Strange Loops - Blog Archive: January 2004
Strange Loops Journal Archive: January 2004

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Buy Open
January 31, 2004

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing writes about Digital Rights Management schemes. "If you buy Apple Music or if you buy Microsoft Music, you're screwed if you want to do something with that music that Apple or Microsoft doesn't like."

Unfortunately, DRM will very soon extend far beyond just music. See: EPIC's DRM page and the Trusted Computing FAQ.

Imagine a world where none of your possessions are owned by you - rather they are leased from a company which owns all of your stuff and only allows you to have it at a reasonable fee and assuming you only use it how they want you to use it. Don't wear that Nike shirt inside out or it will self-destruct...

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Systems Thinking: Operation Cat Drop and Chaotic Kindness
January 31, 2004
Back in the fifties, people in a region of Borneo were having trouble with malaria. In an effort to save lives, the World Health Organization decided to intervene by drastically reducing the mosquito population (mosquitoes being carriers of malaria). To do so, they sprayed the insecticide DDT all over the area, killing many mosquitoes and significantly reducing the incidence of malaria.

However, the World Health Organization failed to appreciate the full scope of their actions. DDT not only successfully killed mosquitoes - it also attacked a parasitic wasp population. These wasps, it turned out, had kept in check a population of thatch-eating caterpillars. So with the accidental removal of the wasps, the caterpillars flourished, and soon building roofs started falling in all over the place.

As if that was not enough the insects, poisoned by DDT, were consumed by geckoes. The biological half-life of DDT is around 8-years, so animals like geckoes do not metabolize it very fast, and it stays in their system for a long time. Those geckoes, carrying the DDT poison, were in turn hunted and eaten by the cat population. With far less cats, rats took over and multiplied, and this in turn led to outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague (which are passed on by rats).

By now the cure had become worse than the initial disease, so the World Health Organization did what any self-respecting world health organization would do: they parachuted 14,000 live cats into Borneo. The event was known as Operation Cat Drop.

The WHO had failed to consider the full implications of their actions on the delicate ecology of the region. Because they lacked understanding of the basic effects of DDT (now banned in the United States), such as a long half-life that allows spreading through levels of consumption, and the relationships among the animals of the area, they ended up making things worse rather than better - and a high cost was paid for this mistake.

By considering only the straightforward, first-level relationship between mosquitoes as carriers of malaria and humans as recipients of malaria, the WHO unrealistically assumed that this relationship could be investigated or acted upon independently of any other variables or relationships. They considered one tiny aspect of the system, rather than the entire thing (the entire ecology).

The results of their actions demonstrate the incredible importance of whole-systems thinking. In the real world, as opposed to the drawing boards at a WHO meeting, one relationship strand (e.g. mosquito-human) cannot be separated from the rest of the system. All of the parts are intricately tied together in a complex fabric of inter-relatedness, and tugging on one string of that fabric can pull at other parts which may not at first glance appear at all connected to the point of action. While the WHO was certainly doing their best to help people in a crisis, and things worked themselves back into balance in the end, the drastic counter-measures necessary to re-achieve basic stability demonstrate the necessity of viewing our world in its own holistic terms rather than simplistic theorizing that tries to separate easily manipulated variables in tweakable relationships.

The same idea can be applied to all areas of life. Everything is inter-related, and changes which are seemingly narrow in scope can set off a domino effect that reaches much wider than ever anticipated. A butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could set off a chain-reaction that eventually effects the weather patterns across the entire Earth.

The chaotic nature of change (narrow scope to wide scope) does not by any means imply that everything is out of our control and that we should not bother trying to take any actions at all. Rather, adopting a whole-systems paradigm should allow us to realize not our impotence, but instead our power. Like a butterfly affecting weather, a friendly smile towards a stranger can brighten that person's day just a little bit, leading them to perform some act of compassion which they otherwise might not have, in turn inspiring others to act different than they would have before. A small act of kindness could literally change the world, even if the person performing it could never track the unimaginably complex effects of that little action across the entire human realm.

