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We want to know everything about everyone and everything and, nowadays, many of us think we can get that knowledge at the push of a button, the swipe of a finger, the blink of an eye, or the uttering of words like “Siri, what is…?” Our most trusted advisers have become Google and Wikipedia. But, what do we really know?

We want to get our answers now, or better still before we’ve thought to ask.

In the past week or so, we’ve seen the meaning in many senses of the adage ‘knowledge is power’, even with the outcome that knowledge of things that people tried to keep private (even hidden) has the power to unhinge people from power. Ask the PM of Iceland or the PM of the UK, or the head of Transparency International in Chile, how they feel about the information in the so-called ‘Panama Papers’ that has come to light about their financial dealings through the offshore vehicles available in Panama, just from one (albeit significant) facilitating company. The fallout has barely begun to appear, and as the boulder rolls, we’ll see the links and webs of intrigue come into clearer focus.

For this, we have to be thankful both to those who have the ‘juicy’ information and good, investigative journalists, who are prepared to dig and dig and analyse to get closer to the bottom of stories.

But, in the context of our little island, the meaning of ‘knowledge is power’, comes out in the many varied ways that are common in small communities. We call it ‘cass-cass’, but it’s gossip, that really gets us excited. Look at the flurry of interest when two divas got into a heated ‘exchange’ on live TV. Who really upset whom and why? That’s often what people want for information: a little something around which to spin a whole web of truths and untruths. We’re not too hot on the probing and deep investigation thing: somehow, our willingness to focus on issues is low. We start to get edgy when stories go too close to ‘those in position’, even though a common attitude is to be distrustful of such people, often ready to say they are all ‘thieves’ and ‘liars’.

We also have a tendency for shallow fact-finding. I can put that latter criticism in the context of basic press reporting. We see our papers are ready to cite some facts and figures, but often with no context. Take a report today about police issuing traffic tickets during the first calendar quarter. What the reporter tells us is just what happened in that quarter–no context, historically, even the previous quarter; no context, geographically. So, what should we do with these ‘sky is blue’ facts? What do the numbers mean, going forward? I wonder if this is a reflection of how children are taught, in that trotting out numbers is seen as important, but not getting a handle on the many things numbers could mean.

We’ve often seen also, in recent weeks, several instances of ‘so-called’ facts reported in the newspapers that have then been strenuously denied by the principals in the report. The most glaring was that former PM Bruce Golding was going to head the National Housing Trust. Mr. Golding was quick to point out that he had not been approached to take up the position and he is not interested in such a post. Apologies, if I missed it, but I saw neither a correction or retraction of the story. In fact, the Jamacia Observer newspaper referred to the speculation as if it was from another source 🙂

There has also been speculation that former Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who played a key role in the new Government’s election campaign, is to take up a lead post on the board of the National Housing Trust. Golding has, however, dismissed a report that he is to take up the job as executive chairman of the NHT. That reflects another part of our culture, which has many issues with handling and apportioning blame. We are good at shuffling around, with our head looking at our feet rather than coming out and saying “Sorry, I made a mistake…’

That reflects another part of our culture, which has many issues with handling and apportioning blame. We are good at shuffling around, with our head looking at our feet rather than coming out and saying “Sorry, I made a mistake…’

All of this makes living with the speed at which information can flow more difficult than it need be.

Gone are the days when people would stay ignorant and unknowing about a story, because they were travelling, for instance. News comes to you, wherever you are, as soon as it’s available. The electronic versions of stories hold a great advantage over their printed versions, though: they can be erased, and those searching online may have to deal with no evidence that any erroneous story ever existed. If you’re on the ball, you can save a screen shot of the offending piece, and I’m sure that if the matter went to court, it would be no defence to say that the online version was

The electronic versions of stories hold a great advantage over their printed versions, though: they can be erased, and those searching online may have to deal with no evidence that any erroneous story ever existed. If you’re on the ball, you can save a screen shot of the offending piece, and I’m sure that if the matter went to court, it would be no defence to say that the online version was removed, while the printed version remains and had no retraction or correction.

Of course, we’re not unique in having the new breed of ‘news gatherers’, those with a smart phone, who are on hand to record the visuals of incidents and share them. Much of this can be useful; increasingly, we find ‘eyewitness’ videos on hand to confront ‘facts’ cited by people who have much to hide–the many beatings of black youth in the USA is full of such evidence. Much of it can be harmful, such as the indiscriminate sharing of videos of people during their assaults or other acts of indiscretion, as if sharing somehow makes the acts funny, or less-damaging. Why someone would video a ‘friend’ raping someone and then sharing that as if it were a slice of bread is beyond my comprehension.

We have many instances of people not yet fully aware that a camera is often right where they are, taking in all they do, for quite innocent and legitimate reasons, but then the action captured is anything but innocent. Activity at a party that turns sordid and involves sexual activity with minors? All those surveillance cameras that exist have been the source of more information sharing than could have been originally imagined? It’s there in many forms. Of course, it’s great, for its purpose, such as when I could review footage of robbers fleecing my wife’s handbag from the baby’s pushchair while we sat having a quiet drink in a London pub: the process and timing was slick. The full-frontal image of the person with the stolen ATM card as it’s being used to draw money from someone’s account. We’re thankful for what those images allow us to do to combat crime. But, what of those who man the cameras and then use what they say for blackmail or other crimes?

We’ve also seen the instances of eyewitnesses, who were only prepared to make a video but not act to intervene. Morally, that one can get tricky. We can all argue about what action could have or should have been taken, but who can tell another person to risk their lives, if they don’t stand ready to do that? What is the line to draw when a private citizen is a witness as opposed to a paid cameraman? I’ve not figured that out, yet.

We’re living in the age of massive flows of information, but are we really ready for it?

 

 

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