“What does it mean when only those facts about the world with economic powers behind them can be heard, when the truth lays naked before the world and no one will be the first to speak without a bribe?”
Julian Assange founder of WikiLeaks
In 1962 a military coup d’état over threw the democratic republic of Burma, in 2007 the country renamed as Myanmar by the Junta was still under military rule. May 1990 witnessed the most decisive capitulation to democratic demands, the Junta held democratic elections to quell dissent against the regime. The election was resoundingly won by the National League for Democracy lead by Aung San Suu Kyi. Once it became clear the Junta had lost power they annulled the election result and Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest where she remained, unseen. The desire for freedom and democracy had not been crushed in 1990 that simmering came boiling to the surface in 2007. Lead by their Buddhist monks dressed humbly in the garb of pacifists, simple maroon robes and sandaled feet, the people of Burma took to the streets behind them with a simple and all too common demand “improve the lives of the people.. our cause… our cause” they pleaded for their democracy back.
There was great hope among a network of 30 undercover DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma) video journalists (VJ’s) at the beginning of the protests, average people and students armed with cheap handycams and cell phones who felt that they must tell the outside world what was occurring in their country. The media in Burma was state run and only announces what is approved by the junta, truths only avenue was the people themselves and the new technology available to them, video, audio, cell phones and the internet. With a central contact outside Burma to send their footage to the world via the internet their cry for democracy was picked up by mainstream media in particular the BBC, who later would become the ire of the Iranian regime when they televised similar footage coming from democratic protests in Iran.
The first protests were vocal and proceeded without provoking violent spasm from the junta, the monks prayed with a large crowd of average people at the Buddhist temple in the centre of Rangoon one of the wonders of the world, and then led the congregation through the streets toward the house of Aungs San Suu Kyi. Tens of thousands of people from every walk of life joined the march, even more cheered them on form the windows and roof tops lining the march. The blockades on the road leading to her house had been removed which was surprising, and she even appeared at the gates, a blurry image of a thin but elegant woman hands clasped in prayer below her chin was beamed by the VJ’s around the world and to other Burmese with access to the internet. It brought the Burmese to tears seeing their true leader for the first time in years.
The Junta did not tolerate this democratic movement for long. First they banned all gatherings, no more than 5 people could legally gather in public, then they imposed a curfew from 9pm until 6am. The gatherings still occurred, and the people still demanded change in spite of the regime. They marched again to Aungs house this time the road was blocked with barricades guarded by hundreds of armed troops. The junta smacked their citizens in the face for their insolence firing live bullets at passive monks and tear gas at students the average citizens ran in fear, the monks held firm. Then the Junta rounded up the monks beating them and arresting them, first half of the 400 monks of Rangoon were taken away, images of the trashed monastery with blood stained gravel was captured by the DVB VJ’s and sent out to the world. Then the internet servers were severed cutting the country off from the world wide web.
Soon after the rest of the monks were arrested and the image of a beaten, bloodied, lifeless monk floating in a stream face down was beamed out by the VJ’s using the only means left a satellite connection, but soon that to would be severed. The final protest lead by a handful of monks that had escaped arrest and death, and supported by students who believed they were to die that day was met by gunfire and teargas. The students and VJ’s were chased through the streets and buildings, all was filmed and one VJ barely escaped death twice that day.
The vision forced the world to take notice, American President George Bush condemned the Burmese military Junta, Facebook support groups popped up with millions of members calling on their governments to help the Burmese people. However the movement was quashed and the Junta remains in power today but because of the ground level journalism and the use of new technology, information got to the rest of the world and now when we notice our politicians and companies dealing with the Burmese Junta we put pressure on them not to. We can now make more informed decisions because people want the truth to be told. 1 In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elections of a sort were held, the junta remains in power but the constant pressure from the outside world that the VJ’s promoted is slowly eating away at the regime.
The Tunisians and Egyptians have had more immediate success using ground level information media to gather people to topple dictators, and as I write a wave of revolution is sweeping the Arab world enabled in part by roots up communication of information.
