American Culture

As noise overwhelms signal, how faithful are your witnesses?

There is much you need to know to wisely direct your life. At some point, an event may occur that you cannot personally witness. Suppose the consequences of the event affect you — without first-hand knowledge of the event, will you be aware of it? Will you be able to react to it?

You will want to know what happened. You may not immediately want to know what someone else thinks or feels about what happened. That may come later. You first want someone to tell you clearly and with minimal subjectivity what happened with no opinion or impression attached.

You live in a second-hand world. You need someone to observe the world first-hand when you cannot. Who will you trust to faithfully do that for you?

Sociologist C. Wright Mills described this half a century ago in the book The Politics of Truth:

The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds. They are aware of much more than they have personally experienced, and their own experience is always indirect.

The quality of their lives is determined by meanings they have received from others. Everyone lives in a world of such meanings. No man stands alone directly confronting a world of solid facts. …

[I]n their everyday life they do not experience a world of solid fact; their experience itself is selected by stereotyped meanings and shaped by readymade interpretations. Their images of the world, and of themselves, are given to them by crowds of witnesses they have never met and never shall meet.

Yet for every man these images — provided by strangers and dead men — are the very basis of his life as a human being.

Your information needs may be summed up by three questions: How does the world work? Why does it work that way? What will be the impact on me?

The answers reflect the raw data of empirical observation and a neutral explanation of phenomena eventually followed by analyses laced with points of view. Those “crowds of witnesses” offer that information in many forms — books, movies, art, advertising, television, music, and the various means by which journalism and pseudo-journalism are distributed.

You first need to know what happened. But doesn’t it increasingly seem that your principal sources are also those who didn’t witness the event first-hand either? Doesn’t it seem as if your first notice of what happened comes from a second-hand source who is not a witness at all? Is that source someone using the pretense of a witness, someone who imbues that initial report with analysis laced with a point of view, pre-coloring and presaging your first impression? Which do you need first — a subjective point of view or one as objective as possible?

Reflect on your information needs. (Not your wants — that’s a different post.) What do you need to know? Why do you need to know it? Who will credibly tell you?

Mills’ analysis of understanding the human condition anticipates the digital world you live in. Your second-hand world consists of, in Mills’ words, “stereotyped meanings and shaped by readymade interpretations.” From what source do you not receive pre-digested reports?

If you want information without a point of view shaping it, perhaps you need Anne. She is a Fair Witness in Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Her employer, Jubal Harshaw, is asked to demonstrate her capabilities. Harshaw points to a building and asks Anne its color. Her reply: “White on this side.” In Heinlein’s fictional world, a Fair Witness has total recall, is fully impartial, and makes no intuitive or analytical leaps beyond what she can witness (such as assuming the color on the side of the building she cannot see).

A Fair Witness is the antithesis of a Spin Doctor. Anne, the Fair Witness, is a source of unfiltered fact. You are left to divine the meaning of that fact in a context uniquely yours.

In the midst of this high-noise, low-signal digital information age one S&R writer called “Shoutworld,” no Fair Witness appears to exist. Traditionally “objective” sources of information increasingly have colorized what happened through an ideological, self-centered, or selfish lens. The numbers of those sources who minimize the predigestion of what happened declines daily.

You eventually may find that subjective witness reports are necessary to help you ascertain context, importance, and meaning. On what basis, however, do you trust their authors?

If all your information sources tell you what it means before telling you what happened, how certain are you of what, indeed, did happen?