Have you read Neil Postman? You should. I first read Amusing Ourselves To Death in 1986 and have enjoyed re-reading it a number of times. Writing this post has reminded me to complete reading the rest of his books, there are still a couple I’ve yet to devour. I took a detour towards Postman’s oeuvre yesterday following a conversation yesterday with Howard Rheingold on crap detection. He reminded us that Ernest Hemingway originated the phrase, and I wanted to pin down precisely what Hemingway said, when and to whom. I’ve been fascinated by this theme ever since I first read John Allen Paulos on Innumeracy.
Which led me on to Postman. Incidentally, Stephen Pozzi does a great job of summarising Postman’s “core message”:
Citizens living in a democracy, if they hope to keep that democracy, need to learn how to tell the difference between facts and bullshit
Pozzi provides us with the transcript for a speech given by Postman in 1969, where he says:
For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector”
Incidentally, the rest of the Pozzi piece is worth reading as well.
We live in an age when it’s only a matter of time before everyone and everything will become a node on “the network”, capable of publishing, capable of subscribing. People. Other living things. Computers. Other devices. Animate objects. Inanimate objects. Theoretical objects. Today, even a tweet can tweet (Three of your friends have read me and you haven’t. Would you like to read me now?)
Firehoses need filters. As Clay Shirky said, there’s no such thing as information overload, just filter failure. So we all spend time learning how to build better filters. Whether you look at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Salesforce, the message is: Bring me the firehose. All four of those organisations now have stream-filter-drain principles deeply embedded in what they do.
As firehoses become manageable streams, people find themselves wanting to “live in the stream”, with the ability to respond to and act on real-time information. People also want to choose when, where and how they get to that information. Not surprisingly, “feed first” and “mobile first” become important mantras. No business can survive operating at a speed that’s slower than the environment in which it operates. The platforms of the past were monolithic in design, focused as they were on driving unit cost reduction by helping standardise processes: they didn’t have to worry about the cost of change. Today’s platforms have to be based on ecosystem models, small pieces loosely joined, ensuring that change can be compartmentalised and controlled at affordable time and cost levels. They start having semi-permeable membranes around them: APIs to extract information from the feed, “publishers” to drop information into the feed.
In my recent series on filters, I spent time writing about the importance of publishing responsibly. Checking facts. Attributing sources. Things every decent journalist knows how to do while blindfolded and hogtied.
We’re all publishers now. We’re not just publishers, we’re also disseminators of information, at speed and at scale.
We all need to get better at being able to assess the likelihood of something we’re presented with being true. [The current crisis in the Ukraine is a classic everyday example of how challenging it is to know what the facts are. Which is why, when I gave my TED Talk on Information seen from the perspective of Food, I mused about whether we should soon start labelling the Fact Content of all information].
Remember this story?
Alvaro Munera. Conscience-stricken in the middle of his last fight. Decides to give it all up.
The photo above is not of Munera. The torero shown in the photo is actually executing a bullfighting move called desplante. We may all love the story that says Munera had his Road to Damascus moment as depicted in the photo above; that doesn’t make the story true. While Munera did “convert” his views and become a campaigner for animal rights and against bullfighting, that still doesn’t make the story above any truer.
There are many other examples, but I won’t bore you with them.
Everyone’s talking about Big Data nowadays. It used to be about three Vs: Volume, Velocity and Variety. And then there were four. Veracity joined the set. A little while later, number five arrived: Value. By the time I finish writing this, I’m sure that Vs 6-10 are in gestation somewhere. And soon to travel the world at speed.
While all that happens, let’s try and keep an eye on one of those Vs: Veracity. It’s probably more important than all the other Vs put together.
When I came to England in 1980, I came across many sayings and idiomatic expressions that hadn’t quite made it to the Calcutta I grew up in. One of my favourites was “Where there’s muck, there’s brass”. This is as true for the digital world as it has been for the analog one.
As the Hemingway and Postman quotes suggest, we’re all going to have to learn to become better crap detectors, whether it’s because we want to be better writers, better citizens, or even just because we want to make our little dent in the universe.
Which is why I am delighted to learn that Howard Rheingold is working with his students to build and share a Guide to Crap Detection Resources. If you want to help, do let Howard know.