The way we get information is changing citizens are taking control back from traditional sources that have been corrupted by interested parties. For a democracy to exist true accurate information must be available to the citizenry, the demos so we can make intelligent and honest democratic choices. In the modern western world we are constantly bombarded with information, not just from our own surroundings and the thousands of people we see each day but also the multitude of organised information systems we deal with, from billboards on train stations to computers and televisions. How can we recognise the truth from the spin?
There is no information that is 100% truth. Because information is filtered by our own perception and bias and the biases and perceptions of those relaying the message but some information is closer to the truth than others. Most importantly we need to look for a web of truths crossing over making a solid argument, different people from different backgrounds all saying similar things, but to help with discerning good info from bad I will go through a categorisation process that can be used as a guide, as I have said before the world is fluid and boxes are misleading but are a good way to learn holistic thinking for oneself. I will take you through the current providers of information, the people not the media they use, to see how much truth we are provided with now. Then I will look at changes that need to be made and how FSFP helps truthful information to flourish, and finally a few examples of how people are trying to provide truthful information to their communities, and the use of monetary democracy to encourage truth.
The most important factor in the truthfulness or otherwise of information is interest, not the kind you pay to the bank but very similar to the self interest we discussed in Economy. Someone imparting information can be interested or disinterested in the actions you take because of the information. For instance an advertising agency telling you Special K cornflakes will make you slimmer has an interest in you buying Special K, because their client will profit and hopefully give agency more business in the future making them wealthier. A parent telling their daughter “burnies” when she reaches for a boiling kettle has an interest in the child’s welfare and survival. Both these bits of information are from interested parties but they differ in the amount of self interest and altruistic interest. The advertising agency is motivated by self interest the business ethic of making profit (accepted group theory) encourages this whereas the mother although looking after her self interest by not having to rush the scolded child to the hospital is also looking after the child’s best interest by saving them pain and suffering now and in the future, the mother cares the advertising agency doesn’t.
So first we must see if the person giving the information is interested or disinterested and then whether their interest is self interest or your or the communities best interest. Most adults believe they know what is good for them and can weigh up options using all their faculties. Intelligent reason, emotional clarity and ethical values lead intelligent adults to be capable of deciding what is best for them rather than having another make decisions for them therefore intelligent adults can generally ignore those claiming to be telling us something for our own benefit, this is usually a rouse to disguise self interest. Concentrating on the interest or disinterest of the information provider is sufficient for most thoughtful adults to determine truthfulness.
Disinterest is when someone is separate from those affected by the actions or conclusions drawn from the information provided, they don’t benefit or lose from the actions they cause in others. For example a friend telling you about a bank that charged them an excessive transaction fee has nothing to gain or lose by you closing your accounts with the bank. We rarely encounter completely disinterested persons as just the fact of being listened too could be construed utility maximising for teller. This is no great dilemma as we are concerned about getting as close as possible to truth not absolute universal disinterest. As a rule of thumb the disinterested are more truthful than the interested.
Once we have established the person or person’s interest or disinterest we can move onto a few other indicators of truthful information. Truthfulness requires access to know the world one must experience it without sanctions manipulations or barriers. Barriers by force of law; the secrecy legislation which most governments have and enforce, business secrets which are allowed to be held out of public view because they could adversely affect the ability of the company to make profit. Agreed secrecy; a group of people agreeing to only share information amongst themselves, every corporation has this policy, and so do many clubs, religions, cartels, cultural groups and societies; think the freemasons. Physical barriers, walls, safes, buildings with limited access; again most corporations have restricted access to their buildings, mines and property enforced by electronic scanners and private security guards. Electronic barriers; passwords, firewalls, and encryption are all methods to retain information for the chosen few. Physical force; armed or unarmed security preventing access to a building, papers electronic files, and witness to events; such as army personnel guarding Guantanamo, they are keeping reporters out as much as keeping the inmates in. Fear; people don’t tell what they know because they fear reprisals either to themselves or those they love in either a physical, emotional or monetary form. One example is the loss of a job, if one says the company they work is polluting the local bay there’s implied (if not direct) threat from the loss of income. And finally financial barriers, much information is only available to those that can afford to pay for it whether this is the price of a book, or an airfare to visit the ruins of Troy. These are all barriers to truthful information.
