Learning To Live With Infinity

When will it ever end…….

Since we first crawled out of the primordeal soup some millenia ago, we have lived in a world of limitations.

We quickly learned that after a while we ran out of food…. or water… or land….

This world of limitations was perhaps the strongest constant in our million year march to civilization. It is deeply embedded in our cultural DNA. We cannot but help think of a world of limitations. And as a result, we went on to build institutions in our societies that reflected this deeply understood notion of limits. Armies, slavery, capitalism, agriculture – they are all in a way designed to deal with the inherent limits that nature puts in our path. Even our own lives have built in limits – since the days of Moses, we expect to live to 3 score and 10. Not much has changed. So we talk about Social Security or Universal Health Care, or 30 year ARM mortgages. This notion of limits runs deep!

Then, close to the end of the 20th Century, along comes the Internet.

For the very first time in our culture, we are faced with something that instead of having a limited amount of space, is in fact infinite.

This is, in many ways, hard for us to grasp. All our social and political and economic institutions; indeed the very way we have been thinking for all our history on earth, is predicated on a world of limits.

But not the web.

It requires a whole new way of thinking, and whole new institutions and economies.

This will not happen over night. Indeed, there will be a long period of ‘awareness’ as we come to understand what it means to live in a world of infinity.

The Long Tail is just one small ah-hah moment of the nature of the infinite world. There will be more to come.

Now, what does this have to do with journalism?

I was much taken by the conversation that ensued as a result of Saturday’s post, and a similar discussion that arose on b-roll.net, (you can skip the earlier nonsense, but the last page is pretty interesting).

As the convergence of the web + cheap video and text manufacture unleashes a torrent of content, how do we deal with it? It is a whole new and uncharted world.

This made me think about the nature of the web. One of its most interesting features is that is just goes on forever. We are, of course, at the very beginning of this process, but that which we put into it will only continue to grow and grow in an endless mountain of information, archived forever. Think how much there will be in 100 years!

It is this very nature of infinity that now begins to define the way in which we think about information, society and journalism.

(By the way, those who develop mechanisms to manage this almost incomprehensible avalanche of content will make fortunes! Google is but the first of many to come.)

In any event….

The world in which we had all grown up was a world of limited shelf space. 3 networks shared an electromagnetic spectrum. Each had only 24 hours a day, of which, Prime Time was but a few. Newspapers required trees and ink and paper and trucks and a lot of money to maintain, so there was an inherent limit to the number of papers any town or city would support. A world of limits.

In this world of limits, we had to develop a way to deliver believable information on a regular basis: journalism. You had to be able to trust it. And since the world of limits meant that there would only be a limited number of voices, it was imperative, in our thinking, that each voice was ‘balanced’. That is, that each voice fairly represented each side of an argument. (It is arguable about whether this is even possible, but that was the ideal goal).

Essentially, the model boiled down was:

One voice – many points of view

Then, along comes the World Wide Web. And suddenly, almost overnight, the physical limitations of the how many voices can be heard are wiped away. No longer does NBC have a monopoly over who can get into someone’s home on a regular basis. No longer is The New York Times the only way to publish ‘news’. Now, in an instant really, anyone who has anything to say is free to say it and distribute it globally, at almost no cost. (Just as I am sitting at my kitchen table now writing this. I no longer have to submit letters to The New York Times in the hopes that perhaps…perhaps.. one will be published. I am talking to you, now, for free).

This is indeed a whole new world. A brand new, whole new world, with new rules, and new potential, And so here is the construct of that whole new world of journalism:

Many voices – many points of view

The technology of the Infinite frees us from the ‘need’ to try and ‘balance’ our journalism.

This was always an impossible task anyway. Who could give proper ‘balance’ to Robert Mugabe’s perspective? Yet, seemingly 43% of Zimbabwe supports him to the point of killing the opposition. Yet no credible news organization has opted to present his fairly popular perspective; though they all attest to being honest and balanced.

So perhaps we should instead embrace the new architecture. Open Platform. Free Press. Many voices. Many points of view. (and perhaps most disturbing to us… many truths).

Or, as Chairman Mao (another very popular leader (can one billion Chinese be wrong?) who got a bit less than fair and balanced reporting perhaps – particularly during the Cold War)), said – “Let a Million Flowers Bloom”.

It’s going to be a bit disturbing for a while, because it cuts against our old, small, limited yet very comfortable and understandable world.

But it’s going to come, because the technology and the economics make it inevitable.

I am sure it was equally disturbing for the people of Columbus’ day, when he discovered that the world did not end a few hundred miles offshore, but seemingly went on forever.


10 responses to “Learning To Live With Infinity

  1. I have hear the “many truths” argument. The NPPA removed the word, “truth” from its ethics code about five years ago when I was on the board. I voted against it.

    I haven’t done a lot of research on the philosophical reasoning…. but I will take a quick stab at an argument.

    There is one truth.

    Philosophically, there can be only one truth. It is impossible for there to be more than one truth. Period.

