February 15, 2009

Machiavellian Infomation Overloads

I have stopped reading newspapers. Unless of course it’s a lazy afternoon and the options to spend my time in other pursuits are non-existent.

There was a time when I used to read every bit of news that came along. As a student, I read the Economic Times (even though at the time I could not appreciate the significance of most of the news), The Times of India and the Bombay Times (for funsakes). I was told that the middle pages of the newspaper are the ones where the juice is. The Editorials and comments by wise men of industry and society were on these pages. As a young mind, one was supposed to assimilate the oracle-like opinion (no matter that it could be released verbatim later in front of a group of stunned teenagers … man this guy has god-level insights!) All this until one day some few months ago, I saw one of my friends draft a press release. And no my friend is no journalist; we’ll come back to him a bit later.

Noam Chomsky is a Professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and given his background in studying languages and their structures ends up learning a fair bit about society. He says that as part of a democratic setup, people have access to a lot more information than those making decisions for that society would be comfortable with. Making policy and implementing decisions thus becomes a challenging process to the extent that ones reputation hangs on its success; and this is true across the spectrum from industry to state. Hence the need to control, filter, jazz up, seduce. In other words: shape public opinion.

One look at Indian media today and you will know what I mean. Apart from just information dissemination, there is entire other world where the significance of the news is forced down my throat. I as a receiver of communication am not allowed to think. The broadcast of any news in any medium is accompanied by ‘expert opinion’ where there is a well known celebrity-like media friendly character who sagely comments on what has transpired and how it will affect our life.

Who is our ‘expert’? What are his credentials? How has he performed in his line of expertise? – Are questions which immediately come to mind. Now to some slightly uncomfortable questions - Who selects him? Why is he on the show? Does he have vested interests? Who does he represent? More importantly, why is he predicting events? What is his track record in predicting events? These may never be answered.

Coming back to my press release drafting friend – Why was an employee drafting a press release? Isn’t that a job for a journalist? Does this rob the journalist the opportunity to ask important questions? Maybe if he asked, the merit of the release would lose significance. Maybe it would be relegated to the obscure parts of the newspapers which are used for personal packing of dirty linen during a long trip. How much more is there in this release that does not meet the eye? Are journos reduced to selecting what news goes where? Do they get incentivized for selecting what news goes where? Who decides these incentives? Why all this cloak and dagger style?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing with the withholding of information. In a competitive world, it is necessary. One can’t publish confidential data in the name of the free press. My issue is more with the unholy nexus of journalists and publicists. News has moved on from reporting to generation and sensationalism. Grand quotes from people who have given up something valuable to be on the front page. Which means we are being misinformed. Which means reading newspapers is a waste of time.

You may ask what does one do to be upto speed with the happenings around you? Scan the headlines of a respectable media org. Mostly it is possible to jazz that up to. But given that you see it for a split second, the ability to be influenced is much less.

There is another non-Machiavellian reason that I have stopped reading. There is just too much information. I once tried to list down the central theme of the previous days news stories. I couldn’t. Rarely did I come across an article I remembered. That too because I relayed it several times in my head and told others – it was interesting. Otherwise, for most of the time it was just too much noise. Filtering the noise to come to matters that concern my work / me is painful. I’d rather scan the headlines of a publication that focuses on it; or wait for somebody who finds it interesting to tell me about it. Either way I am not missing much.