Our world is full of secrets and many of them we want to remain secret, we want some privacy and deserve some; however this need for privacy allows others to use it as an excuse to mislead us and it undermines our democracy. So when weighing up the truthfulness of information imagine how restricted that information is because of the barriers on the person imparting it this along with the persons interest will give you a guide as to how truthful they are.
A web of truthful information is enhanced when others review the information, two heads are better than one, threes better again. We always miss details when looking at a scene or information because we have inbuilt biases and perspectives, another’s perspective can highlight omissions and biases bringing forth balanced thoughtful information. Some individuals can actually self check, this is difficult but generally highly intelligent and honourable people do this as a matter of course because they know their own failings and will deliberately look at their own presentations from an outsider’s perspective. Look for these people or information that has been checked by multiple people who are all disinterested.
Truthful information needs multiple forms of input to reach an overall conclusion. These forms are; first hand sensory, what someone has seen, heard, smelt and felt with their own senses, this evidence is the base of much other evidence but is also fallible. The omission of perception occurs most often in high stress situations when our body releases survival chemicals like adrenalin and cortisoids which can give the first hand observer tunnel vision. A plane crash survivor describing her escape to emergency staff thought the plane was on its belly when it was really on its roof, she actually believed the plane was still upright when she ran from the inferno the opposite was only proven to her later when she was shown television footage taken at the scene. Since I have mentioned television footage which is essentially first hand information and in some instances, a plane crash for example, it can be better than personal experience because it is less affected by emotion and chemical secretions. Television, photography and any type of visual or audio recording can be doctored, real footage changed or fake footage made to look real. Also as anyone who has taken a photograph knows one can invoke a desired response by eliminating certain parts of the scene or deliberately drawing the viewers attention to what the photographer thinks is the most important, like shooting your Facebook profile from a high angle to hide your sagging cheeks. Again look at who is imparting the information; are they interested or disinterested.
Anecdotal evidence is usually the distillations of past personal experiences with the benefit of reflection. It often has more meaning and therefore truthfulness than direct immediate personal experience as other information that wasn’t directly available at the time of the first hand personal experience becomes available, such as moral understanding which can be added to the story to add meaning. But as always personal bias influences the anecdote, and as we have seen the rational brain can reorganise information to fit an Accepted Group Theory.
Statistical analysies come in two types, broad; accumulating all the data being studied, and representative; taking a representative sample of the whole and extrapolating the whole from this. Statistics generally fall into two categories; surveys and counting real objects (Quantitative). The first is a collection of opinions at a point in time, such as which political party would you vote for if there was an election tomorrow? Good surveys use demographically representative samples. Poor surveys use small groups with no or little effort to get a broad spectrum of people. Quantitative statistics actually count the number of real actions or objects, such as the number of people that did vote for Labor in the last federal election, or the number of tickets sold to the world cup final.
Quantitative statistics as a rule are always better than surveys as they count not what might happen but what did happen, however quantitative statistics are only accurate for past events, when trying to predict the future surveys become valuable. Both types of statistics can be manipulated, the presenter can leave out bits that don’t agree with a certain point of view and can exaggerate the importance of minor pieces of information. Also the use of graphs, quantitative analysis, trend lines, correlations, projections, averages, medians, standard deviations can do as much to cloud information as clarify it. Again look at the source and the presenter to see their interest or disinterest and look for other types of information such as anecdotal or first hand to substantiate the statistics.
Controlled environment testing is a form of first hand information that tries to eliminate a lot of the fuzzyness from true first hand experiences, by removing the experiment form the real world and testing a hypothesis in the lab clearer more accurate information is sort. This is the most common information type from scientific research. However by eliminating contaminates researchers can also eliminate important information which generally isn’t known until the information is put into practice in the real world.
