Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 23 Jun 08 09:53
Our next guest, Farhad Manjoo, is a staff writer at Salon.com and the author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." He manages Machinist, a daily blog that covers new gadgets, tech culture and tech policy. He lives in San Francisco. Leading the conversation with Farhad is Bob Rossney, a software engineer and writer who has been on the WELL since before it had .com after the name. His enduring claim to fame is that his was the first email address ever published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Welcome, Farhad and Bob. I'm looking forward to hearing lots more about "True Enough."
Bob Rossney (rbr) Mon 23 Jun 08 12:50
I'd like to welcome Farhad, and maybe give a little introduction to his book and why I think it's important. The last decade and a half have been full of distressing developments on the American scene, but topping my personal list is what I think of as the assault on reason. American politics in particular has become extraordinarily ideological, ideological to the point of magical thinking. We're living at a time in which a high-level member of the president's staff (unnamed at the time, but now widely believed to be Karl Rove) famously told Ron Suskind of the New York Times that critics of the Administration comprised what he derisively called "the reality-based community." "We make our own reality," he said. It's remarkable enough that such a man would think that "We make our own reality" was a bold statement of purpose, and not an admission of being delusional. But even more remarkable is the administration's doggedness. They deny everything. Catch them in the act of ordering their subordinates to torture their captives, and they'll say "We don't torture." We find that this means that what the rest of the world calls "beating people to death" they call "enhanced interrogation techniques." And so on. I think that the current administration's assault on reason goes well beyond these famous examples, and I'm sure I'll have occasion to say more as we go on. But there's something that this assault depends on, and it's at the core of Farhad's book: Objective truth is no longer significant in discussions of political and social matters. _True Enough_ is about how this has happened, and what it looks like. We hear the phrase "marketplace of ideas" quite a bit; Farhad digs into work by psychologists and sociologists to uncover why it is that it is a marketplace in which bad ideas drive out good. I think it's a fascinating book that's full of interesting ideas, and I think these are ideas that we need to be talking about.
Farhad Manjoo (fmanjoo) Mon 23 Jun 08 15:01
Thanks, Bob, for the marvelous introduction. You summarize my conclusion perfectly: For many Americans, on many issues, objectivity has been supplanted by subjectivity. In my subtitle, I call this the "post-fact" society. Here are some examples: Some people think that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that it's caused by humans; others think the facts show that the planet isn't warming. Some people think that 9/11 was carried out by Al Qaeda. Others think it was the deed of the Bush Administration. Some people think HIV causes AIDS. Others think that's bunk. These are all, of course, questions on which there is a definitive answer. Rigorous analysis by experts has shown that HIV does cause AIDS, that global warming (caused by human activity) is a real and dangerous phenomenon, and that it was Al Qaeda that carried out the 9/11 attacks. Yet for all these questions, significant minorities of Americans hold different facts. It's not that they believe a different idea -- it's more fundamental. They see a different a reality. But why? Let me summarize my thesis. New technology has given us more information than ever seemed believable. Think about where you get your news -- not just newspapers and network TV, but also blogs, cable news, talk radio, podcasts, etc., all these rich forms of media that we'd never dreamed of three decades ago. We also have more power of that information than we once did. With tools like iPods, Digg, blog networks, and other new mechanisms, now we can easily pick and choose our media. There's something wonderful about this new freedom; we're no longer reliant on an institutional media for our facts about the world. But the shift also creates a problem. In the book, I discuss dozens of psychological studies that suggest we humans have an innate preference to seek out information that confirms our worldview. That's just how our brains work: If given a chance, we'll avoid news facts that we don't like. Digital technology allows us to indulge those human desires better than we could in the past. On the Web, television, radio, and all manner of new devices, today you can watch, listen to, and read what you want, whenever you want; seek out and discuss, in exhaustive and insular detail, the kind of news that pleases you; and pursue your political or social or scientific theories, whether sophisticated or naive, extremist or banal, grounded in reality or completely insane. As I say in the book, in the last few years, pollsters and political researchers have begun to document a fundamental shift in the way Americans are thinking about the news. No longer are we merely holding different opinions from one another; we're also holding different facts. Increasingly, our arguments aren't over what we *should* be doing -- in the Iraq War, in the War on Terrorism, on Global Warming, or any number of controversial subjects -- but, instead, over what *is happening*. You can go so far as to say we're now fighting over competing version of reality. So what do you think? Do you accept my thesis?