Remember, we are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter, because we're so deeply interconnected with one another. Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is the supreme creative act.
--Ram Dass

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False Security and Liberty
January 31, 2004
Bruce Schneier of Counterpane reacts to last week's Supreme Court decision to let stand the Justice Department's ability to secretly arrest non-citizen residents. Excerpt:

Security is a trade-off. It makes no sense to ask whether a particular security system is effective or not--otherwise you'd all be wearing bulletproof vests and staying immured in your home. The proper question to ask is whether the trade-off is worth it. Is the level of security gained worth the costs, whether in money, in liberties, in privacy or in convenience?...For most of us, bulletproof vests are not worth the cost and inconvenience. For some of us, home burglar alarm systems are. And most of us lock our doors at night.

...Terrorism is no different. We need to weigh each security countermeasure. Is the additional security against the risks worth the costs? Are there smarter things we can be spending our money on? How does the risk of terrorism compare with the risks in other aspects of our lives: automobile accidents, domestic violence, industrial pollution, and so on? Are there costs that are just too expensive for us to bear?

...Unfortunately, it's rare to hear this level of informed debate...Rarely do we discuss how little identification has to do with security, and how broad surveillance of everyone doesn't really prevent terrorism. And where's the debate about what's more important: the freedoms and liberties that have made America great or some temporary security?

He makes some good points. Since Sept. of 2001, numerous checks on law enforcement power and abuse have been diluted or removed (take the PATRIOT Act's dismissal of checks on the use of FISA authority). These specific changes are supported by a reactionary Congress and populace, but they are grown and incubated in the law enforcement agencies themselves. Note, for example, how quickly the huge PATRIOT Act was introduced to Congress in 2001, despite the lengthy legal research that would be necessary for an act which revises so many important federal statutes - obviously Ashcroft had already prepared a bill requesting these powers before the events of September.

As Schneier points out, the Justice Department and FBI have a job to do, and their primary goal is an offensive one; concerns about privacy or balance or not hurting innocents are low on the list of priorities and exist mainly due to legislated checks on law enforcement power. We should expect them to demand all the power they can get, and to use any powers they are granted to the full extent possible (again, consider Ashcroft's use of the PATRIOT Act in non-terrorism cases much more often than for the intended counter-terrorism purposes). It is our job as citizens (and our legislators' jobs as representatives) to restrict the power of law enforcement, else the law enforcement agencies will by default continue seeking power until a police state is achieved.

Perhaps the problem is the fundamental governmental paradigm at work today. These days, it is in practice assumed by law enforcement agencies (the executive arm of the government - which is to say the part which enforces laws) that they are allowed to do anything not expressly forbidden by the law. This is in striking contrast to the view of many of the founders of America who were initially against adding a bill of rights to the Constitution - not because they were not interested in protecting liberty, but because they assumed by default that the government established by the Constitution would have only those powers explicitly granted to it (as opposed to assuming any and all powers not explicitly forbidden).

The bill of rights ended up being added because the ever-prescient founders realized that the nature of government is to grab whatever power it can and always extend the use of whatever powers it is given (i.e. function creep). The founders realized that they needed to be extremely clear and explicit about certain things the government is not allowed to do. Had the first amendment not been included, the government might have assumed the power to censor the press by default, might have assumed the power to curtail assembly and quiet free speech.

Perhaps it is time we remind ourselves the importance of placing checks on government. The founders established our federal system (balance between national and state governments) with three separate branches (legislative, executive and judicial) because they had learned from the past what happens when no balance is designed into a government; they had seen the results of unchecked authoritarianism. Rather than viewing limits on law enforcement as keeping those agencies from protecting us from the exaggerated dangers of terrorism, we need to remember that those limits are there to protect us from the abuses our own government.

This is especially important when one realizes how ineffective most of these security measures are for their intended purpose, and how successful they are at expanding the scope of governmental authority in our lives. We may not live under a police state today, thank Madison, but if we are not vigilant we may live under one in the future.

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New Font Face
January 30, 2004
A reader has requested switching the font to Arial to make it easier to read on a computer screen, so I'm going to try it out here on the blog page for a while. Let me know if it is easier or harder to read, and if there are any display problems. If people like it better, I'll convert the rest of the site over to Arial as well.

