RE: On Bullshit

A friend of mine recently mentioned he has back-ordered “On Bullshit” (by Harry Frankfurt) and I thought “oh neat – maybe I can borrow it sometime for a day or two”… but then I realized something.

Bullshit is not rare or special or in any way particular. It is widespread. Everywhere you look, you can see bullshit converging in on you. I am no more interested in studying bullshit than I am in investigating the tons of junk and/or fecal matter that might arrive at any number of dumps on a daily basis across the planet. I don’t care about the meaningless 99%, I want to know what makes the 1% especially meaningful.

My gut feeling tells me that in order to cut the crap a person must care about something in particular. I was trained by the Strunk & White school of thought which dictated that words must be chosen wisely and also with both precision and accuracy. Rationality is a very surgical matter, and errors are simply unacceptable.

This reminds me of another thought I recently had whilst wallowing through yet another quagmire of apparently endless streams of text: if you want to write something meaningful, then the meaning you want to write down is enough. I don’t need to know whether it’s your birthday or whether something else happened – just tell me what you want me to know or think or feel or whatever.

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Some Reflections on the Revolution in Propaganda

More or less exactly ten generations after Edmund Burke’s treatise concerning the French Revolution and roughly about twenty generations after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, I would like to give you a small update on the state of news, media and publishing following the advent of modern computers on the dissemination landscape.

In this endeavor, I will utilize a case study involving a podcast video on the interwebs, in particular youtube.com, which I hope will help by providing a graphic illustration of what’s going on right now. The case in point is a discussion between an evolutionary biologist, William von Hippel, and a media magnate, Joe Rogan, concerning the publication of Mr. von Hippel’s new neato book titled “The Social Leap”. I shared a link to the entire discussion a couple weeks ago, here I wish to focus on a short segment starting at 2:08:55.

Originally, my fascination with the topic centered on the origins of human language, but unfortunately there was hardly any discussion of this during the podcast. Although there are many fascinating points regarding the evolution of homo sapiens, very little (if anything at all) was directly related to the genesis of human language. I have often noted that the very first line in the Bible’s book of Genesis directly indicates “the word” as being at the beginning of human history, but exactly how this first word was ever spoken remains an enigma. My own hunch is that it followed other types of expression – such as body language, facial expressions and the like – and that several rather complex communicative norms needed to become institutionalized (and that language was therefore perhaps far more difficult to develop than other technologies). I imagine that three evolutionary developments might have been particularly advantageous, namely: 1. increased brain size; 2. “whites” of eyes; and 3. improved vocal apparatus. Mr. von Hippel also mentions the first two of these developments.

I have heard Noam Chomsky give a ball-park estimate of ca. 75 thousand years ago for the approximate beginnings of language. Most of the developments mentioned by Mr. von Hippel predate that by a longshot, but the segment I mentioned above (2:08:55) has to do with a development that is undoubtedly much newer, since it is about reasoning and argumentation (which as far as I know must require language). The segment begins with a discussion of confirmation bias, and Mr. von Hippel then mentions a 2011 paper written by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, saying the paper shows that humans actually evolved to use confirmation bias to persuade each other of their own opinions rather than actually trying to find out what is actually true. I was shocked by this statement and read the original article. Upon doing so, it became clear to me that Mr. von Hippel had misrepresented the original findings – and I have contacted Hugo Mercier and he assures me that my shock was indeed warranted.

Mercier & Sperber (2011), on the contrary, contends that while the confirmation bias may very well be active when producing arguments, it is largely inactive during the evaluation of arguments. This symbiotic relationship is crucial, and to overlook it is a gross distortion of the findings. Why did this happen?

I believe the answer to this question involves yet another development in the history of human languages, perhaps even newer than the “Why do humans reason?” development of argumentation proposed by Mercier & Sperber. Perhaps the earliest records of writing date back to cave paintings and sculptures made by humans tens of thousands of years ago, but the development of writing systems standardized enough to be used for communication across larger stretches of space and time required the development of more advanced social institutionalization – perhaps dating back no further than just about 10,000 years (in other words, only ca. 500 generations).