Bob Rossney (rbr) Mon 23 Jun 08 17:09
I think that it's a compelling argument, but I suspect that you're giving more credit to technological changes than perhaps is due. The technology certainly makes it easier for people to build communities of nonsense. But I think a big thing had to happen first, without which the technology would probably not have had the effect that it has. There was a significant *psychological* shift that occurred in this country between about 1968 and 1976: the mainstream disappeared. I'm talking about the mainstream that George W.S. Trow wrote about, the one in which there were a small number of voices in American public life, and when they spoke, they spoke with authority. Men (they were always men) like Walter Winchell, Charles Van Doren, Walter Cronkite, John Kenneth Galbraith, Bennett Cerf. The world these men spoke from, and for, vanished completely in the cultural revolution of the 1960s. I'm of the generation that Trow wrote of with something akin to amazement: those who can watch _Sweet Smell of Success_, as anti-establishment a movie as has ever been made in this country, and respond with something like nostalgic envy for a world it depicts. Of course I'm not nostalgic for the reality of that world - one in which there were people far worse than J.J. Hunsecker. The men who murdered Fred Hampton in his bed were part of that mainstream, and so were the men who thought sending a generation of American men off to fight a losing war in an insignificant country was of critical importance. But still, the idea that there's a right answer, and that there's someone sitting in a booth at El Morocco *right now* who can tell you what it is. It's intoxicating. One of the things that happened in the 1960s was that the idea of authority - the idea that *there was such a thing* as authority - began to dissolve. That happened in the world of the intellectuals, as post- modernism swept through one field after another clearing out deadwood (and, in the nature of such transitions, sweeping in deadwood of its own). It happened in the world of the ordinary citizen, as Walter Cronkite stepped down and *no one stepped up to replace him.* I think the technologies you've mentioned have accelerated this process. So has the deliberate assault on authority conducted by people in positions of authority, which you write so convincingly about as well. But I feel like the disappearance of the mainstream from American life is the big story. It's one of the most significant things that ever happened in this country, and we're still trying to come up with the right terms to describe it.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 24 Jun 08 13:35
i also think the accent on self-expression, the pervasive culture of therapy --- have also contributed to 'it's what i feel. dont complicate it with facts'. wasnt it norman mailer who 1st coined the term 'factoid', which i think he intended to mean something like s. colbert's 'truthiness'?
Bob Rossney (rbr) Wed 25 Jun 08 02:25
I think the term you're thinking of that was Mailer's coinage was "sound bite," but I could be misremembering.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 25 Jun 08 06:47
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Jef Poskanzer (jef) Wed 25 Jun 08 07:13
I was having a discussion yesterday with a Wikipedia skeptic and ran a suggestion past him: that we should do to Wikipedia what TiVo does with television. Instead of having edit wars over which version of a page is the One True Version, each user could give thumbs up to the version they like. Then the system would automatically present them their favorite version of that page, and other pages that similar people have thumbed similarly. You should have seen the look of horrified fascination on his face. The analogy I used to sell him this idea was Israel/Palestine. No one except the utter fanatics expects there to be a single nation there.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 25 Jun 08 07:23
(Factoid, if I remember correctly, was coined by Mailer in his book on Marilyn Monroe).
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Wed 25 Jun 08 07:44
Here's the Wikipedia entry: "A factoid is a spurious (unverified, incorrect, or invented) "fact" intended to create or prolong public exposure or to manipulate public opinion. It appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as "something which becomes accepted as fact, although it may not be true", namely a speculation or an assumption. The term was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper", and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean "like a fact".. Of course, since this is from Wikipedia, it could very well be a factoid.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Wed 25 Jun 08 08:28
What about this is actually new? Haven't some people always believed what they want to believe? Nutty beliefs have a long history.
Dodge (clotilde) Wed 25 Jun 08 09:07
Like, man never set foot on the moon, all the pictures are from a 'set' at NASA? We've been living on and beneath this mountain for centuries why should we worry about a bit of smoke once in a while? I think a lot of Factoid may be the new coinage but the old saying about burying the head in the sand and rose colored glasses show it ain't exactly a new thing. I think a lot of it is people trying to come to terms with something they can't change and are afraid of. Like the volcano thing. -We live and get our living from the volcano. The soil from ashes is perfect for grapes. If we pay attention to the FACT the volcano WILL errupt again, we would go nuts. We derive a good living here. It's not like we can pick up and move and live as well somewhere else. SO The volcano is our Friend. It will never hurt us. Therefore, these people develop the attitude of not only coping with reality but ignoring and denying it. So that WHEN the volcano starts giving off warnings, they don't heed them. Isn't that what you say we are going through? And the technology helps rather than hinders the spread of Factoid thinking? Or do you think this is something altogether new?
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Wed 25 Jun 08 09:27
How do we reliably distinguish true facts from false or misleading ones? In some cases, it's pretty easy - "the moon orbits the earth" kind of thing - but in other cases, the cases where it most likely makes a difference, it can be considerably more difficult. For most facts we have to rely on the reporter or reporters (journalists, scientists, scholars, researchers, people we know and so on) because we usually don't have the capacity to check them out for ourselves. (rbr)'s point is well taken. We've lost that mainstream authority that seemed to ground our culture's sense of reality. A sense of reality that was probably more sound than a lot of fringe and religion-based stuff that's so prominent now. But as (rbr) pointed out, that mainstream authority was often itself misleading. I believe critical thinking skills go a long way toward sorting solid facts from wiffenpoof. But critical thinking skills seem in short supply, or people check them at the door when it comes to cherished beliefs or strong prejudices. A failure of education? I wonder. Rigorous critical thought requires a capacity to hold in doubt any idea you might have about the world. I'm not sure to what extent that capacity can be taught.
Maria Rosales (rosmar) Wed 25 Jun 08 09:50
I enjoyed this book very much. You did a great job with the political psychology, I think, just as in your explanation of why Lou Dobbs panders, but not to the point of doing away with facts altogether. Your explanation of "naive realism" was exactly what I needed in an argument I was having with a friend who is a died-in-the-wool, no-nuances-needed-here empiricist, too, so that you for that. As I read your book, I also found myself wondering how much was new. For example, extreme polarization in views among different racial groups in the U.S. has a long history--along with different sets of "facts." Trust, too, while it used to be more widespread, I bet wasn't if the question were framed in a racial way. If you look at newspaper articles from the first half of the twentieth century, the level of casual propaganda around race, including in papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, is astounding. Do you think it is possible that the issues around which we are "post fact" have shifted somewhat (though I don't mean to sound like we are now "post-racial," because obviously we aren't), but the underlying psychology predates the technological changes you are discussing?