    There are different viewpoints. There are different opinions.

    Journalistm – as I have stated – has been defined, and should remain to be defined as different than other forms of communications. Media law is the controlling authority. Codes of Ethics are secondary controlling authorities. People follow ethics voluntarily, and assocations have the option of enforcement. (Currently they are not enforced, but should be in the future.)

    Journalists are to present “facts.” Not opinions. Editorialists give opinions. People give opinions. Free speech is thriving. Free press is thriving. Yet JOURNALISM is being watered down, by a lack of identification.

    Let’s get back to identifying ethical “journalism.” At least for the sake of my argument 😉

    There are facts. Journalists present facts – and
    “attribute” them to their source. Those facts, as attributed, are not necessarily the “truth.” But when the journalist tries to verify by double checking the facts – THEN they become truth. When there are different sides of a story, then the journalist presents both sides, and again verifies. Perhaps both are truthful – then the public can get both sides and weigh the facts.

    You can test me on any scenerio. I believe there is one truth. Many perspectives, yes. Because there, in theory, can never be more than one truth.

    Unless there is an alternative universe that some of us live in? But I don’t see any evidence for that.

  2. ….. Because truth defines facts and facts define truth….

    Opinion is irrelevent to “truth.”

    So that is why you define journalism as factual, and truthful. And why you define opinion as opinion. The two are separate.

  3. eb said:

    I believe there is one truth. Many perspectives, yes. Because there, in theory, can never be more than one truth.

    So what constitutes the one truth you are referring to and whose truth is it?

    Not trying to be an a$$ – just wondering where you’re going with this.

  4. eb
    I think the differentiation you are looking for is ‘news’ vs. ‘journalism’.
    news is just the facts, and these arguably, if done right, have neither bias nor variability. The facts are the facts. But journalism, at least throughout its rather short history, has always been a blending of facts with much more. The desire of the journalist is not just to report, but also to explain and contextualize. Once you get into that realm, you get in to the area of various shades of ‘truth’.

  5. Michael – you put into words what I could not

    Thanks for providing a framewrok that explains the difference.

  6. Debating “truth” is something philosphers have been doing for some time…so I just took a quick stab.

    The question aways comes up “whose truth?”

    I maintain that truth defines fact and fact defines truth.

    When you ask, “whose truth?” That actually applies to “perspective” of fact, or “opionion” or “viewpoint.” We all can have different views of something. But that, in my mind…. does not change the facts or truth of any situation.

    When you get into the truth about bigger issues, such as religion, then it becomes faith. And you can not prove faith with debate or arguement. That is actually the “alternate universe” that does exist. Very interesting debates in that arena…. that deal with God and Satan, the underlying basis of good and evil, truth and lies.

    Again, in theory and in principal, philosophically and practically, there can be only one truth. Period.

    There are different motives, different lives, different people, countries, religions, politics, views, opinions. But in matters of journalism, news and human understanding, there can only be one truth.

    Definitions matter. That is why you need to watch out for lies and deception. Because re-defining things like “truth” and “journaism” are really where the danger lies.

    Danger is when people want to present an opinion as the truth. Or relabel opinion as truth. Or as fact.

    Stay strong in your knowledge, understanding of defintions… and protect them, just as much as you would protect the truth. Because it is the truth. 😉

    Philosphical arguments are a great deal of fun… Don’t be fooled.

  7. I understand Michael, that a news report – includes factual information – “the bomb exploded at this cafe” – with the viewpoints or opinions of witnesses “I saw him do it” and analysis of experts “this might have been done in retaliation for yesterday’s attack”

    Again, journalists ATTRIBUTE. That is how this type of mixture of fact and opinion is conducted… so the public understands which is which. That is ethical.

    It is when only one side of an issue is presented as fact – when in fact it might be opinion – where the unethical practice occurs. And that is why in the future, ethical journalism might be FURTHER and more explicitly identified.

    In the past, newspapers and other journalism outlets have followed ethics codes that indeed DO separate presentations of opinion, editorial, letters to the editor, from “journalism.”

    In the digital future, the free flow of ideas, videos, news, information, entertainment, etc… will increase. Wow! What a different age it will be. Yet the waters will get muddier as to where fair and ethical journalism will be practiced. Currently, there are many questions already from the public about the bias, the ethics. That will only get worse. As I said in another post on broll… Ethics will either be promoted more, or they will be demoted more. I am simply advocating the promotion of ethics in journalism… instead of trying to remove them from relevence.

    Nice, interesting, and deep discussions. Thanks.

  8. Eric
    I think a great deal of this hinges on how we define ‘journalism’. If it’s just the pure reporting of facts, then certainly I agree with you – there are no gradations of truth, and no room for alternative realities.

    However, as you know, journalism is often described as the first draft of history, and much journalism goes far beyond a mere recitation of factual truth.