Finally truly good information will have the same forms distilled through two opposing presenters giving differing perspectives on the same data and therefore allowing the recipient to find a balanced truth.
We must look for disinterested people who have minimal access barriers and a web of review, cross checking and people from various backgrounds all saying similar things from different experience and methods this creates the web of truth. Holey but more solid that a single interested point of view.
Suppliers of information
We will now look at from whom our information comes and how truthful they are using the guide above. Before we go on you must understand that the information we receive comes through a lot of persons before it gets to us. It’s like the game Chinese whispers, a teacher tells the first child a rather complicated story (an anecdote) and that child relays it to the next child, and they to the next and so on and so on, each child remembers one part of the story better than the other parts and fills in the blanks in order to keep a narrative going, when the final child tells the teacher what they have been told its usually an anecdote of similar meaning but with little information contained in the original. Thankfully our society’s game of Chinese whispers isn’t that bad, writing things down helps with this as does recording things electronically and keeping the intermediatory’s between first hand and final recipient to a minimum. However this should be kept in mind when analysing truth and interest, for the original information may have come from a disinterested person but the person telling you now may have an interest in your actions from the information.
So from whom do we get our information?
We have our own sensory perception, the most reliable source of information for us particularly if we are aware that we perceive things differently to others and make an attempt to see, hear, feel and smell everything equally with an open heart and mind. When holistic mind our best source of information is personal experience.
Then there’s our friends and family which constantly talk to us, act in front of us, give us advice and tell us stories, generally we consider that they are disinterested or interested in our welfare as much as their own. Some friends and family may of course just want you to like them or want to dominate you, use your judgement to decide who is looking after themselves and who is disinterested or trying to look after your welfare. As a general rule we are very good at picking trustworthy people when we deal with them closely. And you, like me have friends whom you get certain information from such as financial information because you know they have personal experience in the field and are intelligent enough to decipher good information from bad, and others whom you get relationship advice from because they have had many relationships, but you don’t take financial advice from the philanderer.
Work colleagues, and acquaintances; this is more complicated as each individual is different and they don’t necessarily have an interest in your welfare, but can also be completely disinterested. All must be taken with a pinch of salt, use your best judgement and follow your instincts they are the best guide you have.
Superiors; this includes anyone that relies on you to follow and maintain their position of authority, such as managers, CEO’s and politicians. They are generally interested as they will benefit or be harmed by decisions you make with information provided to you. However they do have access to secrets, quantitative statistics and tests. If you can sort the specs of truth from the cloud of interested lies there is some truth to be garnered from them.
These first three have been with humans for millennia however in a modern global community we cannot get all the information we need from sources we meet personally, we get most of this other information distilled to us via media, the term comes from the Latin medius meaning mid, or middle, that which other things go through. Media includes all electronic media, television, films, radio, games and the internet. Also print media newspapers, magazines, flyers, posters, billboards, research papers, journals and books. And those considered art such as paintings, street art, architecture, sculpture, plays, street theatre, live performances, and landscaped nature, such as your local park, you didn’t realise this was a communicating an idea but it is, a classic English garden with roses in linear beds and neatly cropped hedges it telling you order is beauty, so very Imperial. We are receiving information from others continually especially in a large city where our built environs are planned by others and often are intended to relay a message. So first we will look at the changing landscape of media and then at those providing us information via media.
The way we are getting information is changing, in 2008 Nielson (they do media research and the television ratings) reported that Australia’s internet usage had for the first time succeeded TV viewing as our preferred information medium by 2009 we were consuming 16.1 hours of internet information a week, 12.9 hours of TV, 8.8 hours of radio, 4.6 hours of online radio, 3.7 hours of mobile phone media and only 4.8 hours reading newspapers and magazines. Reading newspapers decreased 10% from 2007 and TV viewing down 3%, online radio was the surprise increase up 10%, but not surprisingly PC (the YouTube phenomenon) video went up 84% and internet viewing in general went up 18% 2. In America 8-18 year olds which are used as a guide to what will happen in the future have followed this trend, from 1994 to 2009 computer usage on a typical day rose from 27 minutes to 1 hour 29, TV viewing also increased from 3:47 to 4:29 as did video games from 26 minutes to 1hr 13 min the only decrease was print media from 43 minutes to 38 minutes.3. This move to electronic media is supported by the fall in newspaper circulation in Australia, from 2002 to 2007 the Monday to Friday editions of The Age and Queensland’s Courier Mail were the only ones to increase circulation compared to population, The Australian dropped from one person in 150 buying it in 2002 to one in 158 the Adelaide Advertiser from one in 96 to one in 109.8 the Daily Telegraph from one in 48 to one in 53.4 This trend has continued from 2007; quarter on quarter figures showed drops to December 2009 of 10% for the Monday to Friday Financial Review and 9.9% for Saturday, The Australian down 4.2%.5 However the weekend papers held their ground, it seems that people still don’t mind a paper on the weekend as they relax with a long breakfast but most of their news during the week comes online, an optimist may also extrapolate that people are looking for quality The Age is a broadsheet the others tabloid (excluding The Australian), a pessimist would say The Age has the real estate prices so we just want to buy more houses. There has also been a reduction in magazine readership from 1996 to 2001 which caused the death of The Bulletin one of Australia’s longest running current affairs weekly’s but this trend has levelled off with a large amount of new titles coming on to the market as small publishers try to make inroads to decaying realms.6
Overall the exposure to information through media has increased. Australians access to the internet has jumped from 10% in 1998 to 72% in 2008-97 even our mobile phones have become portals for information other than verbal communication from those we know, and we often multi-task having the online radio playing while searching the internet having multi screens open at once, chatting, blogging, researching and watching videos.
Because of our change in media consumption certain information providers are gaining recipients and others loosing access to us. Who are these providers of truth and lies? I’ll present the providers under some broad groupings; advertisers, journalists, product and service providers, scientists and researchers, educational institutions, governments, professionals (financial advisors, doctors etc), artists, entertainers, academics, teachers and mentors, and a newer group which is first hand individuals whom now have access to a wider audience via new media more commonly known as bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers and Wiki’s.
Journalism, once the safe guard of democracy, and often referred to as the fourth pillar of the state because they had an ethos of disinterest to isolate them from the politicians, judiciary and military they spied on, endearing them to the demos as our eyes and ears. They were employed by media outlets separated from product and service providers and politicians, they could get an income stream from the sale of the information itself which was constant and not necessarily variant on content, they had access to information through ingrained informants and a pride in not disclosing their sources, therefore protecting the source from retribution and fear. They had editors to check and double check their work and were educated to be impartial, and took pride in this.
All these benefits to truthful information have been withered away as media outlets such as The Age, The Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post first replaced their income stream from the sale of newspapers and magazines (purchase price) to the sale of advertising within them. This was forced upon commercial television as their only income stream and its ensuing popularity over print media reduced newspaper and magazine circulation and thus moved them to do likewise. The death of Life magazine was in some part blamed on the rise of television in the 70’s. Then newspapers and television were hit by the availability of free information on the internet a medium which allowed users to easily avoid advertising by blocking popups or navigating away from a site with the twitch of a digit, this put further pressure on income. As a result they have been progressively abandoning the system of checking and double checking content with professional editors. Journalists are also forced to pour out more content to hold peoples interest in a 24/7 media world which means they are susceptible to being fed “news” by advertising agencies and interested parties such as politicians. They also lost the clout of large ingrained media companies to protect them from disclosing informants, and thus informants stopped providing information. Wikileaks highlights all these problems, journalists had lost access to sources because they can’t protect them, Julian Assange is on trial and fearful for his life, one of his informants is in a military Brig and has been for years slowly going mad, but journalists were still needed (because of their tenured position) to sift through the leaks for digestible narrative, it takes time and therefore money to produce quality content.
