Rabbits, touch screens and democracy

I’ll admit it: it’s not normal for me to think about rabbits in Australia at 4am on what’s looking like a perfectly good Sunday. But today’s ramble is about touch-screen tablets, rabbits and democracy. Well, the touch-screen thing, mostly.

It so came to pass that over the last several weeks, I’ve been pondering whether I should buy one of those iPad thingamajigs and mostly, I’ve been coming up with “buy” cases (mainly revolving around, and limited to, reading). It’s not that I’m not aware of the “no need to buy” arguments: certainly plenty of them around in the household (emanating mostly from the missus), but one cannot let the decision be clouded with facts. I’ve come to the conclusion that though Maslow put in a lot of effort into building his pyramid thingy, it is entirely up to my discretion where in the hierarchy I assign individual purchase decisions. But anyway, this got me thinking about rabbits in Australia—you know, naturally.

Rabbits (oryctolagus cuniculus—gotta love ‘em scientific names) were brought into Australia by colonial Europeans. Once introduced into the ecosystem, they basically did their thing: ate lots of veggies, multiplied like crazy and created all manner of havoc from soil erosion to the extinction of several marsupials. When Thomas Austin (yes, it can apparently be traced back to one guy; and no, I don’t know him personally) set a couple of dozen of them free in a park, he clearly didn’t intend to create the fastest spread of marauding mammals in recorded history. Yet, he certainly underestimated the unintended consequences of the furry creatures in a new habitat.

No one can predict unintended consequences (hence the name), but we can certainly attempt to learn from them a posteriori. What got me thinking about unintended consequences with my mundane iPad deliberation was how amateur publishing has unintentionally weakened democracy and how all is not yet lost.

(This is the part where I start ranting.)

The problem I have with amateur link-and-run journalism is that it is long on linking but short on investigation. They seem to have neither the willingness nor the resources to do investigative journalism and yet, for most practical purposes, they now approach the legitimacy of a fair and able institution. This has caused readership at typical newspapers to steadily decline thereby weakening a key foundational checks-and-balance system within democracy.

To make things even worse, the press already has real issues to start with. As Chomsky has convincingly argued, the press has tremendous incentive caused biases in the form of editorial filters which make our newspapers and magazines a lot less fair and a lot less useful than we’d like it to be. The list of woes grows ever longer: advertising bias, corporate bias, recency bias, vividness bias, sensationalism bias…

Declining readership and revenues causes non-subsidized, for-profit newspapers to cut costs; and one especially critical victim of this is investigative journalism. It’s an easy target as it tends to be expensive and the payoff is neither predictable nor immediate. Marquee national or international newspapers might not have to cut to the bone as closely, but the smaller city and regional newspapers certainly have had to as they find it difficult to charge for their news online (“Pay for online news? Like, with real money and stuff?”)

So, unbeknownst to us, a vital organ of democracy has become malnourished. These are slow burn effects and we humans are pathetic at detecting small incremental changes until they become vast seismic shifts, so this keeps going unnoticed till one day we are shocked to find that our elected politicians are unbelievably corrupt and exploiting the system to indulge in their personal lifestyles funded by taxpayer money. Like the proverbial frog which boiled to death in a slowly heated pot of water, we won’t notice until it’s too late.

And this won’t be the first time the foundations of the press have been weakened–again, unintentionally. When Craigslist came along, advertising essentially became free and newspapers suffered.

While some might hail the 25,000 news sources updated, tweeted, liked and linked real-time as the great democratization of the world, I suspect the reality is that we’ve become less democratic in a puritanical sense of the word. We have too much news but too little analysis, and calculate too much and think too little. Collectively, we’ve become the village idiot who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Touch screen tablets might have a real chance at increasing readership of (and revenues from) high quality content and hence allocating human capital better to productive journalism that has the ability to have real impact. With improved quality of analysis and investigative journalism, hopefully our leaders feel an increased sense of accountability and act more intelligently and responsibly.

I’m certainly under no illusion that this is the silver bullet for restoring the true “without fear or favor” force of the media. There are other certainly deep- seated issues in media which are mostly fueled by incentive caused biases and which seem as intractable as they are pervasive. But hey, if we can start paying for quality news analysis, that’s as good a start as we can hope for.

I’m not sure how far this will go towards securing my touch-screen tablet, but I’m going to take this rather elaborate argument to the missus and see how things go from there. It’s not for me, you see, it’s for the free world. That’s the least I can do from my armchair.

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