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On Not Voting
January 23, 2004
Government cannot exist without the tacit consent of the populace. This consent is maintained by keeping people in ignorance of their real power. Voting is not an expression of power, but an admission of powerlessness, since it cannot do otherwise than reaffirm the government's supposed legitimacy.
--Fred Woodworth
I do not vote. This is why:

Reason I
Votes held almost everywhere in the U.S. today are winner-take-all affairs. What this means is that whichever side gets the majority of the vote wins and wins completely. The losing side gets nothing, even if it is a significant chunk of the population (over forty-nine percent, for instance). This leads to a tyranny of the majority wherein those with unpopular views (or not-quite-popular-enough views) get virtually ignored with respect to the result of the vote.

It also means that if one side (even the 'bad side', as it were) manages to rally a majority of the public to their cause on flimsy grounds (say by using emotive euphemisms or lying), that result will go through regardless. Thus voting results (1) often fail to represent a large amount of the population, and (2) are won through popularity contests rather than because one side is innately better. From (2), we see that the debate about a vote (and thus its result) is likely to revolve around shallow issues which affect popularity rather than establish an even forum to give all sides a fair and balanced airing so that voters can choose among them responsibly (still as a majority, of course). Voting in the U.S. today rides on the shallow tyranny of the majority, and so I choose not to vote1.

Reason II:
Vote fraud renders the entire voting process a joke, and the chance of vote fraud in government elections in the U.S. right now is significant. Specifically, changing over to vulnerable electronic voting systems with untested, trade-secret source code (programmed by corporations with political connections) has left the possibility wide open for unprecedented vote fraud. For examples from recent news, check out the stories of easily tampered Diebold voting systems (with no paper trail to audit), easily tampered net voting systems (developed by the Pentagon, shredded by independent security analysis), and evidence of a willingness on the part of political parties to illegally exploit technological security flaws to benefit the party.

Additionally, related to Reason III below, any instance of fraud which is not discovered and corrected leaves the defrauded voters with the mistaken assumption that they are submitting themselves to the result of a 'fair vote' - which is not necessarily to say a fair vote, but one which follows the expected rules, such as one vote per person and every valid vote counted - and so there is a significant chance that those who vote are not just accepting the authority of the voting system, but are unintentionally accepting the usurped authority granted to the fraudulent results. Voting results are easily tampered with, and so I choose not to vote.

Reason III:
Among a group of friends trying to decide where to eat dinner, an informal vote is used when no consensus can be reached. The assumption behind such a vote is that those who lose are agreeing to go along with the decision regardless; they are implicitly submitting to the authority of the vote. Unfortunately, it follows that those with unpopular tastes lose out, over and over, to those with the more popular menu choices.

Now, among a group of friends, the vote winners will often take up the suggestion of the loser once in a while to keep things less unfair. However, in government elections there is no such hope for those who lose. If a person registers their vote, if they contribute their opinion, and it just does not fit the popular one, then their vote - their opinion - is inefficacious, worthless. At the same time, by participating in the system, the person has at least symbolically granted it legitimacy for himself or herself, agreeing to go along with the decision regardless.

To register a vote is to say that one accepts the authority of the vote-system - not just any outcome, but every outcome, every possible outcome. I do not wish to accept that authority, and so I choose not to vote.

Corollary To Reason III:
People who vote are less likely to attempt deeper change in the system. Even if an individual person's vote does have a significant effect on the results, the change to the system coming through voting is likely to be relatively small reform within the system. Those who seek larger changes to the system itself are not likely to find results through voting; yet by voting, they may feel they have made progress when no real progress has been made (with respect to change at the level of the system itself).

More generally, if a person's vote does not have a significant effect, voting gives a false sense of having done something, of having made progress. People come home from the voting booths feeling they have taken action toward their desired goals. Yet if, as will be argued below, an individual's vote has no significant effect, and yet people think it does, then significant change is less likely to occur because people feel less need to act in other ways if they feel they have already 'done their part' merely by registering a vote.

Put another way, people who submit to the voting system are likely to blame bad results on other voters, rather than the underlying system. This transference of blame discourages reform at the level of the system itself.

