fact that we’re dealing with non-humans, because as many experiments have shown, humans have an irresistable psychlogical urge to treat things that look like humans as real humans. Kids shown robotic people impute thoughts and emotions to those things. Also, think about how you cringe when someone shakes a dog angrily. Now think of someone shaking a camera. You don’t care right? But take something in the middle, like a robotic dog that yelps when it’s hurt. If someone “hurts” this dog, you will be perturbed. If you’re not, then you are most likely a psychopath (a leading indicator of psychopathy is an insensitivity to the pain of animals, and for the purposes of our crudely rational mind, a robotic dog is a dog).

Thus, video games with morality systems are very popular, and more research is being done as to how to add these features realistically to games because morality is for real life is like money is for poker. Poker without money and real life without morality is comparatively boring. Thus, we’ll never be able, in my mind, to make a game as exciting and rewarding and enriching as moral life.*

Of course, morality could be as enriching as reality if we could make games simulate morality. Say, if you hit someone in a game, they would feel pain. If that was the case, then the game would be as thrilling/interesting/enrich as reality, but then, this would just BE moral reality. If your actions have consequences for other people, you are back in a situation involving moral reasoning.

*I take this back. Online multiplayer games already DO have moral elements. If you steal someone’s treasure from a raid or insult them in a form, you DO hurt that person. You take part of the fun from them or you make them look bad. You can’t physically hurt someone in world of warcraft or EVE, but that doesn’t meant there aren’t moral elements in play. I guess my point is only that SINGLE player games with moral systems will always be imperfect. There are no moral interests at stake because there are no people involved. One is only put in MORAL SIMULATIONS of something, like “should I kill this guard or only stun him?” That’s a moral type of situation, but there is no actual morality at stake.


Protesting the Media

People protest companies all the time, and they also protest actions of government, but I think this is a fascinating portent of the changes that need to be made to our media system.

You see, the New York Times, wrote a really scandalous article about the gender environment of the IMF and accused the organization of being ruled by an alpha-male mentality that made women feel objectified and victimized. As someone who these days is responsible for generating content for a website, I understand how seductive these stories are. They draw lots of eyeballs. They are also hopelessly simplistic and whip up interest at the cost of accuracy.

The women in this story though are calling bullshit, and they are doing it as a group. Normally, when someone protests a new story, they just deny it PERSONALLY or sue the organization (tabloid), but has mainstream news just become tabloid coverage, and why do outrageous stories now necessitate a  COLLECTIVE response. Notice the burden this puts on civil society. If the press is throwing its weight around with the sensationalism it can direct, then civil society has to become even more organized and vigilant to fight back.


Where did “Arab Spring” come from?

I wanted to find the answer to this question, just because usually, for every media label for some important period in time, there is a stinging critique of its inaccuracy and shallowness by somebody who really knows things. I guess though that “Arab Spring” is pretty harmless as a theme goes, though I guess it skirts the fact that there’s plenty of non-Arabness about the spring. I also hate that everyone jumped on the label “Arab Spring” so that now every article is about whether things can continue into the summer. Will we have an Arab summer? An Arab year, an Arab decade?

Anyway, then I tried to find out who coined the term and didn’t really find anything (does anyone know?) but then I found these two sites (well one was just a google search result page), but look.

First, there’s this guardian page, which is GREAT. Wow, really nice to be able to look over. I didn’t even really know that things in Egypt were already well under way in February (yea, I’m out of touch, I know).

But I tried to square that with this handy graphic that suggests that the day where the most people searched the term “Arab Spring” on March 22. Why so long, and where was the interest until that time? Also, the interest trailed off pretty quickly after March 22.

Just kind of an interesting demonstration of the mismatch between media focus on big events, and the actual timeline of big events. There are probably big things brewing right now, and they will only be reported on in two weeks, and will only be understood enough to spur people to search for it in another two weeks.

So, is it true that news is more rapidly these days? You see, news is about digesting and UNDERSTANDING what is happening, not just about the fact that the pixels representing the happening of some event are ON SCREENS somewhere. People are quick on the uptake, but not always, because news is about making connections, predictions ,and judgments, not just taking in raw information (is there such a thing).


Media Haze (I think this post turned out well)

As I’ve mentioned before, I surf the news sites in the morning for my job, so I’m starting to get a real feel for the news world. It’s kind of a cool experience, because I’m learning what will quote “play in Peoria” when it comes to story ideas. I’m also getting to feel the currents of the “news cycle,” a system just like an economy — controlled by thousands of interactions yet has meaningful and understandable macro trends. A stock market analyst tries to listen in to those trends to make money and rack up dollars, and publicity and news people try to listen to the heartbeat of the news in order to rack up eyeballs and people (and nowadays, for money as well).