For most of this time, writing was extremely limited and was only available to the most educated classes. Therefore, any ideas shared would only be written down if they passed the muster of such highly educated gatekeepers. In my humble opinion, this recurring process led to the development of something I wish to refer to as a publication bias – a “believability” of ideas that have been written down. Shortly after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press a little over 500 years ago, the world up to that point was shaken up briefly… but that came to an end when copyright law was established and the production of large-scale printing presses became prohibitively expensive. For the past several hundred years, the publication bias has largely been reinstitutionalized, though the publishing industry became highly fragmented (from a church monopoly before 1500 to a plethora of publishing gatekeepers thereafter). The new gatekeepers were governed by many laws, and thereby it was possible to control the dissemination of information. Early modern information technologies such as telegraph, telephone, radio, television, etc. did little to change that.

What did change it was the advent of the personal computer. Desktop publishing was hardly a challenge to traditional publishing, but electronic publishing is marching forwards in leaps and bounds on its way to completely eradicating the titans of the paper era. Day after day, the cost of publishing information across the entire globe continues to new record-setting lows. It is a well-known, commonplace fact that publishing technology has now also been birthed from Pandora’s box, and that it is now nearly everywhere, cheap and easy to use… for anyone.

And therein lies the rub: The days of publishing gatekeepers are finally over. Clicking a button is not at all difficult to do… and so everyone’s doing it.

The result we need to face today is that the publication bias – the naive trust in written information – is (or at least should be) also gone, probably forever (or at least for the “foreseeable future”).

And yet likewise we see virtually on a daily basis that the publication bias is actually very far from gone. On the contrary: not only do old habits die hard, but now we have even more, new and improved, of such biases. Perhaps leading the pack is the modern brand name – completely vacuous and empty, but highly valued, exclusive and nearly impenetrable to most rational thought processes. Brands carry the weight of innumerable imaginary people, built up over years, decades if not centuries. Such colossal weight bogs the average human’s mind, and the most popular brands are revered as gods, never to be doubted or questioned. What previously had been delegated to print, today can fly as high as Coca-cola, Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Google or YouTube or untold other brands. No longer is the sky the limit, either – no, these fantastic companies will fly to the moon, Mars and far beyond into space, reaching for the stars.

Will ordinary humans ever come back down to earth? How will we ever be able to re-introduce a modicum of rationality into our species? Perhaps we should untie ourselves from our slavery to brands, brand names, megalithic monopolistic enterprises and such. Maybe we should return to ordinary communications – straight talk, free of mumbo jumbo.

Luckily, the founders of the Internet apparently did have enough foresight to foresee the potential dangers of centralized information resources. The technology at the basis of modern civilization today is actually not the problem. The problem is modern human behavior, especially the way modern humans behave in groups. We have seen this time and again throughout the 20th Century, now we must “human up” and become more reasonable.

We must learn to recognize the difference between fake and real. This is actually not as difficult as it sounds. What makes it relatively simple is when we simply recognize that the human languages we use on a daily basis are our own, and that we are free to communicate our ideas, wants and needs as we please. We don’t need no central authority to control our thoughts. We don’t need no dictator to figure out the truth. We can rely on what we understand from humans, and also that we will be understood by humans. Humans are rational beings – and that means they will rationalize their ideas, each according to their own language. Mutual understanding among humans is the primary goal we must strive for. Regular ordinary straight talk is the basis of human rationality, and it is time we recognize this fact and reestablish regular ordinary straight talk into our daily lives, our information and communication technologies and our entire media landscape.

We should not trust that Joe Rogan or William von Hippel are right. We should not feel secure that the big data algorithms of YouTube or Google will watch out for us. We need to open our own eyes for ourselves and take a good hard look at reality – because that is what matters.

