There’s been an overwhelming amount of material written about how people today, especially in the United States, live in the “Information Age.” And we do… but the vast majority of that information is anything but what it seems on its face, and, often, lacks significant facts that might change the entire meaning of what was initially presented. Now, some cynics will ask, “And what else is new?”
The answer to that question is: The volume, complexity, and increased power of information are what’s new, and those aspects of information make all the difference.
While it shouldn’t be any great surprise to anyone who follows political news, the recent book by a former press secretary of President Bush describes in detail how the current administration manipulated the news by the use of inaccurate, slanted, and misleading information. The official White House response seems to be that the President will try to forgive his former aide. Forgive the man? That suggests that Bush believes it was wrong to reveal the White House’s informational shenanigans, and that personal loyalty is far more important than truth. This viewpoint isn’t new to the Presidency, but the degree to which it’s being carried appears to be.
One of the aspects of the mortgage banking and housing sector melt-down that’s also been downplayed is the incredible amount of false, misleading, and inaccurate information at all levels. Large numbers of homeowners were lied to and misled, and many were simply unable to wade through the paperwork to discover what was buried there in the legalese. The mortgage securitization firms misled the securities underwriters. The information issued by the underwriters misled the securities traders, and in the end, with all the misinformation, it appears that almost no one understood the magnitude of the problem before the meltdown.
We’re seeing, or not seeing, the same problem with recent economic statistics, particularly those measuring inflation. Until 2000, the most common indicator of the rate of inflation was the amount of change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measured price fluctuations in a market-basket of goods. In 2000, however, the Administration decided to remove food and energy from that market basket on the grounds that changes in food and energy were “too volatile,” and the “new” index was named the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index, or PCE, which was described as better able to measure “core inflation.” That means that, although the price of crude oil has more than tripled in the past seven years, and food prices are rising significantly, neither affects the PCE… and the government is telling us that inflation is only a bit over two percent, while, measured by the old CPI, it’s at least four percent, which works out to 40% higher than the “official” figures.
Misleading or restricted information certainly isn’t limited to the federal government, either. One of the Salt Lake City papers noted that a local public health teacher was suspended for discussing sex education material not in the approved curriculum. Her offense? She factually answered student questions about such topics as homosexuality and masturbation, which angered a group of parents. Interestingly enough, the students protested her suspension with a rally and signs with such statements as “We’re the Guilty Ones. We Asked the Questions.” In the good old USA, we still have school boards restricting what can be taught or read based not on what is factual or accurate, but based on religious beliefs.
The multibillion dollar advertising industry consistently manipulates images and facts to create misleading impressions about various products, as do the majority of politicians and political parties, not to mention the plethora of interest groups ranging from the far right to the far left, each of which tends to state that its facts are the correct ones. Needless to say, those with resources and money are the ones whose facts tend to get seen and used the most.
Years ago, the psycholinguist Deborah Tannen observed that there is a gender difference in the use of information. According to her work, in general, men tend to use information to amass and maintain power, while women use it to built networks and draw people to them. That’s one reason why many men refuse to ask for directions — it’s an admission of failure and powerlessness.
Could it be that one reason why the United States so abuses information is that information has become the principal tool for obtaining power in a still-patriarchal and masculine dominated society? I may be stretching matters a bit, but I’m not so certain that I’m all that far off when information is so critical to almost every aspect of American society.
The underlying problem is that, in a mass media culture, even one with theoretical First Amendment protections, the “truth” doesn’t always come out. It often only appears when someone either has enough money and influence to get it on the various airways or when some diligent individual spends hours digging for it.
And then, how can the average individual, even one who is highly educated, determine the accuracy of such “counter-information,” particularly when such a large proportion of the information available to Americans has come to be false, slanted, inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete?
The ancient Romans had a saying — Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — that asked, “Who watches the watchmen?” Perhaps we should consider asking, “Who scrutinizes the information on which we act?”
Or are we already too late? Were H. G. Wells and Orwell all too accurate in their prophecies?