Misinformation Rules Cyberspace

While I was struggling to find out who had won the California Primary, it dawned on me that the sources of information I was consulting were often contradicting each other. In one report, Hillary had won, in the other, Bernie had won by a landslide, in another, the ballots were still being counted, in another, several ballots had been intentionally spoiled or withheld. The official news agencies were supposed to be suppressing and playing up Hillary, so we were advised not to trust Big Media. Finally, I gave up in frustration and posted a question on Facebook to my friends, requesting a credible source, and I was pointed to the Secretary of State’s website. But given the mud-slinging going on between the Democrats and the Republicans, I wondered whether this source too was a trustworthy one. Suddenly, I awoke to the frightening reality: Might is Right. Those who control the levers of power shape the narrative, and those who don’t, muddle it.

That this US election has been the dirtiest in living history is in no doubt. Elections, not only in America, have been getting dirtier over time, and the attack ad is now the weapon of mass destruction, the easiest to mobilize, and the most potent one that ensures decimation of the opponent. The philosophy is, “If I destroy the opposition, then weak old me will win.” Gone are platform positioning, and policy outlining; those strategies are not revealed for fear that the attack ad will be turned onto them in a flash, rendering them into flames. Then there are those “news agencies” that have sprung up on the web, some with names that resemble official news sites. Sometimes their bad grammar and poor proofing give them away, but given the shrinking fortunes of the official news media that has also suffered poor editorial copy as a consequence, both sources look pretty similar. Another give-away of the fake source is the abundance of ads and cookies that take over your screen and never let go the moment you click on its news pages. There will also be follow-up news items appended below the main article (after you have clicked through several scantily text-populated pages) that are sure to contain pictures of voluptuous women and virile men, with headlines such as “Lose 50 pounds in two days,” or “How to sculpt the perfect body,” or “How to drive your partner mad in bed.” But aren’t all these gimmicks copied from the traditional magazine circuit that pioneered the titillating headline?

Everyone is a journalist today, mashing-up news from unreliable sources, choosing them for sensationalist value, photo-shopping pictures to distort reality, pledging allegiance to one party or the other (even being in their employ) and flooding cyberspace with contradictory information. Is this responsible curation? Is this unraveling the truth? Who does one believe? Do we become cynical instead and treat these stories as entertainment only, and thereby perpetuate the myth that politics is show-biz, and thus, as voters, face the difficult choice of either watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones or going out to vote on election day? Which “entertainment” do we pick? Is this cynicism-leading-to-apathy what caused the shock when Brexit actually happened?

We created this Misinformation Monster due to several confluences: Big Media sold out to corporations with vested interests, cyberspace was “occupied” by a few big players like Google and Facebook, politicians yielded to lobby groups that funded them. And Joe Blow citizen decided to become a journalist and add to the Babel of news that no one believes. And search engines don’t give a hoot about credibility, for their search and display algorithms don’t include a lie detector.

Welcome to the new world of (mis)information. I don’t have any solutions. But I have a wish that investigative journalists continue to be retained by news organizations, with the freedom to uncover and reveal that which is true but not necessarily that which is politically correct or palatable. And if the paid ones die out, then citizen journalists, fueled only by a passion for the truth, replace them. It’s wishful thinking, but at least, we are still free to wish, and to hope.

Travel is Education

Someone told me that with Google Earth, Wikipedia and other instant information tools readily at our fingertips these days, there was no longer a need to travel to foreign places to get a sense of culture, language, food, geography and all the other elements that a trip outside of one’s physical boundaries provide. While armchair travelling has never had it better, I beg to differ with these pundits of inertia.

I recently wrote a novel set in a part of France I had never visited (my travels in that country up to that point had been limited to Paris and environs). With the assistance of all the online tools and data repositories available to me, I wrote copiously about Strasbourg and Metz, and not in our present day either, but around the time of the French Revolution. Something irked me on completing the book. I had not captured the soul of these places. So I travelled to those two cities and spent some time soaking in their atmospheres.

