Weaving the Post Factual Internet

I live in Santa Cruz, CA. When I left home this morning to drive over the hill to San Jose, I was surrounded by fog. Winding along the highway up into the Santa Cruz mountains, I rose above the mist into the sunlight. Green redwoods towered above the road. I looked back over my shoulder at the low lying gray clouds that obscured the California coast. Dazzled by the sunlight, I thought back on the experience of driving through the shifting gray swirls of mist and decided that it was an experience not unlike browsing the Internet.

We live in the age of spin. Most people who write the prose we read on the Internet do not even pretend to be interested in telling the truth. Instead, they pride themselves on their ability to "spin the truth," that is, they are professional liars. These writers don’t like the sunlight. Instead, they prefer the mist, the fog, the places where facts are hard to discern, and nothing is clear.

In his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell, taught us to shun cliches such as "spin the truth." He warned that people who indulge in slovenly language often end up, either consciously or unconsciously, hiding the truth in a swirling bank of fog.

The heart of George Orwell’s essay is a plea for simple, straight forward language. A phrase like "spin the truth" is not only a cliche, but it is also what Orwell calls a "verbal false limb." Orwell writes, " Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill , a verb becomes a phrase , made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render." In this case, simple verbs such as lie or dissemble are replaced with a verb phrase such as "spin the truth."

We live in a post factual world. When confronted with an inconvenient fact, politicians, marketers and bloggers never acknowledge its truth. Instead, they attempt to "spin" the facts, to distort reality. Such behavior is so common that most of us no longer blink when confronted by even its most blatant expressions. We believe that WMD simultaneously exists and does not exist, we think the definition of the word "is" might be open to interpretation. The sin is not confined to any one party, it is universal. It is the mist in which we walk each day. It is easy enough to climb up out of the fog, but few take the trouble to make the hike.

Hotbeds of Post Factual Writing

The Internet provides a new twist to the problems outlined by Orwell. All over the web one can find specialized web sites designed to push a particular agenda.

One of my favorite web sites is called Slashdot. This is a place where people who like Linux and Open Source, but who oppose Microsoft and proprietary technology, can get together and talk shop. The site consists mostly of links to interesting articles about technology. On the Slashdot site, people can comment on the articles. There is a certain class of people on Slashdot who can be counted on to exercise all of the sins outline in Orwell’s article. In their attacks on Microsoft and proprietary software, they are often angry or even personal.

In email, in blogs, in the comments found on places like Slashdot, the Internet is rife with hostility masquerading as opinion. The art of writing clear prose that states facts without hostility is rare. People prefer to bludgeon one another with words rather than attempt to communicate. If no facts are handy, an insult will do just as well. It’s not enough that someone disagrees with an opinion, the opposition won’t rest until they have claimed the contrarian is stupid, immoral and sexually inadequate.

As I say, I enjoy Slashdot. Nevertheless, I often find it impossible to read the comments on the articles linked to from the site. The articles themselves are often interesting, but the community often seems to exist in a post literate world where being considerate is a form of weakness.

SlashDot, however, is only one of many sites that pander to particular world views. These sites are the frontline in the post factual Internet.

Even neutral sites such as Amazon are hotbeds of anger and deception. Go read the reviews of nearly any controversial political book found on Amazon, and one will find plenty of "reviews" written by people who clearly have never read the work in question. After all, if the book is written by Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, there is no need for many people to actually read the text in question. Instead, they pretend to have read it and offer up a series of insults and groundless abstractions that they believe add up to a meaningful review.

The Deceptive Power of Abstractions

George Orwell’s essay focuses on political speech. In today’s world, however, the political and the social have blended in a way that was hard to image in 1946, when Orwell wrote his essay. This blending of politics and social interaction is nowhere more evident than on the Internet.

Orwell writes: "Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality."

Since 1946, when Orwell wrote his essay, most of us have forgotten Marshal Petain, the French war hero from World War I who helped the Nazi’s when they occupied France during World War II. But we know instinctively what Orwell means. We have all read phrases such as "Oliver North was a true Patriot," or "Daniel Ellsburg was a true patriot." In each of these cases, the word patriot has been redefined to represent a post factual interpretation of the word "patriot." It doesn’t matter what the dictionary says, the word now has a new meaning that only the author fully understands. The list of words that Orwell specifies has morphed over the years, but we can replace them with modern tag lines such as paradigm, patriot, free market, relevant, free election, terrorist, freedom fighter, conservative or liberal.

Bringing this subject back down to technical matters, we often hear abstract words used to describe an OS or a computer language. By now, many of us have been trained to instinctively ignore phrases such as "Delphi is the best language," "Java is the best language," or ".NET is the greatest thing since sliced bread." Phrases or words that we have learned to distrust include paradigm, next generation, productive, user experience, user friendly, bottom line, critical mass, market momentum, exit strategy, investment climate, and so on.

Post Factual Marketing

If we all deplore the low standards found in email, blogs and some newsgroups, it can be more interesting to explore carefully thought out prose written be obviously intelligent people. Let’s go to a particular pages on the web to see how it works. First we’ll look at marketing from Sun, and then from Microsoft.

I’ll quote first from a paragraph grabbed at random from the lead article on Sun’s web site. The topic in question is OpenSolaris, Sun’s open source version of their Solaris operating system. Here is the quote:

"’It’s easy to focus on the source, the tools, and all the other tangibles involved in open source. But at the end of the day, the true measure of success for the OpenSolaris project is the community,’ says Sun senior marketing manager, OpenSolaris, Claire Giordano. ‘It’s not about the source code–it’s about the conversation.’"