One last point I wish to address is an issue that I feel could easily lead to a misunderstanding. While I argue that brand names are inadequate as symbols of trust or reliability, brand names do serve a constructive purpose, function and useful role in the modern social order. These labels and identifiers enable us to refer to individuals, individual entities, individual processes and distinct, unique phenomena we engage with and participate in on a daily basis. Therefore, they serve an integral role in our entire social fabric. Note, though, that our ability to reference such entities and phenomena has very little to do with the trustworthiness of the entities or phenomena themselves, but rather with the trustworthiness of the social order – for example, a well-functioning legal framework that forms the basis of such well-established social institutions as private property, fair trade, open communications, etc.

Meaningful information requires language, and meaningful accounting requires itemization. Bringing both of these phenomena together is a matter of dovetailing information organized via language with the accountability of big data bases. If you would like to participate in helping to make this happen, I invite you to get up and sign up with phenomenonline.com!

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The Cooperative Principle in Conversation versus the Prejudice in Silence

In the following, I understand the Internet as a massive text connected by many participants conversing with one another. Parts of the text are in close connection, and the discussion can be viewed as heated insofar as the sub-texts reference each other in some way (links are merely one example of such cross-references). Other parts of the text are fairly isolated, hardly discussed, rarely (if ever) referenced. I want to argue that the former parts are “well formed” in the sense that they follow Grice (1975)’s cooperative principle, and that the latter seem to evidence a sort of prejudice (performed by the disengaged participants) — which I hope to be able to elucidate more clearly.

Before I embark on this little adventure, let me ask you to consider two somewhat complementary attitudes people commonly choose between when they are confronted with conversational situations. These are usually referred to as “feelings” — and in order to simplify, I will portray them as if they were simply logically diametrically opposed … whereas I guess most situations involve a wide variety of factors each varying in shades of gray rather than simple binary black versus white, one versus zero. Let’s just call them trust and distrust, and perhaps we can ascribe to elements of any situation as trustworthy versus distrustworthy.

Next, let me introduce another scale — ranging from uncertainty (self-doubt) to certainty (self-confidence).

Together, these two factors of prejudice (in other words: preliminary evaluations of other-trustworthiness and self-confidence) crucially impact our judgment of whether or not to engage in conversations, discussions, to voice our own opinions, whether online or offline.

As we probably all know, the world is not as simple as a reduction to two factors governing the course of all conversations. For example: How does it happen that a person comes to fall on this end or that end of either scale? No doubt a person’s identity is influenced by a wide variety of group affiliations and/or social mores, norms and similar contextual cues which push and pull them into some sort of category, whether left or right, wrong or fixed, up or down, in or out with mainstream groupings. One of the most detailed investigations of the vast complexity and multiplicity woven into the social fabric is the seminal work by Berger and Luckmann titled “The Social Construction of Reality”.

While I would probably be the first to admit the above approach is a huge oversimplification of something as complex as all of human interactions on a global scale, I do feel the time is ripe for us to admit that the way we have approached the issue thus far has been so plagued with falsehoods and downright failures, that we cannot afford ourselves to continue down this path. In an extreme “doomsday” scenario, we might face nuclear war, runaway global warming, etc. all hidden behind “fake news” propaganda spread by robots gone amok. In other words, continuing this way could be tantamount to mass suicide, annihilation of the human race, and perhaps even all life on the planet. Following Pascal, rather than asking ourselves whether there is a meaning to life, I also venture to ask whether we can afford to deny life has any meaning whatsoever — lest we be wrong.

If I am so sure that failing to act could very well lead to total annihilation, then what do I propose is required to save ourselves from our own demise?

First and foremost, I propose we give up the fantasy of a simplistic true-or-false type binary logic that usually leads to the development of “Weapons of Math Destruction”. That, in my humble opinion, would be a good first step.

What ought to follow next might be a realization that there are infinite directions any discussion might lead (rather than a simplistic “pro” vs. “contra”). I could echo Wittgenstein’s insight that the limits of directions are the limits of our language — and in this age of devotion to ones and zeros, we can perhaps find some solace in the notion of a vocabulary of more than just two cases.

