Saturday, November 13, 2010

critical mass media

So somebody posted a tweet making a joke threat to blow up Robin Hood Airport, the legal cogs turned and spat out a punishment for broadcasting a menacing statement, the result a huge outpouring of outrage. It is a situation which couldn't have happened even a couple of decades ago and probably shows that the legal system is ill equipped to deal with 21st Century communications technology.

But that is not the main point that struck me about this; what struck me is that not just the legal system is out of date but the whole way we, as people living together in society, filter our communication is outdated and unreliable now. Consider the same statement made in different circumstances.

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!"

The context would completely change the amount of menace we construed: if it was a friend or a taxi driver who said it or if it was a comedian as part of a show or if it was an intercepted radio transmission etc, etc. In just about every case there is a natural dampening process which takes even the most potent sounding threat and downgrades it: because it doesn't reach many people, because we expect fiction or (in the last case) because there would be a validation process on the interception before anybody in a position of authority would allow it to reach the public domain.

Our media has been fairly strictly delineated so that we know when we are being told news about real things going on or when we are getting entertainment. Through experience of the way people around us talk and act, we judge when they are really threatening and when they are just sounding off. Sometimes this breaks down clearly - no system this complicated is fool-proof - like the panic induced by Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast or the conman who we believe to be genuine. But the dampeners stopped most of these things before they reach a critical level and we put an enormous amount of faith in the calm voice of authority which reassures us that "everything is under control and there is no need to panic".

But now there are no recognisable boundaries between real news, social chatter and entertainment and there is no obvious authority to stop rumour, fear or anger from spiralling out of control. When something goes viral online it's so fast that the normal dampeners are way to slow to contain it. The old style news media is relegated to reporting the online reaction and effects. The danger is that real people are at the sharp end of these fireballs: somebody who said something which they might say every day in normal circumstances but didn't allow for the effect of putting it into the incendiary environment online. The speed of tranceiving pieces of information and the number of people doing it means there is an unstable critical mass at any time waiting for a catalyst to start the chain reaction.

So what is disquieting about the airport threat joke is not that somehow free speech has been denied by the law but more how easy it is to assume that when we are using these new forms of communication that the old rules apply.

Friday, November 12, 2010

absolute belief

As there are a huge number of beliefs held by intelligent people to be unshakably true despite the complete absence of any empirical evidence to support them and as they are mutually contradictory and exclusive; it follows that the only logical stance is to have an unshakable belief that it makes no difference at all what you believe in the absence of evidence and to pursue that faith unfalteringly.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


When I was about six our class at school didn't have a proper classroom for a while (I don't know why - maybe it was being rebuilt or something) so our tables and chairs were moved into a corridor and we had all our lessons there. Just to add to the strangeness of the situation the corridor actually sloped downhill from the cloakroom at one end to whatever was at the bottom end - I can't remember. One afternoon when the teacher had presumably run out of steam coming up with 'proper' lessons that you could do in such an odd shaped space (or maybe inspired by the linearity of our temporary classroom) she handed out strips of paper a metre long each divided into a hundred centimetre sections. We were to occupy ourselves by writing in the numbers from 1 to 100 in the spaces. When we completed this task we should take the completed rule to the teacher who would check it and give us another strip for 101 to 200. Some of the girls who always were best at everything got to four or five hundred, but I kept going. When I got onto my sixth or seventh strip most of the teacher's supply had run out and most of the class had stopped (we were probably told to read quietly or something but I wasn't a keen reader at that age). Luckily a friend of mine had a strip he hadn't started and was only too glad to give it to me. Now the goal of my reaching a thousand caught the collective imagination of the class and people started hunting out new strips for me to complete. It got to tidying up time but the teacher, sensing maybe, a sense of purpose and focus in a child prone to hiding rather than joining in, let me continue - my classmates supported the quest by doing my part of whatever chore we were supposed to do - pencils in jars, books on shelves or whatever. Finally to my own astonishment I wrote in the final four digits and, clutching my achievement, proudly went out to meet my mum. I later sellotaped the ten strips together into one ten metre long ribbon and it remained, wound in a roll about two inches across with an elastic band round it in the desk drawer in our room for the rest of my childhood.