Rage, rage against the dying of the idealized past

I used to love reading the newspaper. For years I had the Globe and Mail, and then the Toronto Star, delivered to my home. I’d read it on the subway, or on my couch, and feel I was reading something important. Five years ago, the Globe pissed me off by charging me twice to read the same content, and I canceled my subscription out of protest. Shortly thereafter I began reading the Star, but once newspapers rolled out RSS feeds I basically threw the paper versions over for this more efficient (and more environmentally friendly) method.

I read this as my own example of how mainstream media was dying, though not already dead, as ‘new’ media liked to claim. It caught my attention, then, that NPR’s Intelligence Squared podcast dealt with the statement “Good riddance to mainstream media” last week. For those of you who haven’t heard NPR’s Oxford-style debates before, the debate is book-ended by audience votes for or against the proposition, and whoever changes the most minds during the debate (according to the audience poll) is declared the winner. Now, forgive the spoiler (as if any of you are going to sit through it!) but those against the proposition win the day. In my opinion this had less to do with the efficacy of anyone’s argument and more to do with the phrasing of the proposition.

I’ll explain: I’d wager that, apart from investors in blog networks, no one wants the mainstream media to collapse and disappear. In fact, most people probably just don’t care. Few, then, would vote for a proposition that sounds rather gleeful about the demise of mainstream media.

Even then, the nays might have won it on a low blow, as those backed into a corner sometimes throw. Again, I’ll explain: the classic tactic of any industry which finds itself under siege is to ignore the facts and appeal to emotion. Think of the music industry: there was no debate about one medium (the CD) being superior to the other (the MP3), and there was certainly no attempt to produce profit by matching supply to the obvious demand; instead, sensing a threat to their existing business model, they wept for the poor artist starving now that he was deprived of album royalties. That was, of course, horseshit, but that’s the tactic: obfuscate by tugging at the heartstrings. Likewise opponents of gay marriage (who purport to defend the very fabric of society), gun ownership lobbies (“You couldn’t be more wrong, Lisa. If I didn’t have this gun, the King of England could just walk in here any time he wants, and start shoving you around.”) and union organizers (who still cast their negotiations as Dickensian urchins struggling under the boot of wealthy land barons).

In this case the MSM tries to equate their business model — print, newsrooms, and on on — with the moral righteousness of pure journalism. Kill newspapers, they say, and you’ll lose the Woodwards and Bernsteins and Murrows of the world who expose corruption and tweak our collective conscience. Leaving aside for a moment the false sanctity of journalism this supposes, there’s a gaping logical flaw in their argument. Just because the mainstream media is where journalistic triumphs have tended to happen, does not prove that only the mainstream media that can produce beneficial journalism.

This notion did float up during the podcast — someone arguing for the proposition did say that no one would debate that journalism is good — but it didn’t garner much discussion, probably because the ‘no’ side benefits from marrying the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. Would should have been debated was the probably longevity of the ‘how’, but it became — as such debates often do — a discussion on the merits of the ‘what’. If the proposition is that the MSM is no longer the most viable model for journalism, but the MSM successfully convinces people that they are journalism, the inferred extension of this is that the end of the MSM equals the end of journalism. It’s a logical fallacy, but an effective tool.

This deceptive tool is usually wrapped up in the banner of tradition or ‘way of life’. Five to ten years from now we’ll be listening to the auto industry explain that conservation and urbanization make us drive less, and driving is synonymous with freedom, and therefore environmentalism is killing freedom.

I went down to the river to scan

Finally overcoming the irony, I managed to summon enough attention to read “Information-rich and attention-poor”, an essay in last week’s Globe and Mail. It’s really quite insightful, and makes clear what so much abundant information is doing to the way we view knowledge:

“Knowledge is evolving from a “stock” to a “flow.” Stock and flow – for example, wealth and income – are concepts familiar to accountants and economists. A stock of knowledge may be thought of as a quasi-permanent repository – such as a book or an entire library – whereas the flow is the process of developing the knowledge. The old Encyclopedia Britannica was quintessentially a stock; Wikipedia is the paradigmatic example of flow. Obviously, a stock of knowledge is rarely permanent; it depreciates like any other form of capital. But electronic information technology is profoundly changing the rate of depreciation…Knowledge is becoming more like a river than a lake, more and more dominated by the flow than by the stock. What is driving this?”

The essay describes very well a problem I’ve been feeling. Well, a change more than a problem per se, but something I’ve sensed. In fact, the author deals with the perception that the shift from a lake to a river is problematic.

