To kick off our panel at SXSW, Jay, Tristan and I have prepared our opening statements in advance. Two of the three statements are up, and linked below. Tristan’s is on the way. Your feedback on these will help us to make them better before Monday’s event.
I. Matt Thompson: The case for context
If you’re like most people, you have a certain amount of ambient knowledge that health-care reform is happening. You pay attention to headlines, and you see a lot of stories about Nancy Pelosi saying this, or Mitch McConnell saying that. You catch a line or two about it in a Presidential address. You’ve watched some headlines about it in the evening news.
Chances are that most of the information you’ve encountered about this subject has been what I’d call episodic. Over time, you may have heard a lot about budget reconciliation, insurance premium hikes, the public option, the excise tax, the Wyden-Bennett bill, the Stupak amendment, and on and on and on. You know that Democrats are trying to do something to the health care system, but it’s either a government takeover or an insurance industry giveaway. Hard to tell.
This constant torrent of episodic information is how many of us encounter information about current events. This has been true for as long as any of us has been alive, but in the wake of the real-time Web, it’s become ever more constant and ever more torrential.
II. Jay Rosen: News without the narrative needed to make sense of the news
Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop. If you can imagine a situation that absurd, then you are ready to partake in the Future of Context panel that I’ll be part of at the South by Southwest festival in Austin next week.
Here are some of my ideas, questions and puzzlers in advance of that event. I am posting them today in hopes of generating a discussion I can use to improve my performance in Austin. (It’s already happening, see the comments.)
1. Why are we serving people the news without the background narrative necessary to make sense of the news? I first became interested in this problem after listening to The Giant Pool of Money, the awesomely effective one-hour This American Life episode that finally explained to me what the mortgage banking crisis was, how it happened and why it implicated… well, just about everyone. I was grateful, because up to that moment I had absorbed many hundreds of reports about “subprime lenders in trouble” but had not understood a single one of them.
It wasn’t that these reports were uninformative. Rather, I was not informable because I lacked the necessary background knowledge to grasp what was being sent to me as news. On the other hand there was no easy way for me to get that background and make myself informable because the way our news system works, it’s like the updates to the program arrive whether you have the program installed or not! Which is rather messed up. But what do we do about it? The first thing I did is write my 2008 post, National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News. So if you want to help me out, start there.
III. Tristan Harris: Context and the future of the Web
Say you’re walking into the Metropolitan museum of New York on a sunny afternoon in May. You walk inside and stroll down a hallway of 17th century paintings from Italy. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t know much about the paintings that line the halls, or why a certain piece is particularly notable or revolutionary. You just sort of go along with it. You’re obeying an implicit social contract you have to the museum during that half an hour– “I’m in a prestigious art museum in NY and society says the paintings here are important, so I might as well pay attention for a little while.”
But the reality is, you don’t really know or care much about the paintings on the walls. While you might glean bits and pieces from the tiny yellow notecards appearing next to each piece – year, author, type of paint used – the whole experience is relatively flat. The paintings haven’t given you any reason to care about them. Put another way, if you peered into your brain during this experience, you’d probably see it light up pretty simple, low-order sensory areas: “look, there’s a black brush stroke on a giant white canvas.”
Compare that experience to this one:
Suppose you walk into the Met and an NYU Professor of Art History suddenly appears saying she wants to tell you everything about art in the museum. She grabs you by the hand and leads you through the hallways, enthusiastically explaining the different artistic periods, pointing out the significance of each flourish used by the painter, describing the life and economic status of the artist during the time they painted, and so on. Equipped with this framework to understand the painting, instead of just seeing colors and lines on top of canvases, you now appreciate detailed information about each piece that you couldn’t have before… it’s almost as if you’re perceiving a different painting than the one before the Art History teacher showed up.