Farhad Manjoo (fmanjoo) Wed 25 Jun 08 10:52
I'm going to tackle Brian's question, which is one I get often. "What about this is actually new? Haven't some people always believed what they want to believe? Nutty beliefs have a long history." I won't argue that isn't so; people have always believed what they want to believe, and nutty beliefs do have a long history. Indeed, that's part of my thesis: A long strain of studies in psychology show that converting beliefs into a kind of "reality" is an irrepressible human tendency. It's innate. But this is new: Technology has made it easier for us to a) find others who believe the same things we do, and, through group deliberation and action, to amplify and project those beliefs, and b) find and pass around purportedly objective, "facty" bits of documentary evidence to "prove" that our version of reality is the real deal. I think an example makes this point best. In May of 2004, a group of Vietnam veterans held a press conference in Washington. Reporters from all over town attended -- the wire services, the networks, the big newspapers. The Vets claimed that John Kerry had acted dishonorably in Iraq. But they presented no evidence, and reporters ignored them. For three months, this group -- the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, of course -- found almost no coverage in the national media. In the past, that would have been the end of it. A group holding no evidence seeking to influence a presidential election would have died for lack of attention. But this group knew it had another avenue. The vets went to right-wing talk radio stations across the country -- hundreds of stations in the biggest markets but also the smallest, where the Vets found an audience that lapped up their claims, an audience sliced according to its ideology, one that didn't require any evidence to believe that Kerry had lied. By winning over the radio audience, the Vets found traction online. Blogs on the right began to discuss their claims, to speak of their claims as fact. They formed a movement: People began passing around Swift Boat videos and documents proving (to them) that Kerry had lied about his time in Vietnam. Cable news networks noticed this movement, as did a few big donors (it's a myth that the Vets were well-funded from the beginning; their early FEC records show they didn't have any money at the start). In August of 2004, three months after they'd held a failed press conference, the Swift Boat Vets went supernova: They bought a few ad timeslots, cable news began to feature them prominently, and then the rest of the media establishment had no choice but to follow. The old media, by the way, was on the whole responsible: Online, in print, and on TV, the AP, the networks, and the big newspapers fact-checked the Swift Boaters very well, debunking most of their claims. But did the facts hurt the story? Not really. By this time, the group had built up a movement that was impervious to facts. Or, better to say this: They had created their own facts. Bob, I see your argument about how "disappearance of the mainstream from American life" is the big story; I think I make much the same argument in the book. But as I see it, it's technology that's responsible for the disappearance of the mainstream (just as it was technology that was responsible for the *appearance* of the mainstream -- radio created the mass audience, and then TV cemented it). My idea, essentially, is this: When Walter Cronkite stepped down, no one replaced him because, over time, technology increasingly allowed us to do more with our time. We've got no one like Walter Cronkite because we can't have one: One person, or one piece of art, can no longer dominate over everything else, because we've got a lot more to choose from. So I'm slightly puzzled by your thoughts on this. If it wasn't new technology that broke up the mainstream, what was it? What do you finger as the primary cause of the end of "the idea that *there was such a thing* as authority"?
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 25 Jun 08 11:24
Bob specified the 1960s as when the mainstream began to disappear; I think he pegs it correctly. The combination of the Vietnam War, which eventually even middle-class parents of draft-age sons began to doubt, followed by Watergate, dissolved the faith of many Americans in the correctness of the federal government. (Not too many years later, Ronald Reagan gained votes by declaring that government was not the solution but the problem.) I think the civil rights movement figures in this too: watching demonstrators literally hosed or being bit by ferocious dogs sicc'd on them by police eroded many peoples' faith that cops are always the good guys. By the time the Nixon Administration was over, doubt was America's national faith.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 25 Jun 08 12:57
