A built-in, shock-proof crap detector

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.

All this is why, ever since Dreamforce ’13 and the launch of Salesforce1, I’ve been talking, presenting and writing about platforms as ecosystems and the stream-filter-drain construct. And filters.

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.

Great story.

Completely false.

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.

12 thoughts on “A built-in, shock-proof crap detector”

  1. Agree totally, filtering and dealing with the important stuff is paramount. But another thing to add is that crap detecting is vital with marketing regulators. There is so much mis-information out there at the moment. Adverts bombard people with it. A prime example is the BT product ‘infinity’ which is marketed as ‘fibre broadband’. An awful lot of people believe this outright mistruth. Democracy (in the form of toothless regulators like the ASA and OFCOM) allow them to get away with it, because they allowed Virgin to market their product as ‘fibre broadband’ so BT can too, despite the fact it is delivered through an often very long COPPER phone line.
    Yes JP, we do need crap detectors. We surely do.

  2. My first response to this is “Yeah, *cough* Newsweek *cough*”

    but also…

    I’ve been mourning the old days when Twitter felt manageable to me. I know the answer is not to expect people to shut up or to follow fewer people necessarily, I still get to see interesting and useful things serendipitously in the people I now follow to maintain some sort of social contract rather than because I want to hear everything they have to say. I’d shied away from creating lists as being a bit too life-hacky but I thought I’d experiment this weekend and now the scales are falling from my eyes :)

    I made a list of 50 people whose work I admire (including you, JP) and I put them into a list and I’ve got a tab open for it. Most of today there’s been about 20 tweets per hour coming through – it’s a Sunday and my people are spread mostly between UK and USA timezones so some of them are only just getting up, but it feels manageable and it feels like I’m in touch with the people I want to hear from again. I want to look, instead of it being something I feel like I ought to be doing so that I don’t get too isolated.

    Most of these people are people I know well or at least have met face-to-face, so I apply my own crap filter to what they’re saying. Some people are just well… some people!

    And I chose to come to read this article here rather than just by JJJJJJKJ through my feed reader (which needs some pruning/filtering).

  3. @lloyd I must have been six or seven when my father told me about “Dewey Defeats Truman”. People who want to run scoops will take risks and fail sometimes. But it does not excuse them the need for diligence in checking facts and sources.

  4. @chris @lloyd and I do appreciate you guys spending time reading and commenting here, it is also part of the curation process. Given enough eyeballs….

  5. Hi Lloyd, I agree, and I find twitter is totally unmanageable without an interface like tweetdeck, where you can use columns for subjects and instantly see the important stuff and filter the rest. I couldn’t possibly manage it through just a web page. I filter on certain hashtags and people. I only follow one list.

  6. Hi JP
    no I don’t mean just that element, I mean the whole thing. It is a scandal and is being documented for our history books. There are millions of people moving to the wrong side of the digital divide due to FTTC, as only a percentage live close to a cabinet. Lots of cabinets are not even being enabled (because they are close to business areas who are customers on lucrative leased lines) and those that are enabled often only have capacity for 100 or so customers, yet funding is claimed for the whole area. Those on Exchange Only lines won’t get ‘superfast’ ‘fibre broadband’ either, but the whole exchange area is statistically ‘enabled’ so BT get the subsidy.
    If this money had been used to support altnets we would have had some innovation, and more importantly some competition. The cities would still be on ‘up to 2Mbps’ if it wasn’t for Virgin.
    That is why I say the governments and councils need crap detectors. They have fallen for the monopoly’s hype. We can not have a digital britain on an old copper phone network. Until everyone has fit for purpose and affordable internet access many will simply stay analogue.
    It isn’t fibre broadband unless its fibre to the home.
    If it comes through a phone line its copper broadband.
    If your phone line is rural its often dial up. Fed by fibre from a cabinet or an exchange but still not fibre flamin broadband.

  7. JP, as ever an interesting post – thank you. I think there have already been another couple of ‘v’s’ that have been coined to add to the lengthening list namely:
    – validity, is it right for the intended use i.e. does the interpreted data make sense, as opposed to veracity which refers to the accuracy of the raw data itself.
    – volatility, how long do you store the data for, is it still relevant.

    Clearly people enjoy looking up ‘v’s’ in the dictionary so suggest we be on our guard for viscosity, verificability (ouch) and who knows maybe even vivacity!

  8. So glad to see you talking about Neil Postman. As a media student, his works have been a great source of inspiration for me. While I totally agree with you on the need to build crap-detection skills, I’ve had a strange sense of uneasiness ever since I heard your TED talk many moons ago on “Information is food”. While food is a vital input for our bodies as much as information is for our minds, we can cultivate a certain sensitivity to consult our body for the food to eat, unlike in the case of the mind as it always wants more and can never be satisfied with *what is*. This metaphor helps us break down concepts of information access, overload, and presentability, However, it fails to remind us that the nutrition needed for our well-being simply cannot be gained by conscious consumption of messages aided by crap-detection,but through imagination which stems from meaning making.

  9. Thank you for spreading the word and for contributing to the document, JP. I teach college students who have never known a world where they couldn’t get the answer to any question within a couple of seconds at the most — but without any guarantee of the accuracy of the information. Yet their educational institutions have not been able to evolve quickly enough to keep up with the evolution of search — and the remarkably slick innovations of deliberate deceivers. If it were up to me, the skills for searching and crap detecting would be taught to children as young as 9 or 10 — the age they are starting to access the Web (mostly through smartphones) as part of their everyday lives. Anybody can comment on the document. If you want editing privs, just ask me via the doc: http://bit.ly/crapdetect

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