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Letters from Downunder


Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

"The present is us just catching up to the future"
The Author, 1952

(3/2013) Many years ago I donned a pair of spectacles used in psychology classes to show that what one saw was not always what was expected. After putting them on you could see nothing but the floor and the shoes you wore, and you were then asked to walk out the door - and you knew were that was. But, with nothing to guide you save the position of your feet and the pattern on the plain brown carpet, it proved very difficult. Impossible, almost, because there was no straight passageway to the door, so unless you forgot the things you were seeing and went for the things you could hear and feel you fell over chairs, banged your head on protruding shelves, and generally made a fool of yourself. Voices from a corridor and a waft of heated air eventually led me to the door, and to some jeering from my supposed friends.

That's not so strange, but so much of what we see today is only a part of reality, a part that someone else wants us to see and believe is the whole, because if we can be led to that part of reality it can be sold on, and they make money. Lots of it. That 'someone else' is any on the search engines we use to surf the net. We go looking for whatever - information, gossip, stock market prices - and that is recorded, probably somewhere in the cloud, and sold back to the proprietors of the search engine. It's not long before you are getting messages as to what others like you like, because they know where you are most likely to go, and they want to retain your preference to search with them. That's knowledge they can and do sell to a purveyor of things in your preferred area. That, as Francis Bacon said, is power. Not only that, but the ease with which we are magically led toward supporting opinion, similarities, and reassurances that we are not alone is habit forming. Having our habits reinforced makes us feel good, being told we are on the path to our destination gives us confidence, and being nudged toward buying from a particular seller is harmless - isn't it?

When we think about this dispassionately, just how much do we truly know? If we rely on the internet for our news and information, then the answer is probably very little. We have lots of information, more data than we can possibly utilize, but we actually know less and less. To know something we have to test it: Give a child a drum and a spoon and it's not long before we all know that banging the drum with the spoon makes noise. Now show another child a video of that and all they learn is that a drum makes a noise when banged by someone else. They have to assume it will do the same for them. Our lives are built around tyring things - for ourselves. Or not, if we know for sure that they are probably too dangerous.

If we go along with what we like on Facebook and its equivalents, we only know what our friends like, not what our non-friends like - because we will not get to read any of their blogs. In fact, we will be wearing my glasses, but believing that what we see is all there is, or at least all there is that is worth knowing, worth bothering about. We will be living in a world of filtered truths, given what we say we want, and not what we need, unaware of the myriad number of things that can cause us to fall, cause our community and even our country to get into both stupid and lethal situations.

And all that time we know, really know and understand the facts: President Obama is a Muslim, abortion is a criminal act, smoking dope is harmless, all non-whites are the enemy, the best protection is a gun. In fact, we could be told the world is flat and we'd accept it. We are, in fact, being turned into little experts and little politicians. Remember the old definitions? An expert is someone who gets to know more and more about less and less - until he knows everything about nothing; a politician is someone who gets to know less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

That's not you? Oh, sorry, it must be your neighbour.

The internet news services make us experts, as these days it knows what we want to see and shows us everything related to that, but does not show us what we also need to see, because that might make us feel uncomfortable, whereupon we do the unthinkable and change services. Twitter and face book style congregations keep us together, learning about each other's minor miraculous moves and tiny trembling twitches, keeping us pumped on celeb and wannabes, learning more trivia than sanity can withstand - but at least it is junk of our own choice, not some faceless editor or reporter who tells us what they want us to know.

That's how it was, and for all the bias that might have been built into such a system, at least we could glimpse a story that might pique our curiosity. That's really the price we pay for convenience: the withering of curiosity, the round table family arguments, the verbal stoushes that stimulated thought and taught us the rudiments of logic.

Just as we do not bring our children up on sweets and fats, (not if we have any sense, that is), so we cannot expect our minds to stay healthy, reactive to the bizarre, able to test for lying and misdirection if we only get what we want. These is so much out there that we have to be selective, don't we? Yes, we do, but we also need to be adventurous, aware we don't know, prepared to be shocked and to trip over the hard, inconvenient ideas and stories that are outside our preferred comfort zones.

I called this article futuring because it suggests getting ready to live in the future. It's already different. It is always different. We need to be on our toes, and we cannot do that if we are so fat with fractoids, (not my word, it's Eli Pariser's. Borrowed without permission), those bits of information that keep on being the same no matter how far we explore them, that we die of clogged thought arteries. You know, the things fatheads have.

Please, go read 'The Filter Bubble' by Mr. Pariser. It's like breathing mountain air, drinking spring water, and enlarging the question marks that hopefully are already in your mind.


Skeptically in Melbourne, Australia. I think.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker