An Alarming Development

Not a time for resting on “assumptions”

In the physical world, Newton’s First Law of Motion is pretty straightforward and easy for non-scientists to understand: “An object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force”. That’s basically the definition of inertia.  A parallel concept in the broader world in which we live is that we humans have a tendency to assume that, absent a major crisis of some kind [like Newton’s “external force”], things that seem okay today will remain okay.

Unfortunately, in these times, that is not a safe assumption. In America, the overall sociopolitical climate has been changing exponentially over the past few years, and we would be well-advised to view each of the components of this change with more scrutiny. Any one of these components could be a harbinger of a trend that, if amplified over time, could be looked back upon in the future as something that should have been fervently resisted.

Changes in human perceptions tend to occur over years, decades or even longer before they become highly noticeable when viewed in context with the past. As one decades-long example, the Civil Rights Movement itself changed [for the better, in my opinion] perceptions of both blacks and whites toward each other. Although there appears to be bitter hatred toward each other at both extremes today [Black Panthers at one extreme, White Supremacists at the other], general perceptions of each other in the much larger “center” are starkly different [and better] than they were decades ago.

A Harbinger?

One of the things I’m noticing lately [since the election] that is very disturbing to me is the attention being paid in the media to what some call “fake news”.  The recent presidential election campaign provided numerous examples, with total fiction flowing from both sides about underhanded things the other side was doing. Anybody can post anything on FaceBook or Twitter, or send a “broadcast email” to lists he/she can access — and if they want to, they can even include logos of companies or organizations that make these posts look like forwards from reputable sources.

The way Liberals are talking about this, there is a need for “screening”, and there is considerable pressure on Google, FaceBook and Twitter [because they are very large companies, and companies of their ilk are quickly overtaking traditional media as the principal source of news for more and more millions of people] to come up with ways to do that. This is very disturbing.

The First Amendment has been used to justify such things as publication of what almost any reasonable person would call pornography, very derogatory and hateful remarks some people make about others, etc.  The justification in court cases is, in so many words, what one person considers distasteful another considers “art” or “freedom of expression”. By that logic, what basis would a liberal kid like Mark Zuckerberg [FaceBook CEO] use for deciding what “news” items being posted on FaceBook are “appropriate” — or even “accurate”, for that matter?

We have laws against slander, and to the extent one person or organization posts something that is provable as untrue in Social Media [or publishes or broadcasts it in traditional media] that is derogatory toward another person or organization, the offended person or organization can sue for damages. In purchasing decisions, caveat emptor [let the buyer beware] should always be a consideration.  Absent slander, everything that comes into a person’s email inbox, FaceBook News Feed or Twitter Feed should fall under whatever the equivalent Latin phrase would be for “let the reader/listener/viewer beware”.

Big Brother?

Underlying something in the calls to “do something about this” is an interesting mindset — that Joe Citizen is either a) incapable of discerning for himself which pieces of media “news” he consumes are true and which aren’t or b) unwilling to do the research to sort all that out and just lets it all “soak in”. The extension of that thinking is that people who are in a better position to make that decision than Joe need to to make it for him and screen out “inappropriate” content so he doesn’t see it in the first place.

The environment depicted in George Orwell’s 1949 book 1984, though possibly off [depending on one’s point of view!] in its projected year of realization, was exactly what the near future could hold for us if this train of thought “catches on” politically and gains some traction that results in legislation and/or executive actions [or even in “collaborative agreements” among key media moguls].

The technology in the 1954 movie version of Orwell’s book might look “clunky” by today’s standards, but the underlying conceptual framework was remarkably accurate in predicting today’s technological capabilities — ubiquitous devices for viewing everything going on everywhere [even within private homes], centralized surveillance by authorities using that technology, the ability for those doing the surveillance to have dialog with individual people … sound familiar today?

Just think about today’s technology: smartphones; the Internet; Internet-connected TV content delivery devices [the newer cable TV boxes, Roku, AppleTV, Google Chromecast, etc.]; video devices used [ostensibly only] for traffic management, building security, etc.; home automation devices; automobile electronics; the “Internet of Things”; drones; etc.  … now, think about that technological environment in context with recently-uncovered  “goings on” in the CIA and the FBI, and it’s not very hard to see Orwell’s “future” being more like the present than we’d like to believe is possible.

A recent TV series, Person of Interest, is not as much science fiction as one might think. Most if not all of that technology already exists as components, and the degree to which it is [or could be] all tied together and usable in the way depicted in the TV series [very much like Orwell’s 1984, but in an ostensibly more altruistic setting] is much more plausible than we might assume when watching the show as entertainment.

Learn from the frog in the pot of boiling water

The issue I’ve tried to shine some light on in this post [pressure on Google, FaceBook and Twitter now, but potentially any company with an “audience”, to find ways to screen out “fake news”] is something we should all follow and understand — particularly if any screening methods these companies come up with move in the direction of promulgating government regulations or even “collaborative agreements”. This is a classic example of something that could become a “frog in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil” situation — we are apathetic about it until it is apparent that it has become a danger, at which time we can’t prevent the highly undesirable outcome [in the case of the frog, leg muscles “cooked” to the point of being too weak to enable him to jump out of the pot; in ours, Orwell’s 1984].

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Charles M. Jones

Author: Charles M. Jones, PE, CPA

[retired — neither license active]

2 thoughts on “An Alarming Development”

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