Once we have tested the waters and begun to move forewards toward the vast horizons available to us, we may begin to understand the vast multi-dimensionality of reality — for example including happy events, sad events, dull events, exciting events and many many more possibilities. Some phenomena may be closely linked, other factors may be mutually orthogonal in a wide variety of different ways. Most will probably be neither diametrically opposed nor completely aligned — the interconnections will usually be interwoven in varying degrees, and the resulting complexity will be difficult to grasp simply. Slowly but surely we will again become familiar with the notion of “subject expertise”, which in our current era of brute force machinistic algorithms has become so direly neglected.

If all goes well, we might be able to start wondering again, to experience amazement, to become dazzled with the precious secrets of life and living, to cherish the mysterious and puzzling evidences of fleeting existence, and so on.

Tags:
propaganda, rational media,
language, natural language,
algorithm, algorithms, algorithmic,
big data, data, research, science,
quantitative, qualitative,
AI, artificial intelligence,
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WordPress Search Engine Optimization

I asked MA.TT a question – of course it’s complicated, but it definitely has something to do with the three-letter-acronym (TLA) called SEO:

As I indicated in my question, this has nothing to do with Google and/or similar proprietary (“secret”) algorithms. I was talking about WordPress as a search engine.

IMO Matt’s response / answer was excellent. It underscores how challenging such a project might be. Yet Matt also emphasized (during the interview with Om) that text will continue to be of central importance to the way the World-Wide Web works (and will continue to work). As an addendum to Matt’s insight, let me note that any kind of artificial intelligence initiatives will always be a matter of pattern recognition, and the patterns that they attempt to recognize will always be text, a written representation of something (e.g. spoken language), etc.

Since my time for asking such a question was limited, I couldn’t go into many details. Even here, I do not want to bore you with the pros and cons of hitchhiking along on other people’s websites. As I have written in previous posts, the foundations for quite satisfactory information retrieval (aka “search”) are already present on the so-called (WP) PLATFORM.

At this point, I would like to try to elucidate at least one part of what I was talking about when I mentioned that an information-retrieval system need not necessarily be a one-size fits-all solution. People who have been following my writing for a long time know that this is a “pet peave” of mine, which I mention time and again. Note also that during Om Malik’s interview with Matt Mullenweg, the two also discussed McDonalds (TM). I find the use of brand names such as McDonalds or Google or Tupperware or whatever intriguing – is this a good or a bad thing? IDK… – but I digress.

The point I want to underscore especially emphatically here is that WordPress isn’t simply a “software” or an “app”. It is also a community which also involves a lot of people who have a great deal of natural intelligence. There are many points of view. There are many approaches. And just as there are many roads to Rome, so too there are many possible solutions to information retrieval (“search”) technology which are possible, viable, etc.

Let me give a couple examples beyond the ones I mentioned when I asked Matt the question in Paris (at the 2017 WordCamp Europe conference). The examples I mentioned of how “every website is a search engine” both came from the wordpress.com website. There are certainly many more examples possible from this website, but I chose to highlight discover.wordpress.com and wordpress.com/tags as premier examples. In my opinion, these two search options show two different kinds / levels of community engagement.

Likewise, there are also many search capabilities available to self-hosted wordpress sites. The most straightforward of these is undoubtedly the search widget (a “search box” in which the search text is entered and then searched). This is a very simple algorithm, and it is primarily useful for “known item” searches – for example, if you already know the title of a post or a string of words inside the post content. Normally, this search box does not search many other fields, such as the the tag field or comments. However, a site’s registered users can search these fields via the “backend” portion of the WordPress software. In this sense, each site has more search functions (and functionality) available to registered members… and therefore also offers higher levels of capabilities to more engaged users.

Note also that such different levels of capabilities are also part and parcel of the distinction between tags and categories (with respect to the primary function of information storage – which is the basis for later information retrieval capabilities): while in a standard WordPress implementation many users are able to create tags for posts, only a rather limited set of users are capable of creating categories for posts. Of course expert site administrators can configure such settings (which may be good, but having reliable standards also makes learning how to use WordPress easier for new users).