Reason IV:
At the lower, local levels of government, where small numbers of voters are involved, a single vote may occasionally - thought still rarely - make the difference between one outcome and another. The higher a person goes, however, the less chance that any one person's vote (say, the vote of someone who would not have voted otherwise) would make any difference at all. Certainly at the level of national elections in the U.S. today, the chance of one person's vote making the difference in any given state is so close to zero that the difference between it and zero is negligible.

I invite historical statistics to the contrary, keeping in mind, e.g., the distinction between one electoral vote and one citizen vote. Even if there is such a case, I would be interested in whether there was any evidence that any single additional vote would not have gone to the side that was already in the lead rather than the side one vote behind; which is to say, even if there have been rare historical instances of one-vote leads, there also needs to be reason to think that the non-voters would have voted for the losing side rather than splitting evenly or voting for the winner (which they would be likely to do if they were representative of the voting population at large). Without such evidence, even historical instances of one-vote leads (which are rare enough to work for the argument in general anyway) would not undercut this argument.

Given the above, there is little reason for a person to place their own vote. Much more effective in practice (assuming the outcome of the vote mattered, I should add) would be to take the time to campaign for one's cause, which is to say convince a number of other people who would have not voted (or voted differently) to vote in the desired way. The idea here is not that the small number of people so swayed would make much more difference than an individual vote, but that they would likely start off a chain reaction that leads to a much more significant effect.

For example, if one convinces twenty people to vote for cause Y (and none of them were already going to do so anyway), then perhaps two of those twenty will go on to campaign in a similar manner, bringing in another twenty each. Two of those new groups of twenty (so four new people) might then go on to recruit twenty votes each, and so on in a process that repeats itself for a while. If a person could reach the critical mass required to start such a chain reaction, the chance of affecting the outcome of the vote is drastically increased. Whether a successful vote (that is, one in the campaigner's favor) leads to significant worthwhile change is up in the air - see Corollary To Reason III - but it is reasonable to assume that it could at least have some positive effect. Campaigning may change the outcome of a vote, but registering a vote one's self has no significant effect, and so I choose not to vote.

Corollary To Reason IV:
However, for every person who campaigns for cause Y, there is a good chance another person will campaign for cause Z, where Y and Z are mutually exclusive. All else being equal, this effect cancels out the efficacy of even campaigning for others to vote, since for every number of people N swayed to any side, the same number will on average be swayed to the opposing side.

Follow-up: Emergence
However, all else is not necessarily equal, so campaigning will sometimes be effective. For example, if those campaigning for cause Z have already swayed all the voters who are likely to be swayed by their campaigning, while many more people would still be open to the arguments of those campaigning for cause Y, then campaigning for cause Y could actually change the results of the vote.

However, there is a question for me at least of whether the results of a vote can ever actually lead to more than moderate change either way. I submit that this is unlikely, and related to Reason III's corollary above, even if such change can occur as a result of voting, I suspect it is less likely when people are involved in voting. That is because if they continually see small changes (or for that matter, think they 'have a say in' those small changes simply by voting, even if the vote for change fails), they are less likely to be pushed over the edge necessary to seek larger changes, through any means, vote or otherwise. And certainly votes that take place - not to mention those that actually win - are much more likely to involve small changes than big (since stable politics is inherently conservative, and so less radical changes are much easier to push through).

There is a much more important point to be addressed, though. At the very best, campaigning to win a vote is likely to involve changing a voter's mind on that one issue (or for that one candidate). What would be better, I think, is an attempt to change the way people think in a more general way. What I mean is that convincing a majority to vote for party X in 2004 using arguments based mainly around the 2004 vote means that when 2008 (or 2032) comes around, voters may not stick with party X. That is because they have been persuaded that in 2004 party X best represents their values, rather than being persuaded to change their values themselves to those of party X (assuming party X's values are the best ones to the campaigner in question). The same point can be generalized beyond party politics, of course.