    Our 5Ws – Who, What, When, Where and Why (the first thing they taught us at Columbia J School, day one, RW1). The first four Ws are all pretty straightforward. Who, What, When and Where. Not much room for variables. either ou get it right or wrong. But it’s that 5th one, the Why, that is the broad area of interpretation and opinion. But I think its that 5th W that carries much of the value of journalism and makes it so damned interesting… and important.

  9. Michael,

    It was a surprise when I wrote your last post. I had actually scribbled on a note those exact same words and was just going to write the same points.

    I had written down the 5 Ws. The first four are the foundation. Who, What, Where, When are all factually true at the core. In these areas, “One Truth” exists and cannot be changed.

    “Why” however, can contain different reasons, each of them could be true. Journalists spend time, along with historians, to uncover “why” something happened.

    Now, I beg your pardon while I go deep.

    Most of the time, there are various reasons. For instance, Why is the economy sluggish? There are a number of reasons – people over extend their credit – people live beyond their means – the price of oil is high – there is war – there is flooding – supply – demand – etc… Each of these reasons can be true.

    Here’s a tougher Why question. Columbine High School: Why did Klebold and Harris do it? There could be many reasons. Ultimately, it might be said they were controlled by evil. Is that a truth? Some say yes. Some say no. When it comes to acts of evil – it becomes a debate between faith, science, concience, and human reasoning. “Why” becomes harder, if not impossible to explain as “true.” (Although those who believe in God and Satan actually find it easy to understand. Those who do not believe in the Biblical teachings of good and evil find it almost impossible to define why evil takes place.)

    And THAT actually is important… for both of our arguments.

    I think there can be a Molecular Structure of Truth. Perhaps there are books written about this philosophy – or perhaps the Bible is where it all ends up?

    Either way, I think it ends up at both scenerios…. both ONE truth, and MANY TRUTHS. How can “both” be true? That there is both “One Truth” and “Many Truths?”

    Think of truth as the atom. Or the the core of reality on earth.

    Who, What, Where, When are the basic elements. They cannot be broken down.

    “Why” For many questions, there can be different reasons “why.” Yet journalists and historians need to ask why. Why is important.

    But I will try this philosophical approach…

    Why is not a basic element. Because “why” can be broken down into the other basic elements – who, what, where, and when. When you get the answer to “why” did something happen – you often have to break it down to the other factual information. Those other facts, need to be verified as true, or false.

    That is because “WHY” might seem to be as simple as the other four Ws… but it’s not. “Why” can be a multi levelled, multi celled. It can be very complex, or even very simple.

    One more very important aspect about “Why” – it can often lead to matters of unexplainable mystery. Why did Klebold and Harris kill at Colmbine? Ultimately, that is impossible to answer. Right? Some explain it as Evil. Some explain it as science gone bad. That is where the Bible, faith, belief, God, religion, science enter the mix of “Truth.” And “Why” becomes a two headed monster (One Truth – Two Truths)

    Then that leads to this conclusion: There is a secular answer to “why” and there is a supernatural answer to “why.” Both are valid…because both exist. Journalists must report on “why.” And we cannot leave out the facts that some people make decisions to act…. on faith, or evil influence. There are many beliefs, many faiths, many reasons, many explainations. And they cannot be verified as “true” in secular terms.

    My understanding is that there are two “realities.” Therefore, it does get confusing to understand. Because in my faith, there is one God… yet we live on an earth that is controlled and defined, not only by God — but also by secular forces, (which include sin, and satan.) Satan is the father of lies.

    When it comes to our journalistic positions, we need to define truth within the FOUR Ws. And the “why” will sometimes never be answerable – because of the nature of good and evil – that, I believe, exists not only in the world we cover… but within the world of journalism.

    I did not plan on getting religious or supernatural… So I will let you get your blog back on the media, journalism track.

    But once you asked the question about “One Truth” or “Many Truths” it made me think. It won’t stop here.

    Synopsis: In the end, I think “one truth” applies to the FOUR Ws. And “many truths” applies to “Why.” Why can first be broken down to factual truths of who, what, where, when. But when it comes to “Motives” and human nature, THEN the question “why” has two forces – good and evil which apply. Yet many do not believe in those supernatural forces… so “Many” truths does affect this world. I just happen to find my answers in the Bible…which explains good and evil. So I can write off those deeper questions of “why” a bit easier.

    Long post! Interesting philosophical discussion.

  10. Dear Eric
    Well very very interesting indeed.
    The first 4 Ws, we all agree are immutable. But it is that 5th, that last 20% that I think provides us with 90 percent both of what makes our journalism both interesting and important, as well as what makes our lives both interesting and important. It is the Why that separates us – that defines our culture and our civilization. To back to the religious aspect of all this, the 10 Commandments are pretty clear. Thou Shalt Not Kill. There is not much room for discussion. No one asks God ‘why not?’
    But the measure of our humanity is in how we interpret the meaning of God’s laws. For Jews it is buried in endless volumes of Talmud or Mishna. For Christians it is an endless discussion of what Jesus would do. For Muslims it is Hadiths.
    We start with the 4 Ws, or the 10Cs, then we are on our own.

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