“Those of us who are still skeptical might recall that Plato, in the Phaedrus, suggested that writing would “create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it.” This is a striking example of a particular kind of generation gap in which masters of an established paradigm can only see the shortcomings, and not the potential, of the truly novel.”

I’m very comfortable dealing with this river of information. I’ve jumped right in, obviously, by scanning hundreds of news feeds every day at home and at work and picking out the relevant bits, but I feel like I’ve trained for that my whole life by being a generalist…I like knowing something about a lot of things, and knowing a lot about some things, so all this access to information is kind of like mother’s milk to me. I’ve never been the kind of person who memorized things, I’ve always assumed I could look them up or just figure something out again when I needed to. Now it sometimes feels like I can’t remember enough, especially when I’m at work and dealing with people who still value institutional knowledge.

It is frustrating sometimes, that I can’t sit down and focus on something very often. I find that needing to focus for an hour on conceptual work requires that I move to an empty meeting room, or even a Starbucks, just so I get away from the computer and the need to watch the river. That often means printing something so I can work offline, which I hate. So I figure I have three options:

  1. Build a nice, easy ‘dam’ switch on the computer that lets me disable Outlook, Twitter, Google Reader, IM and my phone for an hour or so
  2. Find a way to work on a paper-like form that doesn’t require killing trees. Maybe it’s time for me to get a tablet?
  3. Quit my job and find something that never requires any original thought or conceptual analysis, just parroting of the information I see which adds little or no value to it. But I’ve never really wanted to be a newscaster, so I guess that’s out.

"Both the country and, ultimately, the Republican Party are left the worse for it."

With America’s eyes (and the eyes of others here in Canada and around the world) focused squarely on Washington for Barack Obama’s inauguration, some have taken a break to wonder about outgoing President Bush’s legacy. By the way, I hereby declare “outgoing President Bush” to be the finest three-word combination in the English language.

Ahem.

Anyway, The Economist‘s take on the Bush years — entitled The Frat Boy Ships Out — is probably the best and most comprehensive yet.

Other facets of Mr Bush’s personality mixed with his vaulting ambition to undermine his presidency. Mr Bush is what the British call an inverted snob. A scion of one of America’s most powerful families, he is a devotee of sunbelt populism; a product of Yale and Harvard Business School, he is a scourge of eggheads. Mr Bush is a convert to an evangelical Christianity that emphasises emotion—particularly the intensely emotional experience of being born again—over ratiocination. He also styled himself, much like Reagan, as a decider rather than a details man; many people who met him were astonished by what they described as his “lack of inquisitiveness” and his general “passivity”.

This take in the Globe and Mail is hard to take seriously, as it asks the question ‘Has Bush been judged too soon?’ and turns for an answer to David Frum, Bush’s former speech writer, who may be just the tiniest bit biased — though no more so than the two quoted counterpoints: an historian at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy, and Jimmy Carter.

A failed presidency, two unfinished wars, an economic mess unmatched in decades, America’s reputation sullied and most of his party, the nation and the world glad to see the back of him. When George W. Bush boards the big blue-and-white Boeing 747 that will fly him back to Texas tomorrow, the conventional wisdom will deem him among the worst of presidents.

Yet history tends to soften the harshest of early judgments. Even Richard Nixon, who after the Watergate scandal became the only president ever to resign in disgrace, has been partially rehabilitated by the passage of time and sober second thought.

Could it happen to Mr. Bush?

His admirers think so. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum expects the “assessment of history will be surprisingly positive.”

It all turns on Iraq, which far more than the economy, hurricane Katrina or anything else defines the Bush presidency.

I think that to hang Bush’s legacy solely on Iraq is wishful thinking, a hope I’ve heard repeated elsewhere among Republicans and conservative commentators. This seems less about logic than it does about pinning all hope for Bush’s reputation on his one endeavour that may have a fighting chance at turning out well. I actually think that, over time, Bush’s handling of Katrina will become even more damaging to his legacy…that he ineptly presided over the worst natural disaster in his country’s history will haunt him for decades.

However, what Bush may eventually be best known for bungling is the economy, and the infallible reputation of capitalism he inherited from past presidents like his father and, most especially, his hero Ronald Reagan. As The Economist puts it:

Finally, Mr Bush also demonstrated the limits of capitalist triumphalism. The Bush administration was as business-friendly as any in American history: Mr Bush was the first president with an MBA (from Harvard) and he appointed four CEOs to his cabinet, more than any previous president. The administration was also wedded to the fundamental tenets of Reaganomics: cut taxes and free the supply side and everything else will take care of itself. Mr Cheney even argued explicitly that “Reagan taught us that deficits don’t matter.”