The first thing I noticed was how poorly I had estimated distance, especially if travelling by horse and carriage, and how differently the shadows fell on old buildings at certain times of the day; and the variance in colour of the Vosges Mountain range in the distance, for online photographs create their own hue and are never like the real thing. Dwellings had added an extra floor with each passing century and the ones I had to hunt down were the crumbling three•storey structures with wide doorways for carriages – these were the ones that harked back to the period depicted in my novel. I had to blot out the sound of motorized traffic and imagine the clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestone streets that still paved the inner cores of these cities. I sat on canal banks and watched swans whose ancestors had floated on those same waters three hundred years ago, waters carrying the blood of citoyen killed in the mass upheavals of those times. I was so absorbed in the scene that I thought I heard voices. Was I finally communing with the soul of this place?

From a young age I have always travelled abroad. I even set an ambitious goal for myself once, of visiting one new country for every year of my life. I am probably running two countries shy of that target, not brought about by a diminishing of interest but because there are not many new “safe” places to explore anymore, given that the world is caught up in a war between the haves and the have•nots, and “equalization” methods such as kidnapping and terrorism now extend to tourists as well. Even Mother Nature has been angry, unleashing temperamental outbursts at the most inconvenient times: I escaped the tsunami in Japan in 2011 by a couple of weeks, and was rocked and rolled by an earthquake in Costa Rica last year, then stranded due to a flood in Nicaragua on that same trip.

But I continue my pursuit, and to stretch my goals, I have just completed a novel set in Cape Town, circa 1794. Even though I used my trusty online tools to the maximum once again, visited the reference library several times, and had two South African friends fact•check my work, I know what is missing. Needless to say, when funds and time permit, I will be heading off for a date with the Soul of South Africa.

Seeking fame and protecting privacy online – a tough balancing act

The social media enthusiast lives in a parallel universe: on the one hand he is isolated from human contact by being totally focussed on his PC, tablet or mobile device, thumbing away to an equally anonymous community of friends, on the other his life is now a public one where every photo, joke, threat, bias, peeve and airport check•in is on display to the whole world.

Social media seems to be a panacea to our continuing spiral inward from community towards individuality and the resulting need to be noticed from among the crowd. For it really is about the “I” isn’t it? At the extreme end of this desire lie examples like the recent flesh•eating high profile murder case in Toronto where the “I” went rabid, or the lone guy who shoots up a public place for fame. Now, to be clear, we are all not a bunch of looney tunes, but after boxing ourselves into jobs in isolated office cubicles or home offices, middle•of•the road soc•meds emerge as street•corner politicians on soapboxes that they wish would go viral one day, establishing their legacy globally and liberating them from their President•for•Life role in their Republic•of•One. Our very isolation creates this craving for human contact and validation.

But the craving comes with a caveat these days, we don’t want the touchy feely bit—we want no body contact any more. Contact is limited to a neutral screen, which could be switched off if we do not like what we see or hear, an interface that could be put on mute while we multi•task on other activities in an attention•deprived state. At work, how often have we succumbed to the temptation of choosing to attend a traditional face•to•face meeting virtually, via conference call and laptop, so that we can multi•task in private and not have to sit in a room with a bunch of fellow humans, trapped into paying attention to a single topic, and be nice?

As for privacy, I guess there is none of that anymore, much as we desire it. Privacy began to slip when people started having cell phone conversations in public places. It was like practicing for a naked parade down the information catwalk. After that, it was just steps away to uploading personal profile information on a myriad of social networks, including the names of the spouse, the kids, the dog and photos of the family vacation. Not forgetting, ingesting all those bots and cookies that tracked our every online movement in perpetuity. Today, when asked a question about someone unknown, replying, “I don’t know her” is not acceptable anymore. One is supposed to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Link•In before replying. And we are likely to find “too much information” on that person. Going into a sales meeting with a prospective new client has a different set of dynamics now: you are expected to launch right in with the qualified ice•breaker: “So, how’s your 5 handicap in golf these days?” or “I read your recent book” (the free Google executive version, most likely). Even companies are beginning to allow their employees to text and tweet because if an employee is going to hang himself (and the company), then the employer may as well provide the rope, and yank it in before much damage is done on the public sidewalk.

Yes, the more we want to be noticed, the more we want to be left alone, untouched in a world that refuses to afford us privacy. Social media appears to be a viable solution offering this happy medium. But is it isolating us even more, creating an even sharper divide between the conflicting forces of fame•craving and privacy•seeking that assail us? I wonder….