In my opinion, community engagement is also probably also the crux of WordPress search engine optimization across sites. For example, it might be important to distinguish between different meanings for the same string – e.g. “development” might mean very different things in different settings / contexts (such as with respect to software, economics and psychology). I think it might make a lot of sense for WordPress to provide support for the development (no pun intended 😉 ) of sub-communities within the greater WordPress community – and thereby to enable people to share, exchange and review each other’s ideas, to set these ideas into their appropriate contexts, etc. Indeed, there is a long tradition of abstracting and indexing in scientific literature – and learning from decades (if not even centuries) of experience and insights might be a very good thing to do.

One recurring theme I heard repeated throughout the WordCamp Europe conference in Paris time and again was the notion of how WordPress functions as a community of engaged people. This aspect of community engagement is definitely a very strong advantage of WordPress with respect to search engine optimization. Another is the very strong foundation of “open source” ethics – which I also described in my previous post.

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Why the Scientific Method and Open Source are Some of the Best Things Since Sunlight

About 100 years ago, some guy named Louis Brandeis apparently said something like:

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Mr. Brandeis was speaking metaphorically (his statement was made in the context of a book titled “Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use it”). There are in fact other phenomena which are also social disinfectants from corruption, exploitation, manipulative propaganda and similar social ills. Some of these go back just a few years, others many centuries or even millennia.

Since open source software is a technology that requires computer hardware, it is a very new phenomenon. The scientific method, which has a similar foundation rooted in widely available publications of observations, is several centuries old – at least. Indeed, prominent scientists and philosophers alike have put public discourse at the center of the marketplace for ideas since time immemorial. We can trace the history of such public methodologies as fundamental to the development of civilizations worldwide – for example the technologies of writing and written languages are several thousands of years old. Spoken language is probably much older than that, with some estimates dating the origins of such “natural” languages to perhaps about 75000 years ago.

Note that all languages are not individual, but rather (at least) social phenomena – and perhaps they are even evolutionary developments that are in some respects independent of the societies and civilizations that use language (one obvious example being “genetic material”, such as DNA). The wink of an eye, or the tear rolling down a cheek require an agreement with respect to their meaning. If and when such agreement exists, only then can we speak of a common language, and such a common language acts as an important construct for the development of community and communal engagement.

Be that as it may, these are by no means the only foundations of modern civilization… – but they are at least central pillars. We should not allow any top-secret agencies or secretive corporate interests to chip away at the progress we have made as the “premiere” intelligent species. We should not allow impostors or terrorists to hijack our ship – mainly because it’s the only one we have. We must defend free speech and sunlight, lest some “get rich quick” scheme con-artists should try to pull the wool over our eyes.

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Reading, Writing + Communications

Five centuries ago (more or less, depending on when you actually read this), Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door. In the weeks, months and years that followed, one of the most influential publications of the Protestant Reformation was propagated across Europe.

Yet, in my opinion, perhaps the most influential contribution Martin Luther made to western civilization was something quite different. He laid the foundation for literacy in the western world.

Since Johannes Gutenburg had developed a printing press with movable type, the missing piece to a literate society was no longer simply a matter of the limited production of reading material. Luther recognized that in order for printing presses to improve the lives of people, people would need to acquire skills they had never needed before. Though he campaigned strongly for advances in literacy, and though he did help to start such advances, most of the great advances in literacy didn’t actually happen until several centuries later.

I feel as though I am also in a situation quite similar to Martin Luther’s situation. Whereas for Luther it was mainly about “reading literacy”, for me it is also about “writing literacy” and also “communicative literacy”. Writing ought to be self-explanatory. What I mean by “communicative literacy” is, I guess, something like knowing that when asking a friend to meet for coffee in half an hour, it may be best to use a telephone call, maybe to send an SMS / instant message, but that writing an email would probably be the wrong technology, and sending snail-mail or writing a book would be completely out of the question. All of these technologies involve both reading and writing, but only some of them are adequate to the task at hand.