Mr Bush now leaves behind a tax system in some ways less efficient than the one he inherited, in need of annual patches, and unable to fund the government even in good times. He also leaves behind a broken budget process. Any economic triumphalism is long gone. Many of the CEOs, most notably Donald Rumsfeld and Paul O’Neill, proved to be dismal administrators. Reaganomics helped to produce a giant deficit. The financial crisis has made re-regulation rather than deregulation the mantra in Washington, while government has acquired a much bigger role in the economy through its backing of banks and car companies.

“I inherited a recession, I’m ending on a recession,” he noted at his press conference on January 12th. He wasn’t asking for pity, only to be judged on what happened in between. Unfortunately, that economic legacy is littered with wasted opportunity, bad judgments and politicised policy. The budget surplus he inherited is now a deficit, the fiscal hole in America’s retiree programmes is bigger than ever, the tax system is an unstable, patched-up mess.

All that to say, he was a rubbish president. Good riddance. To put a soundtrack on this trip down memory lane, here’s my favourite story so far about Bush’s legacy: Eight Years Gone, in which blogger (and rock god) Carrie Brownstein lists

the music that arose during the last eight years — the bands and songs that wrestled with the fear, uncertainty, disenchantment and frustration that for many people defined the Bush era and the events that unfolded during his tenure.

My favourite song from her list was Bright Eyes‘ performance of “When The President Talks To God” on the Tonight Show, a sharp and caustic swing at the man Conor Oberst could scarely believe was leading his country, in the Dylan-est moment of his somewhat Dylan-ish career. If you haven’t heard it, you can hear it over at YouTube. Listen to it. Listen, and heave a sigh of relief.

A $1.75 MacGuffin

It would seem that Canada’s opposition parties — the three largest left and centre-left parties: the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois — are about to merge. Agreements have been reached as to who should lead the party and hold cabinet positions, and a missive has been dispatched to the Governor General.

Back in October, following the federal election, I joked that the left wing parties should unite, but didn’t think they’d actually try it. Indeed, I don’t think they would have, but for the strategic error Stephen Harper made recently to change campaign finance rules and take away the $1.75 earned by political parties for each vote they gained. That move, coupled with other intended policies and an empty set of solutions for the current economic situation, would inevitably have brought about a major move by the opposition. Normally this would have taken the form of voting down the budget and spurring another election. Instead, the opposition is uniting and hoping to avoid an election. This would win them great gratitude from the public, who would rather juggle rattlesnakes than vote again this year.

Not surprisingly, though, many are upset about this, and the debate is well underway. Witness the nearly 1300 comments on the Globe and Mail’s article posted just 24 hours ago (which Mathew Ingram dissects) or the nearly 3500 on the CBC article. Unfortunately, because of my schedule, I’ve had little time to absorb any of this. Pity; I suspect we’re witnessing one of the more interesting events in Canadian politics in my lifetime.

And a bucket of my finest diet pepsi on ice

I am the hold steady:

  • Original weight: 233
  • Weight last week: 222
  • Weight this week: 222

Break-even’s about as good as I could have hoped for last week. Time was hard to come by and I spent a couple days at the IFL, which never helps. It should get a little better now, though, because…

.:.

I finished my paper today! Well, just about. Still have to proof it and throw SW’s revised references in at the end, but I believe we’re pretty much done. To celebrate I went downstairs and ran three miles. To keep the good times running tonight I may just watch a movie and fall asleep on the couch. Woot.

.:.

Last night’s Canadiens game was another good ‘un. Well, kinda; Montreal jumped out to a three-goal lead early in the game but let the Penguins back in it, finally allowing the tying goal with two minutes left. No joy in overtime, so it went to a shootout…16 shooters later someone finally scored, and thankfully it was Montreal. That was the first time in a few games they played a tight one…it was hard on the nerves. I’ve come to like the blowouts.

.:.

Robert Ouellette wrote a column today in Reading Toronto entitled Why I Am Cancelling My Globe And Mail Subscription And Why You Should Too*. I agree with that sentiment; I canceled my subscription long ago, partly for the reasons Mr. Ouellette describes (environmental concerns, lack of compelling content, abundance of ads and increasingly pro-war editorials) and partly in protest over their decision to charge paper subscribers to access online content.

Interesting side note: the asterisk in the article’s title points to a confession by Mr. Ouellette in which he states that he may be biased against the Globe because he occasionally writes an architecture column for the National Post. While his first three objections would apply to most any newspaper subscription, I should think that his objection to “fear-driven ‘dogs of war’ [having] their way in the paper’s editorial room” would sour him completely on the Post.

[tags]fatblogging, mba, reading toronto, robert ouellette, globe and mail, national post[/tags]