I think it is wonderful that Sun is releasing an open source version of their operating system. However, I don’t think they do it to foster a conversation. Instead, they are interested in promoting their product. If people are talking about their OS, then they are likely to use it. But we are so used to people "spinning" their point of view, that it almost seems impolite, or unfair, to point this out. I also distrust pat phrases such as "at the end of the day," and "the true measure of success." I also find it instructive to consider what the referent of the article "it" might be in the phase "It’s not about the source code — it’s about the conversation." In my opinion, the likely referent is "Our marketing plan," but most readers would never understand that from a simple reading of Claire’s words. Though in this case, the quote may be real, I know from my years in the corporate world that it is not at all uncommon for a marketing person to write out a quote, and then attribute it to someone higher up in their company. In today’s world, it is hard to know if these are really quotes from Claire, or just the output from a brainstorming session.

I will stop picking on Sun now, and turn my attention instead to Microsoft. Here is paragraph chosen completely at random from the first page I came to on Microsoft’s web site. When selecting the quote, I picked one of the two first full paragraphs I could find describing the company’s push for Window’s Vista:

"The Aero philosophy is not only to deliver a user experience that feels great but also to fundamentally change the way usability is measured. In the past, Windows focused heavily on usability as defined by such metrics as discoverability, time to task, and task completion. Aero continues to deliver on these metrics, but it will also enable Windows Vista and WinFX applications to generate a positive connection with users on first sight, on first use, and over the long term."

Forget the made up words such as "discoverability," and mangled verb forms such as "deliver on." And don’t bother wondering whether or not a product called Aero can have a philosophy. These issues are merely the tip of a dangerous hidden world that lies hidden beneath a seemingly benign cloud layer.

The claim of this paragraph is that the heart of the "Aero philosophy" is to "deliver a user experience that feels great." What is really going on here, however, is that the marketing people who promote this product want us to "feel great" about Windows Vista. No one really expects us to feel great when we click a button in the Windows UI. But such distinctions are lost in a swirling fog spun by the marketers.

The latter half of this paragraph is even more meaningless. It claims that the "Aero philosophy" is also to "fundamentally change the way usability is measured." This will be done by "creating a positive connection with users." That’s a funny way to measure usability. How in the world can you measure something as abstract and meaningless as "creating a positive connection?" Again, the desire to "create a positive connection with users" is not a goal of the product, but a goal of the marketers. Furthermore, this another example of what Orwell called "a verbal false limb." And lord knows no one in the Aero development team even once considered changing the way "usability is measured." The whole riff on measuring usability is simply a verbal mist designed to disorient the reader. Changing the way usability is measured is simply not one of the goals of the product. Or at least I hope it was not their goal. Such an intent would imply an all too conscious and sinister Orwellian manipulation of the public.

The paragraph we have found on Microsoft’s web site is the written equivalent of a fog bank. It surrounds the reader in a swirling mist through which nothing can be clearly seen. A single screen shot would tell us much more.

The ultimate irony, however, is that the underlying message that the paragraph wants to convey is in fact entirely benign. Translated into simple English of the type Orwell advocates, the paragraph would read as follows; "We want to create an attractive interface that is easy to use." Reading that simple sentence is a bit like watching the fog burn off the California coast. The fog might have looked sinister, but it was covering a very pretty landscape.

Both Microsoft and Sun have a strong simple message, which is easy to convey. Why don’t they simple say it? Are they trying to deceive customers, their boss, themselves? Who knows? We can’t see through the fog to find out what they are actually thinking. And yet, though I personally prefer OpenSolaris to Microsoft Vista, when I compare these two prose samples, I would rather be exposed to Microsoft’s benign floundering than to Sun’s false altruism. But it is a fool’s choice.

Summary

Words are seductive. I’ve written a lot of them, and there is no sin described in this article that I have not committed. I’m writing from experience to remind myself and others of the dangers that lurk as close at hand as the nearest mail client.

Most of us know what it means to be good, and to be honest. Many of the same people who insult others on Slashdot probably go home at night and kiss their spouses and hug their children. The prose on Microsoft’s or Sun’s web sites may well be written by people who attend a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. We are so lost in the fog of our words that we can no longer see the clash of values between what we tell our spouse, minister or children, and how we act on the Internet.

When we start writing words many of us get lost in a fog of abstractions. We use words not to communicate, but to bludgeon one another. We all do it, whether we are politicians making a national address, marketers trying to sell a product, or just ordinary citizens commenting on a blog. It is a disease indigenous to the modern world. We wander each day through a verbal mist designed to deceive. We are so used to it that we often distrust or disparage the simple truth when we chance to encounter it. It seems at times starkly impolite, and at other times naive.

We forget the damage created when we enter the post factual world of aggressive hostility and meaningless abstractions. The idea of stating a simple truth is foreign to us, and attempts to be helpful or polite now seem quaint and out moded.

The solution is fairly simple. The first step is to read Orwell’s essay and to make a resolution to always use the simplest, most direct verbs and nouns that we can find. The second step is to place others first in our hearts. Is what we are writing going to hurt someone else unnecessarily? Are we being so selfish as to attempt to deceive others for personal gain? Are we trying to communicate, or are we just trying to win some imaginary competition? Do we really believe that the insults that we utter on a newsgroup are necessary, or are we just trying to cover up own insecurities in a blustering fog of abstractions? If we have a talent for prose, are we using it to deceive or to inform?

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