Few people are aware that many technologies they use on a daily basis involve writing (and thereby data being recorded). When people press someone’s telephone number into a phone, they usually don’t consider that act to be writing per se. Likewise, most people consider the sound that comes out of a telephone speaker to be the other person’s actual voice rather than a reconstruction of the audio signal that was recorded via the other person’s telephone microphone. And yet again, when someone moves a computer’s cursor using a “mouse” , or when they click on a button or link online, most people do not consider such actions to be writing and/or recording data. Indeed, few people are even aware that a mouse is normally referred to as an “input device” (as is a keyboard).

Much in the same way that the vast majority of Europe’s population was illiterate during Luther’s times, today the vast majority of populations worldwide are by and large oblivious with respect to many “information and communications technology” (ICT). And even though I have already written a lot, all of this is probably still less than just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”.

Most people still don’t know the difference between “machine-readable” data and “non-machine-readable” data, most people still do not understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative data, and most people still even to this day cannot tell how to identify who is responsible for the content that gets published online.

Most adults in developed countries today learned some basic fundamentals in school about how the publishing industry in the world they were growing up in worked. In contrast, kids today learn very little about how publishing works in the world they are growing up in now. Ask any teenager whether the device they have in their pants is currently publishing anything online (or “via the Internet”), and most of them would probably just look baffled.

We can do better, and we must do better!

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Blogs are born free, yet everywhere they are in SEO

You might think I sound like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but I can assure you there is no need to go back that far in time.

Are you old enough to remember the case of Trent Lott? Or how about “miserable failure”? Are you even aware that Google ever cleansed the web? These days, they do it so much that only idiots actually believe their results are valid reflections of the actual content on the web.

Yet since I have been watching videos on wordpress.tv for a couple years now, I have noticed that many in the WordPress community seem to think that search engine optimization (SEO – actually, when people use this term they are usually referring to something like “Google optimization”) is a worthwhile use of time and other limited resources (such as money).

Why?

Why kowtow into submission to such a bunch of nonsense algorithms? When I learned that the PageRank algorithm was awarded a patent I LOLed so hard because I couldn’t believe it. Not only has citation indexing been around since the late 1950s when Eugene Garfield developed this approach, but by the 1970s it had already been thoroughly discredited as a valid and/or reliable source of information. These doctoral students apparently pulled the wool over many people’s eyes – plus, they even got a patent out of it. Well, the patent was revoked about a week after I pointed out the absurdity of it all.

Personally, I am not interested in jumping though a bunch of bogus hoops to satisfy some moronic rules brainstormed by closeted maniacs. Why, for example, should I care whether a website is a card-carrying member of some secure “SSL” https mafia organization? Such a distinction between http and https says absolutely nothing about the quality of the information source.

I can understand why people who have identified such idiotic suckers as are gullible enough to believe Google might reflect reality (when it has, on the contrary, recently been shown to reap inordinate profits from promoting fake news) are deemed sly enough to take the money they “earned” from such dubious schemes to the bank (and therefore also why some people consider this to be a good investment). I can also understand that such wads of money might go a long way in influencing politicians in Washington, D.C. But I feel people in the WordPress community should clearly distance themselves from such shenanigans.

In my opinion, the WordPress community should avoid sullying its good name from association with such a corrupt system as Google has become. In contrast, the WordPress community should instead further extend the software’s capabilities towards making the WordPress system a useful guide for search (aka “information retrieval”). The WordPress software has evolved over many iterations, the technology has been developed over many generations, and the software’s capabilities are presently top-notch. Compared to WordPress, the technology used at “social media” and “social networking” websites like Facebook or Twitter are infantile.

Yet that is not to say that the WordPress project is anything close to “done”. While groundwork and foundations have been set for a much larger project to begin, there is still a lot of work that needs doing, there is still ample room for improvements.