The World of the Pieceworker

Once upon a time, a man (or woman) entered a job, worked his entire life, and retired not seeing the light of day in another company, not knowing the travails of unemployment unless his own company went bankrupt, remaining naive and loyal, and at retirement receiving a pin, a handshake and a pension. These symbols of gratitude were as valuable as the decorations placed upon war veteran’s chests at the end of their service, with the accompanying words, “Well done, old boy! Sorry about the blown•up leg and the shrapnel in your chest, but you took one for the team. Enjoy your pension until you die, it’s on us.”

But that has all changed now, hasn’t it? Gone are those lifelong careers. Piecework, or transactional employment, is now the fashion. While demobilized soldiers still receive a pension for the limbs and minds sacrificed in war, the guys who metaphorically endure the same kinds of losses in the trenches of the business or arts world have lucked out. They are beset with employers asking: “Can you work only one day this week—Sunday?” “How many pieces of that widget can you make in an hour? 40? Not enough. How about 120?” “I don’t care about how many books you have in you, I’ll try this first one, and if I like it, I’ll come back (if you haven’t died of hunger in the meantime, that is).”

While all this bodes well for the best products being available in the market at all times, it does not improve the life of the creators of these products who cannot be producing at their best all the time, and who cannot always be expected to outperform each other and themselves. What will happen to our piece worker with his infrequent bursts of creative brilliance? Impoverishment and neglect will get him eventually, after his best pieces have been sold.

Translating this development to the world of writing, even mighty Google has realized that it cannot forget the bedrock upon which its giant advertizing revenues have been built: content, and by extension, that quintessential piece worker, the writer. How to save this much•maligned hack is now the crusade that Google, and other givers•away of content, are trying to determine. We hear of “premium content zones” or walled information communities, where “curated content” will be made available for a fee, with writers being nurtured, protected (and hopefully compensated) for such valuable output. Is the pendulum swinging back? Is it, really?

Will we ever return to the whole•life based relationship between creators and their employers, where the former are nurtured, fed, and released to produce their life’s work, free of the shackles of worrying about when or where the next meal is coming from? Or has progress led us back to the dark ages where the baser pre•occupations of acquiring food, shelter and safety overpower the pursuit of self•actualization, back to a world devoid of creativity?

Piecework may make short term economic sense from an employer’s viewpoint. But it devalues the very resource, the creator, who produces the product. Ultimately this lame donkey may have to be put to sleep, impoverishing the farmer.

The Return of Fiction in the Google-era

When the towers came down in New York innocence was lost in North America, they say. People wanted only to read about news and features – they wanted facts, facts, facts…When was the next calamity going to happen, and where? Were we heading towards the end of days, and when? And whenever escape became an emotional necessity, it was sought in worlds far beyond (and therefore safe from) the present one – how about Hogwarts School for starters, or the dark and mysterious Vatican with those Da Vincian codes, or those dread•lands populated by vampires and werewolves, or a juicy murder mystery in distant Scandinavia? Mainstream fiction got sidestepped, because life had become stranger and more frightening than make•believe of the literary kind.

And now, several years on, we are drowning in facts. We Google “facts” and they are arrayed before us, from umpteen sources, with varying degrees of accuracy and bias. There is comfort in knowing that if we need the facts, they are always available, 24/7, at the click of a button. Welcome to the Factual Age, in which we get the facts, the whole facts and nothing but the facts. Boring…

I am more interested in that other world, the lost one: the one in which facts or pseudo•facts were re•arranged to fit a coherent dramatic trajectory, unleashing a moral, providing meaning and hope, allowing for triumph over adversity however trivial. A world where lies were conjured in order to illuminate a higher truth. A world that was delivered in beautiful lyrical prose conjuring imagery from life, giving us hues ranging from blue to gold, shadings from dark to light, perspectives from vulnerable to sympathetic, and action from heroic to barbaric.

The relentless onslaught of the Factual Age is similar to us being bombarded with still photographs of life, to the point that we are once more hungry for paintings to re•engage our moribund faculties, replete with the artist’s slant, bias, perspective, character, flaws, and opinion. And the artists too have gathered outside the gates with piles of their wares accumulated over the lean years since 9/11, during which output was limited to the very few, who made their handlers lots of cash by dabbling in predictable genres.

I think the pendulum will swing back now that the thirst for facts and information has been satisfied by the powerful search engines of today. I believe we will be looking for ways to convert these facts into stories that attempt to make sense out of an increasingly meaningless life rushing along at an even faster pace. I believe that those gates will soon be shoved open and that the artists will come rushing in, even giving away their wares as gifts, because sharing will have become more important to them than selling. And a grateful audience will embrace these stories again, the lost books, lost from the day the developed world lost its innocence.