So especially if one is seeking a radical change to the larger system (as opposed to minor or moderate reform within the system), campaigning for a given vote-result will pay off only with short-term results, not long-term ones. If a person really wants change, it seems much more effective in the long-run to worry less about campaigning others to vote their way at some particular vote (or even run of votes, given the two-party lock in the U.S. right now) and more about campaigning others to think their way, to share their values. This might in turn result in the swayed people voting the desired way in any particular vote.

However, if a person's values are even more general - say simply to think critically - then even though the result might end up with the swayed people voting against the original campaigner's opinion in any particular vote, the campaigner can at least rest easy in the knowledge that other people are more likely to vote critically and intelligently than they would have otherwise. This, in turn, seems to be the most reasonable goal for any campaigner who is humble enough to recognize the fallibility of their own opinions and would rather have the critical input of others - even if they disagree - than to have other people merely switch to their side blindly.

When you change the way a person thinks, you change the rules acting at the lowest level (individual) which dictate the results at the higher levels (society, humanity). Rather than lobbying for change from the top-down (that is, trying to sway individual votes at the societal level), I suggest it is much more worthwhile to aim for a bottom-up strategy (that is, trying to sway a critical mass of individuals to play the game differently) and count on changes to continually seep upward and naturally emerge at the top levels.

The most important vote of all is how we choose to live our own lives.
--Strange Loops
1 Footnote: So what about tweaking the type of vote system used? Say in an election a 51%/49% result gives the losing side 49% of the seats of representation? Well, even assuming that this is a significant improvement (and that there are not deeper problems which this does not address), how would votes about issues be handled? How can 49% be given their say on, e.g., an initiative to ban or allow abortions? Ideally, if almost half of the population disagrees with the outcome, that outcome should not go through. Perhaps in small groups people can keep discussing an issue until a compromise is reached which everyone can agree to (e.g., the !Kung have no formal authority figure or chief, but govern themselves by group consensus; disputes are resolved through lengthy discussions where all involved have a chance to make their thoughts heard until some agreement is reached). However, in a modern system involving so many people, especially with the polarization of voters who are used to winning or losing (rather than compromising), there does not seem to be an effective way to do this, so such a simple reform will not work for all voting. Whether a more complex change in voting procedures could fix some major problems, I do not know, but there are problems which I suspect no voting system can fix (see Reason II and Reason III above).

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Reprogramming By Sitting Still
January 21, 2004
Check out this wonderful excerpt by Colin Wilson. It is short but profound.

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Quarantining Dissent
January 19, 2004
The following are excerpts from a great piece by James Bovard from the 01-04-04 San Francisco Chronicle. For the full article, go here.

The Problem

When President Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up "free speech zones" or "protest zones," where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.

When Bush went to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, "The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us."...At Neel's trial, police Detective John Ianachione testified that the Secret Service told local police to confine "people that were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views" in a so-called free-speech area.

... A recent St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, "At a Bush rally at Legends Field in 2001, three demonstrators -- two of whom were grandmothers -- were arrested for holding up small handwritten protest signs outside the designated zone. And last year, seven protesters were arrested when Bush came to a rally at the USF Sun Dome. They had refused to be cordoned off into a protest zone hundreds of yards from the entrance to the Dome."

... The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey, who was arrested for holding a "No War for Oil" sign at a Bush visit to Columbia, S.C. Local police, acting under Secret Service orders, established a "free-speech zone" half a mile from where Bush would speak. Bursey was standing amid hundreds of people carrying signs praising the president. Police told Bursey to remove himself to the "free-speech zone." Bursey refused and was arrested. Bursey said that he asked the police officer if "it was the content of my sign, and he said, 'Yes, sir, it's the content of your sign that's the problem.' "

The Excuses

The feds have offered some bizarre rationales for hog-tying protesters. Secret Service agent Brian Marr explained to National Public Radio, "These individuals may be so involved with trying to shout their support or nonsupport that inadvertently they may walk out into the motorcade route and be injured. And that is really the reason why we set these places up, so we can make sure that they have the right of free speech, but, two, we want to be sure that they are able to go home at the end of the evening and not be injured in any way."