The main problem is that many in the WordPress community continue to believe in Google. This belief system makes Google a kind of Pope, and stunts the growth of enhanced search capabilities that could be developed directly within the Web’s “lingua franca” blogging architecture. Developing new technologies need not eradicate the old ones – so there is no need to combat Google, at least no more than there is any need to abolish the many rules and regulations listed in Leviticus. Let Google continue to make absurd laws to further cement the establishment powers of government, traditional publishing, etc. But if the WordPress community wishes to move forward, then I think the time is ripe for the people in this community to realize that they need to move on to better things.

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Mobile First is a Special Case of Reading First

Several years ago, there was a push towards “mobile first” publishing – the idea being that more and more people were using their mobile phones as their primary reading device. The optimization of web content for constraints inherent in mobile technology (be that bandwidth or limited computational resources) is something I had already noted as a usability imperative at least a decade earlier (mainly while writing on the long-since defunct omidyar.net) – I summed it up as “I hate to wait”. At the time the writing was in plain sight on the wall separating the First World from the Third World (but was by and large ignored besides do-gooders lamenting a “digital divide”).

The metaphor of the “Bright Lights, Big City” is a useful one. We must recognize that the so-called digital divide is in large part a tale of two cultures: One that has been steeped in mass consumption of big media content for several centuries, and another that is more attuned to many millennia of “primitive” and “face to face” styles of very traditional and highly evolved forms communication. Put simply: Whereas advanced technology and machines dominate “Developed” countries; Natural languages reign supreme in “Non-Developed” countries.

There is indeed some irony in the widespread consumer-orientation in highly industrialized countries. We will probably revisit this theme sometime in the near future.

Here and now, however, I want to focus on the “matter of fact” situation that online engagement is still in the vast majority of cases a phenomenon of highly developed economies and technologically advanced societies – and that in these societies the primary avenue to engagement is paved on the path of reading and consuming content. The road to participatory communication is a limited access highway, and all on ramps require reading (or “consumer”) literacy.

The production of literature will also need to be reviewed, but for the present moment it is simplest to treat it as being of secondary significance.

Participation and engagement in community communications is not a matter of prodding and motivating people to publish, but rather it is a matter of making it quick and easy for people to read.

This primary rule has been – by and large – neglected by most “publishing platforms” (such as WordPress). There are some notable exceptions – for example: Chris Lema’s talk at WordCamp Portland 2015 in which he argued that “our goal should always be to delight our client’s clients” (see ca. 17 mins.). Another good (and more recently published) resource to consult for this approach is Tammie Lister’s presentation about “how to know your users” in which she emphasizes that she does not want to get stuck in some kind of semantic debate (about “usability” vs “user testing”, etc.): “Whatever word gets you to doing the thing, then that’s totally OK to use.” (ca. 4 mins.)

If publishing platforms were more oriented towards users – if publishing software were more concerned with delighting the client’s clients, or delighting the end users – then we ought to be making it as quick and easy as possible to read content. Webpages should load in a split second. There should be no strings attached. No big data, no signups, no small print.

Yet this isn’t presently the case. Clearly, we need to pay more attention to putting reading first on the list of things we need to do. Personally, I advocate for reading first, joining second and writing last.

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Scripts, Stories, Narratives, Filling in the Gaps without Resorting to Fake News and other Propaganda Techniques

I have recently been minding my gaping gap and just the other day I was talking with someone about filling in the gaps, so I’ve decided to give you all a what’s update (I’m thinking that could maybe catch on sometime as a new term, sort of like all gangsta ‘n’ neato).

But before I get too far off track, let me mix it up a little with some additional nerdiness: let’s talk about facts! I know there are plenty of data scientists and data journalists who can’t seem to get enough data (like they hope when they die and go to heaven, they will be able to hook up with a lot of ones and zeroes). Me, I’m all about being discrete, but to be honest I think I would much rather get a little more abstract every now and then.

