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Consider the Source

Every day we are confronted with a huge amount of data to process. People we talk to, mass media, and the Web provide a never-ending stream of information, facts, opinions, and advertising. So much data can be overwhelming. It’s difficult to separate the signal from the noise, so we try to take it all in.

Anyone who has played Chinese Whispers knows how quickly a story can change, and how the slightest nuance in detail can alter context and meaning, having a profound impact on the message delivered. The Obama campaign was famously meticulous in their messages for this very reason. Palin, on the other hand, was a bit haphazard. We all know the result.

The reason I’m impelled to discuss this is the growing legions of “experts”, “gurus”, “authorities”, and “specialists” making appearances all over the Web, claiming they know the paths to riches and righteousness. There have been snake oil salesmen since the genesis of commerce, and they will always linger along the fringes of our social fabric. We know their voice when we hear it, yet we listen to them anyway. The iceberg metaphor is appropriate here, this is a much larger problem than we might believe — and it’s growing.

Consider this scenario: a trusted co-worker tells you the building you are in is on fire. Now consider the same story from the office clown. Do you get out? The source of the information is immediately relevant to your decision. Every message we encounter came from an agenda. Some good, some ill-intentioned, some just misguided. The difficulty is figuring out what motivates the message.

How often do we stop to consider the source of what we’ve just been told?

People like Seth Godin and sources like NPR or the New York Times have earned our trust with consistently truthful messages over time. We can easily check their facts and verify their sources. But what about a random blog post or that ‘marketing expert’ on Twitter?

We like to hear sound-bytes. Little bits of information that seem to encapsulate a deep thought our complex subject in a short succinct phrase. Perhaps that’s why services like Twitter have become so popular. It’s the perfect platform for sound-bytes. We are quick to reuse a fact we heard or quote something we read when discussing a subject of which we have only a cursory understanding. All too often the email forward and ‘retweet’ are done with little consideration. The success of services like Twitter has given a new platform for the silver-tongued devil. A place where one can gain a mass audience of sheep with willing ears. And this is the root of my concern.

“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis.”
— the Dalai Lama

Unless we are willing and diligent enough to do our own thinking, we can be easily led misled by any number of people or ideas. Eventually, as drone followers we may forget to think altogether. A frighteningly large segment of the American population has already succumb to the media overload. Most people don’t listen closely, and don’t think about what they’ve heard. The evidence is all around us.

Arguably, the largest distinction between man and beast is cognitive thought. We have the ability to process information in a way that no other creature in known existence has. Is it not shameful to set that ability aside and submit ourselves to group-think — or worse — to become like the metaphorical lemmings and simply go along unquestioningly with popular opinion, with potentially dangerous or fatal consequences?

Unless we use our gift of reason, evolution has every right to take it from us. Is that the result we are after?