... Attempts to suppress protesters become more disturbing in light of the Homeland Security Department's recommendation that local police departments view critics of the war on terrorism as potential terrorists. In a May terrorist advisory, the Homeland Security Department warned local law enforcement agencies to keep an eye on anyone who "expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government." If police vigorously followed this advice, millions of Americans could be added to the official lists of suspected terrorists.

... One of the most violent government responses to an antiwar protest occurred when local police and the federally funded California Anti-Terrorism Task Force fired rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders at the Port of Oakland, injuring a number of people.

When the police attack sparked a geyser of media criticism, Mike van Winkle, the spokesman for the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center told the Oakland Tribune, "You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest. You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act."

Van Winkle justified classifying protesters as terrorists: "I've heard terrorism described as anything that is violent or has an economic impact, and shutting down a port certainly would have some economic impact. Terrorism isn't just bombs going off and killing people."

Such aggressive tactics become more ominous in the light of the Bush administration's advocacy, in its Patriot II draft legislation, of nullifying all judicial consent decrees restricting state and local police from spying on those groups who may oppose government policies.

On May 30, 2002, Ashcroft effectively abolished restrictions on FBI surveillance of Americans' everyday lives first imposed in 1976. One FBI internal newsletter encouraged FBI agents to conduct more interviews with antiwar activists "for plenty of reasons, chief of which it will enhance the paranoia endemic in such circles and will further service to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

The FBI took a shotgun approach toward protesters partly because of the FBI's "belief that dissident speech and association should be prevented because they were incipient steps toward the possible ultimate commission of act which might be criminal," according to a Senate report.

On Nov. 23 news broke that the FBI is actively conducting surveillance of antiwar demonstrators, supposedly to "blunt potential violence by extremist elements," according to a Reuters interview with a federal law enforcement official. Given the FBI's expansive definition of "potential violence" in the past, this is a net that could catch almost any group or individual who falls into official disfavor.

The Irony

Such unprecedented restrictions did not inhibit Bush from portraying himself as a champion of freedom during his visit. In a speech at Whitehall on Nov. 19, Bush hyped the "forward strategy of freedom" and declared, "We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings."

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Forrest Gump and Television News
January 18, 2004
In the movie Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks' character meets John F. Kennedy. The shot is an actual shot of Kennedy, not an actor portraying him, but Hanks never actually shook hands with J.F.K. The effect is achieved through modern film editing techniques, but it looks quite real. In fact, today well-budgeted Hollywood companies can use computers to produce scenes that look completely real, but are in fact not at all what they seem. Before long, it will likely be possible for any talented user to achieve similar results on their home P.C. (like Photoshopping seen on the internet today, but perfected and applied to video).

In the short future, when it becomes so easy to make the fake look real, on what basis can and should we trust what we see on television news? We no longer can judge events for ourselves based on seeing video evidence, for the evidence itself - the actual visual input - might be completely constructed, or more likely subtly altered. Do we then simply choose the media outfit which proclaims that it will not use such tricks? Certainly their claims cannot always be taken at face value. Maybe we choose based on our assessment of the people involved in bringing us the news? Yet the viewer only ever sees the anchors and reporters who present the stories, and studies have shown that peoples' trust in news presenters is strongly affected by such factors as how good-looking the presenter is.

At some point, it is more work for the viewer to track down whether stories are trustworthy than people are willing to put in. Will this lead to widespread cynicism, or will the result more likely be that the vast majority of the audience just automatically accepts whatever comes from the news (even if it is doctored)? Maybe this is analogous to newspapers, where the text is largely just assumed to be accurate (despite the occasional hoax reporter being found out). Presumably the newspaper industry is open and competitive enough to keep the most blatant errors of fact (or outright lies of fact) from standing forever, but are these forces enough to really control general abuse of the system in the long run, especially when applied to the new medium of television?

I suppose the more realistic question is not whether people in the news industry would knowingly present false or altered video, but whether they would unknowingly pass it on. To take an example, look at the current controversy over every new piece of audio or video involving Osama bin Laden. Sometimes there are tapes which are aired on Arab television, and brought (in part or whole) over here, where debate then ensues whether it is really Osama bin Laden, or a fake of some sort.