So I’ve also started to understand what the news is about a little more deeply. I used to think that it was crap, and I think it still kind of is, but I guess the purpose of it was never really to be READ in the sense that one reads a novel or a philosophy book. For these types of writing, one READS it. You take the thing on its own merits and in an intense, engaging way. The news, and I’m not saying it is worse for this fact, is not meant to be READ in that way. Instead, its browsed, looked over, and kind of “soaked in” like one would take a shower. Through these interactions with many pieces, some good, some ok, and most bad, you start to get a feeling for the “beat” or the “rhythm” of the world (or your country or whatever). You start to come into contact with what some have called the collective unconscious, and once you’ve tapped into this behind the scenes, economy of psychological fragments, half ideas, and discarded bits of cultural insights, you gain something, though it is not a knowledge of a type of argument, and you certainly gain nothing like clarity.

Instead, the news cycle is to think tank and journal writing what the mystic or prophet is to the philosopher. One teaches wisdom while the other teaches knowledge (and you know, if you follow this blog, that I don’t at all mean to say that the latter is superior than the former).

Part of how the news allows us to gain wisdom about society is partly because it simply reports facts.  The news may not report all of them, and it may not report only them, but it does report some facts. This is partly how we get in touch with what’s “going on around us.” But through the opinions and videos and snide remarks, we also get in touch with what people are “feeling around us.” We build a rough hunch about the “mood” of the country and in the process of twittering through micro-arguments and sifting through reader comments, and analyzing back-biting and counter back-biting, we come to make some judgments about things. They are easily manipulable and whimsical, but they are the intuitive ways that society organizes its knowledge for the day ahead. Science regiments and organizes our society’s knowledge on a grand scale, and in a slow but implacable way. News on the other hand is science just for today, just for the revolution, or the insult, or the joke. Everyone makes use of it to guide their everyday, intuitive stuff, and that’s its connection to wisdom.

Of course though, I can’t resist constantly engaging with this media haze — this cauldron of automatic-half-insights — and revealing its silliness and its flaws, and its unreasonableness when one takes a different perspective. When one takes the eternal perspective, or the view from nowhere, or the view from forever (rather than the view from here and from now — *see below for some more stuff on this).

So here I am, suggesting that you look at this so you can see how the average article smashes together ideas and concepts that should be kept separate. The point of this article is that people who use OBL’s death as a justification for torture are engaging in torture creep, at first saying that its use is justified for ticking time bomb scenarios and then saying that its used anytime it will bag us a terrorist. This is “torture creep” as the article says. But wait, who really said that? The only thing I’ve heard is that Bin Laden’s capture was a positive for aggressive interrogation. Now one can dispute that claim, but I didn’t really see anyone who said that now torture is justified anytime it can be used to marginally improve our safety (maybe some lunatics say it, but I mean real people).

Also, it’s a confusion to call aggressive interrogation torture. Maybe waterboarding is torture, but aggressive interrogation consists of a very specific number of things including temperature manipulation and slapping (read the memos). Other stuff too, and not all of it shocking at all. In the CIA black sites, techniques were authorized very specifically and overseen carefully: in many cases people who were aggressively interrogated were NOT tortured. The sane person thinks “huh, maybe aggressive interrogation can yield some good information,” contrary to those who think that all this kind of interrogation does is produce falsehoods. In other words, there are some real and complex debates here, not the simply “torture creep” narrative which comes out of nowhere.

Why is the media coverage of the day to day so hazy? Well, I think its because careful thinking requires an ongoing overriding of our natural dispositions (that’s why fallacies of various types are so common: they are so natural). So, it’s hard to carefully think enough to get something out. Instead, you have to WRITE A LOT. If you want to do news and blogging, your ideas are always coming out, never being formed; there’s just no time to see all the ways in which they are wrong. That’s what academics are for.

*Notice that “here” and “now,” what philosophers call indexicals, are paradigmatic news words, and fitting with my thesis, they are not amenable to scientific or “objective” study? Why? Well they are intrinsically first personal. Of course, for any individual sentence someone says like “it’s raining here” there is a translation in terms of non-indexicals. If I say that sentence in Boston, then one can rewrite my sentence as “It’s raining in Boston.” But the concept of “here” cannot enter into scientific study or explanation because it, as its namesake indicates, is indexed to a person and to their particular location on the world. What is here for me is there for you.