First of all, there’s the starting point. Little did you know, but you are already past it. Then there’s the end point – and don’t worry: it’s coming up real soon. In between those two points, there are an infinite number of other points. Infinite means: “so much, that even a computer can’t figure it out” — a really bad translation might be something like: “nevermind“. OK, if that isn’t abstract enough for you yet, then get this: in between any two points (like even between any of the infinite number of points between the starting point and the end point) there are also an infinite number of points. I could keep going on like this, but I hope you get the point already (haha — get it? 😉 ).

Right here I’m pretty much right in the middle of the story. Everything I write here is another point, and all of it could also be referred to as data. But of course there are also missing pieces — like I haven’t told you whether it’s daytime or nighttime, whether it’s cloudy, all sorts of stuff. There are actually humongous gaps, if you think about it. The funny thing is: it’s entirely up to you to fill them in.

Whether you like it or not, you are going to have to make some assumptions. The sad truth is that you will never have all the data. Why? Well, consider this: even if you think you have pretty much all of the data, there will still be an infinite number of data points in between the two closest points of data in your collection.

I know it’s a big pain, but you will simply have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

But don’t fret — we haven’t reached the end yet. I still have something more to tell. It’s actually something like a piece of advice for how you could and should go about coming up with the missing puzzle pieces. Way back at the beginning I told you I was talking with someone just the other day, remember? We were talking about something called “confirmation bias” — this is when you fill in the missing pieces with something you already think is true (and therefore it confirms the truth of what you already think — see also this video for a really neato explanation of it with a bunch of examples, too).

Now there are perhaps also an infinite number of ways that someone could fill in the missing gaps in a story. Let me give you an example. I often talk about “retard media“. When you read those two words, you probably think something like “what does he mean?” (if you follow the link, you will see that I wrote a whole article about what I mean when I use that phrase — but even that article also has an infinite number of gaps that need filling in) Let me simplify this. Let’s pretend there are basically only two interpretations: 1. I am a bad person; or 2. there is something else “out there” that is bad (I am using “bad” here because it seems that a lot of people feel that way about the word “retard”). To flesh out the details a little more, this “bad” might have something to do with attitude — like a condescending attitude (so in other words, you might attribute “condescending attitude” to me or to something else). Now I have written more and more details here, but in the end it is still up to you to fill in the missing pieces, to accommodate the new information with your already existing beliefs and so on.

As you do this, your biases will influence you. Many people think that the more you are aware of your biases, the better will the accommodation process reflect the actual “facts“.

That’s it for now (we’re getting very near the end). Have a pleasant day! 🙂

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The Continued Toleration of Illiteracy

I have written about the widespread pandemic of illiteracy for many years, and I find it odd that there has continued to be an attitude of toleration to the phenomenon – even among people who I consider to be quite literate.

This has bugged me incessantly, and I have puzzled time and again, but have never been able to figure out why there continues to be such widespread resistance to the promotion of literacy.

The relatively obvious situation that many organizations have been able to reap great profits from duping illiterate suckers and thereby emptying their pockets can hardly be „breaking news“ any more. Modern propaganda methods were perhaps first developed at the turn of the Twentieth Century, they were exploited on a grand scale in the Third Reich – but it was truly the Americans who „perfected“ it and turned into a science.

For many decades, the „American Way of Life“ has been associated with progress, wealth and economic development. When the shady details of the mortgage-backed securities crisis started becoming more and more obvious, when people started protesting that they had been duped into debt, then this movement was silenced in short shrift. The message was loud and clear: “Shut up, slaves!”

You might think that might have been a wake-up call. Nada.

Now, or rather recently, there has been another tell-tale sign screaming out of the sinful modern media: The “Fake News” crisis. Will this, too, be swept under the carpet? I think this hypothesis might not be as far-fetched as it might sound to some.

The puzzling evidence won’t go away, though, and it continues to nag me. The other day an idea occurred to me that might help explain some of it, but so far it’s still just a wild guess – and I think I need to think it through some more before I might feel OK with actually putting the idea “out there”. I don’t need to explain all of it, but I do think I want to feel as though it’s no just a random thought-bubble.

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