Other times, the U.S. military presents a tape which they claim was found in the raided house of some terrorist. The military certainly has technology matching that of a Hollywood film studio, so it is not hard to imagine that if they found it in their best interest to deceive people with a fake video, they could do so. When the information being broadcast to the national viewing audience is ultimately coming directly from the hands of the military, with no real option for independent verification (as there is for, say, a simplistic "Wag The Dog" invented war story, which independent or foreign reporters could disprove by visiting the sites in question), one is left simply assuming the trustworthiness of the military (which, history shows, does not have an impeccable record) or else questioning the veracity of every claim made and ending up looking like a crazy conspiracy theorist.

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Television and the Hive Mind
January 18, 2004
Here is an essay by Mack White on how television could be (is being?) used as a tool by governments to control the population by getting them to think, react and feel largely as one. Ultimately, he argues, something like a contrived extraterrestrial threat hoax (think of the reaction to Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast) could be used by governments to get the masses to join together under some common cause - specifically, some government (i.e. a New World Order sort of thing).

While this is veering off into conspiracy theory territory, which people often do not take seriously simply because of connotations with the silliest of conspiracy theories, White has an interesting point. Compare such a hypothetical scenario to the very real U.S. reaction to the threat of terrorism following September, 2001. For a while at least (and to a large extent, still today and to come), the citizens of the U.S. almost as one rallied around President Bush, and soon after our military as they headed off to Afghanistan. Further back in history, Hitler used the Reichstag fire (presumably set as a hoax by the Nazis themselves) to get the German people to come together as one to support him as protector from the threat (suspending liberties while passing the Enabling Act that made Hitler dictator).

Whether the threat is real or manufactured, it is surely clear to governments today that the proper scare can get great numbers of people to largely think as one and to come together and support that which appears to be the "good guy" opposing the threat. While this picture may be oversimplified (there were still a small percentage of people who remained skeptical and reacted differently than expected in the aforementioned examples), it is clear that this is a very real effect, and White's argument that television makes the effect more easy and powerful is plausible.

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Two Mass Media Paradigms
January 17, 2004
The mass media, for example television, presents the audience with things such as news, entertainment or educational information, and they make money by putting advertisements in between the 'normal' content (commercials on television, print ads in newspapers, and so forth). Someone recently pointed out to me two different ways to take in this situation:

  • Paradigm 1: The mass media is selling goods. The content is there to attract the most viewers so that the advertisers hawking their wares will pay the most money to show their product to the most people.

  • Paradigm 2: The mass media is selling audience. The content is there to attract the most viewers so that the media can sell those viewers' time and attention to the advertisers hawking their wares.

    Which paradigm do you watch television or read the news under, when you are skipping past the ads to get at the content? Are cola, cars and camcorders the product being sold, or are you the product being sold? Does coming to these media under a different paradigm make the experience of consuming those media different? Try it out and see.

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  • Aimless Wandering
    January 17, 2004
    On a note generally unrelated to the last entry, I have added an article by Hakim Bey to the philosophy section. Check out Aimless Wandering: Chuang Tzu's Chaos Linguistics for some thoughts on language as Taoist Chuang Tzu sees it. It is a playful account of word-meaning, where rather than fixed meanings or no meanings, words are constantly and spontaneously overflowing with meanings. Words are not to be confused with their referents, but neither are words simply signs pointing to some fixed referent either. They are both active and inactive, they are pregnant in the same way chaos is. It is a very cool read, like most of Bey's stuff.

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    The Basics of the Language of Chaos
    January 17, 2004
    Emlyn Shannon has written an imaginative and thoughtful article on how entities in a realm of pure chaos would communicate. It is written from an in-character perspective in the role-playing world of Planescape (think Dungeons and Dragons, but on a grand, universal scale where there are countless planes of existence, some good, some evil, some orderly, some chaotic, etc.), as a fictional academic paper analyzing the supposed language used by the inhabitants of Limbo, the plane of pure chaos. Shannon, or rather Shannon's character, applies basic Set Theory (and Unset Theory) to try to understand this perplexing problem, and the result is both well written and thought-provoking. No familiarity with the Planescape universe is necessary. [via J. Orlin Grabbe for the link]

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