Great discussion! I'm particularly interested in this assertion that, as a result of the social/cultural turmoil of the 1960's, the mainstream of American life "disappeared." Certainly, the Eisenhower Zeitgeist, as the definition of mainstreamwith three TV networks, Judeo-Christian conformist religion, Cold War binary thinking, self-medicating through cocktails and prescription drugs, Science&Technology as the inviolable God of progresswas turned on its head. The mainstream grand "narrative" of 1962 was radically different than the "petit recit" or more fragmented small "narratives" that guide us in 2008. In dialectic terms, the mainstream "thesis" of the Eisenhower Zeitgeist was negated by the "antithesis" of the counterculture with its anti-mainstream, anti-authority, anti-establishment counter-narrative espousing peace, love, and an alternative society. What resulted was neither the creation of this alternative society, nor the victory of the mainstream culture over the counterculture, but a synthesis that has come to be described, for lack of a better term, as postmodernity or postmodern culture. I look at this through the evolution of literature in my book, The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture which was discussed in Inkwell.vue a little over a year ago. I sense that it is a mistake to suggest that there is no longer a mainstream. Rather, as you aptly suggest, the amount and modes of information dissemination are much more fragmented. Also, as part of the dialectic cultural synthesis, contemporary American society is both more authoritarian AND more hip than the Eisenhowerian mainstream of the early '60s. In literature, the '60s ushered in greater diversity of literary forms, ranging from the seminally postmodern juxtapositional and fragmented narrative of Richard Brautigan's "Trout Fishing in America," to the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, which were radical in terms of old school journalism, much more intersubjective, but highly conventional in their use of traditional literary techniques of realism. Neither did conventional fictional narrative disappear either. I mention this because, despite, the seeming disappearance of the mainstream and what we face with information overload (Toffler's term from "Future Shock"), and the irrationality and packaging of public discourse, there is, in fact, a postmodern mainstream. For example, last weekend I went to a RatDog concert, the group led by Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead). It was hip; the hippie/neo-hippie/countercultural presence in the crowd was obvious. Yet, the authoritarian mainstream presence was far more palpable than at any concert I attended in the '70s. The security presence was tenfold what it used to be. This is certainly a mainstream policing behavior. They search your backpack before allowing you inside, even though in this City, for this Concert, there was no sense that people were being shaken down for contraband. Again, a more hip/more authoritarian dynamic. This derivative group of one of the "hippiest" bands of all, had its own booth of consumer wares in the hall, and, more significantly, Bob Weir's last words after the encore was to "be sure and vote. Go to the HeadCount Booth outside and register. We need to win back our democracy." The old hippie and leader of the band was giving the audience a work-within-the-system-to-affect-change narrative. Such is the new way of our postmodern synthesized mainstream. FWIW, I guess I'm challenging your critical thinking on this idea that the Mainstream has disappeared. ;=)
Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 25 Jun 08 12:58
i feel there is some cheap ironic snark to be made about this <inkwell.vue> topic/author following so closely on the heels of inkwell 328 book/author. but i am too stupefied by wildfire smoke to unpack the thot...
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Wed 25 Jun 08 13:13
That fits my memories of the era perfectly. Born in 1945, I became world- aware at a time when the US government had beaten back the Depression and two actually evil empires. When I hit college, in 64, my attitude, and that of everybody I knew, was that we were the good guys, we could do no worng, and our government just wouldn't do the kinds of things I later found out we did do. Steve makes an interesting point of the government's credibility get slammed as a one-two punch, first by the left over the war, and then by right by way of Reagan's repackaging of Goldwater. Goldwater was just a bit too early. The government had to make its dishonesty and incompetence inescapable before that kind of thought found fertile ground in the mainstream.
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Wed 25 Jun 08 13:14
2 slips. I was responding to Steve's #15
Robert C. Flink (robertflink) Wed 25 Jun 08 14:53
Credo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Wed 25 Jun 08 14:55
Before technologies were available to bond the alternative history types to one another, we may have had a stronger "prevailing orthodoxy". That said, is there evidence that the custodians of the orthodox of yore were in some way more "right"? Careful now, let's not cherry pick the past as those alternative world types do. BTW, a case can probably be made for the value of a widely-accepted world view even if it has significant errors.