Social Networking – a must-have or a time waster?

A couple of years ago, a reputable speaker at a literary conference told me that if I did not build a social networking platform I would be of no use to publishers in the future. In other words, I had to bring the audience to me, which in the past I had thought the publisher did. I guess he had outsourced this job – to me! Having no one else in the distribution chain to pass the buck down to, I complied, and got into heavy social networking.

Let’s see, I registered my own domain name as www.shanejoseph.com and built my own website with e•commerce capability, populating it with new content weekly (I’m not a Yahoo or Google who can update content hourly – at least, not yet!). I blogged and twittered, and joined lots of online forums where writers and readers gathered. I syndicated my blogs, became a reviewer on Goodreads and copied my book reviews over to Amazon whenever I was mindful of the p’s and q’s in my content. I Facebook’d and Linked•In’d and even started giving talks on the value of building an online platform – heck it was fashionable, why not cash in? However, I recall, so were beads and bell•bottoms and drainpipes and sideburns and “give peace a chance” love•ins, once upon a time. Very soon, I was spending several hours a week on my growing platform. I was famous but still poor.

I even thought of opening my website to advertisers and giving away all my books as free e•book downloads. Heck, I could deliver free copies to my huge platform of readers – numbering in their thousands at this point – and claim to be a best•seller, or at least, “the most widely circulated.” I’d obviously incur the wrath of my fellow writers who were trying to make a living out of this vocation; I would be banned from the writer’s union, and would never be guaranteed that any of those free copies would ever be read (people don’t even read paid•for copies anymore as they function better as doorstops, coffee placemats, bookshelf adornments, and claims to literacy rather than as vehicles of enlightenment). I might even end up turning the existing, broken book publishing model on its head. Or I might be ignored as a crackpot and dismissed with, “His writing must suck, because good things are not free, and free things are not good.”

If getting people to read your books is the end•game, then operating an online platform is essential but insufficient. You need to put the book in the reader’s hand and say “read it,” and they in turn need to put the book in other readers’ hands and say, “This is a damned good book – read it!” The online platform creates awareness and builds mystique, but there is a much longer journey from that point on the continuum to turning curious browsers into readers and endorsers.

I am not dismissing the online platform. It seems a necessary burden in these times. But I need to balance this effort with focussing on my writing and making it the best ever. I want an unprovoked reader to read my book, put it up on his social networking site and say, “Hey, listen up! Read this book, it’s so cool!” Now, that endorsement would indeed be a desirable end•result, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d!”

Winding down the year

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” The refrain hangs heavy on my mind. Like a stock•taking superimposed by some divine deity who is counting down the hours in my life left on this earth.

I learned a few home truths this year. I learned that I could write books and stories in my sleep, but without a strong sponsor or benefactor, they were going nowhere, unless I gave them away for free on the Internet (still an option that I am actively considering). I learned that the commercial world had burrowed deep into its foxhole in 2009 and wasn’t taking any chances on “new and enhanced” but sticking merely to “tried and true.” I learned that Social Networking is great to become famous (sure, Google me and see the number of places you can find Shane Joseph, Writer) but not necessarily rich. It takes more than blog articles, tweets, and online postings before customers will buy into your brand. I learned that the tried and true media outlets are still the most influential.

I learned that people, even those closest to me, were fallible, just as I am, and that I cannot always hold them to the high standard I hold for myself. I learned to pursue dreams and accept when they came up short in reality. I have learned that money is only given to us for safekeeping and for deploying wisely; if we fail in that task, it will be taken away. I learned about the circular nature of time – events will take place only when they are meant to; all we can do is prepare for their occurrence. And so, even though I continue to record appointments in my calendar and plan for achieving defined goals within certain time frames, I am fatalistic about their actual outcomes. I have learned that the expression “Shit happens,” really happens!

Therefore I would respond to that old John Lennon song and say that I grew wise, marginally. I grew patient. I became poorer in the pocketbook but richer in my soul. I grew older by a year. I planted a lot of seedlings in this rather fallow year, which I am hoping will bud in 2010. And I have bided my time, waiting for the next chapter to unfold.

To all of you who have been reading my blog posts, I wish you Season’s Greetings and all the very best in 2010!