Public persona (jmcarlin) Wed 25 Jun 08 16:51
I think it's fair to say that technology has changed how this manifests, but the 'big lie' technique was defined by Hitler. It's true the Swift Boat Veterans used the new medium for an old purpose. So superficially I could argue that your thesis over-reaches. But I think there's another level. Part of your thesis as I understand it is the lack of trusted voices of consensus and that is certainly true. Add to that the firehose of multiple channels of information of various kinds and it's much easier for someone to confirm their preconceptions. I also think that being exposed to the scientific process blurs the line between truth and opinion. For just one example, I just read a Discover Magazine article decrying the lack of quality in medical research. In the past decade medical "facts" have often been reversed by a subsequent discovery. So how is someone to know whether or not to give credence to anything that is reported?
phil (philg25) Wed 25 Jun 08 19:38
I thoroughly enjoyed your book and I celebrate your clear illustration that Truth is not as apparent as we would lead ourselves to believe. The degree to which some would use our subjectivity against us has grown and I believe it is as insidious now as any time in recent history. History - a "Truth" diluted by time and points of view - is truly "his story". Your book suggests what others have asserted, myself included, that Truth is often subjective and frequently unobtainable. What I find saddest is the gross abuse of subjectivity by agents of politics and Madison Avenue. As others have discussed, our society divided over what and who we believed in the Sixties. Our loss of faith in authority was genuine and apparently well deserved. What we are experiencing now eclipses anything I have ever seen before. The lies and carefully engineered cover-ups have grown larger and more complete in an era when we have greater access to information than ever before. Our willingness to swallow what we think we want to hear I believe only goes to show how helpless and utterly inundated the average individual feels. I know I no longer watch any news programs or read any newspapers. I don't want to have to work that hard filtering out all the garbage just to get to the crux a story so I can do all the necessary research myself. I fear many have chosen the Peace that I have and where the leaves us. The question I have is, now what? How can we best battle the false sources other than maintain a jaundiced eye and an inability to believe anything. I try to personally research anything important to me, but you know as well as I we can never cover all the bases. And with the emerging technologies, it is only getting worse - more sources, more opportunities for twisting "facts" to suit one's agenda. I appreciate your work and the effort you appear to have put into it. At least we can acknowledge as a community what many of us have felt as individuals.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 25 Jun 08 21:48
Very eloquently stated <philg25>. Isn't this the postmodern ennui that most of us feel? (That info-inundation and manipulation of desired threads is our plutocracy and globalized consumerism at work. With fragmentation and pseudo-democratic access to information, that underlying control IS the "new" mainstream).
phil (philg25) Wed 25 Jun 08 22:52
Thank you and, to answer your question - no and yes. No, I don't believe this is primarily related to post-modern ennui. I don't doubt there is some relationship, but there is a difference of the loss of faith of the Boomers as opposed to the post-modern ennui of the D and X generations (and beyond). Their sense of boredom or disinterest is the very reasonable response to a world they see as already corrupted by their predecessors - me and mine . . . Whereas, my generation - the Boomers - find our dissatisfaction from having a belief system, a sense of worth and hope, and losing it to an overriding reality that we apparently were ultimately unable to conquer. The Greed was greater than we were. The contemporary generations are so much more rational and realistic having seen our successes and ultimate failures. I perceive them as having a much better grasp of the depth of egregious greed and corruption of our establishment, our nation and, perhaps, our society. Which leads us to Yes . . . The info-inundation and info manipulation is the "communication" arm of our plutocracy. Joseph Goebbels could not be prouder. A new mainstream indeed - unfortunately you are all too accurate in your description of "fragmentation and pseudo-democratic access to information" and I'm afraid the "pseudo-democratic" goes beyond our access to information and directly to our political process. We no longer can fully believe on the very process itself. Globally, America has defined itself and the world perceives us as what we are. And as we all know we are defined by what we do. What we say and what we do no longer bear any resemblance to the America the Boomer and previous generations grew up envisioning. America today doesn't begin to compare to the vision defined by our Forefathers. I try not to be too negative in the way I see things - my own self-editing and subjectivity. I only wish I could convince myself.
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