Old fashioned truthful investigative journalism is in a crisis and this crisis is driven by a lack of money. Rupert Murdoch the controlling owner of News Corp one of the biggest media organisations in the world which publishes dailies in most states of Australia and the Wall Street Journal in the US and The Times in the UK, as well as the Fox network to name just a few, recently spoke out about the dire state of newspapers and journalism and the threat that free content and news aggregators like Google News poses to a necessity of democracy. “Producing journalism is expensive. We invest tremendous resources in our project from technology to our salaries. To aggregate stories is not fair use. To be impolite, it is theft…Without us, the aggregators would have blank slides. Right now content producers have all the costs, and the aggregators enjoy [the benefits]. But the principle is clear. To paraphrase a great economist, [there is] no such thing as a free news story…. The business model that relies on advertising-only is dead. Online advertising is increasingly only a fraction of what is being lost from print advertising, and it is under constant pressure.”8
Murdoch’s new model is to charge for online content this has made one of his papers The Wall Street Journal one of the few turning a profit even though the in-print sales are plummeting. The reason The Wall Street Journal has been successful and other online news providers have been reluctant to try this model is its readership are business people who can charge the fee to their company easily deducting it from income reducing their tax. Also it’s relatively invisible expenditure a $100 online subscription disappears in a budget of millions. The Walls Street Journal’s content is related to producing income rather than wisdom therefore it is treated like a business expense in the mind of the quantitative broker or middle manager.
Murdoch makes it clear that the pressure on news providers is a monetary one, they bare the extensive costs of providing information and currently there is no reliably constant flow of income to support this necessary service.
A lot of what is presented to us as journalism is actually press releases, or surveys from interested parties done to promote an activity that will sell a product or service, or is spin presented to the media by a government that employs more public relations people and journalists than most news outlets. (see chapter on democracy for more detail). The satirical current affairs program Hungry Beast presented a glaring example of modern news services inability to fact check, and the ease at which they promote lies feed to them as truth. For their first episode they pulled a hoax on the Australian media, they circulated a press release with an attached survey which claimed to prove Sydney residents as Australia‘s must gullible, and a supporting website for the bogus “Levitt Institute” which purported to have conducted the survey. The title of the report “Deception Detected across Australian Populations” should have been enough to raise an eyebrow or two but the Australian Associated Press (AAP) filed an extensive story on the data, several Australian media outlets ran the story including ninemsn, and a Brisbane radio station even broadcast an interview with a spokesperson from the fictitious institute. A simple Google search would have revealed the hoax as the perpetrators had left clues within their website basically stating it was a hoax and eventually an average citizen did this and informed another ABC television show Media Watch about the dubious nature of the institute and survey. The result being a lot of red faces in the Australian media, and a public realisation that our once trusted journalists can be duped by anyone interested in serving themselves.9
So be weary of modern journalism, it is under massive stress and this has caused them to spread lies as truth, there is still some quality out there but this is dwindling, look for self funded independent honourable journalists thankfully they still exist.
Advertisers (marketers), are in the business of serving their clients’ needs, but are also interested in their own survival this generally means they want to make money by successfully selling their clients’ product, service or ideas. Most of their clients are interested parties trying to make themselves money, gain a vote, or change your behaviour to either benefit themselves or sometimes others. Increasingly organisations other than those selling a product or service are using advertisers. The Australian Federal Government in 2001 (an election year) spent 140 million dollars on advertising making them the biggest spenders on advertising that year more than Coke and MacDonald’s.10 Also charities and Non Government Organisations (NGO’s) such as CARE Australia, and World Vision are advertising for our donations and to promote the good they are doing. Social reforming groups such as Get Up, lobbyists and political activists are also using advertising to encourage people to behave the way they want us to.
Advertisers are essentially a conduit for interested parties but they also add to or falsify the core ideas they promote because they have paid researchers (psychologists and behavioural scientists) to find out what makes us give them our money. They are expert manipulators and much of the research I have referenced in Economy is used by advertisers to make you act like a dancing marionette they discovered anchoring, framing and identity association’s way before the theorist.
Their deliberate falsifications can seem harmless but they create a trap of lies leading us to their hungry mouths. McDonalds and Hungry Jacks (Burger King) advertisement use Styrofoam fries instead of real ones because the Styrofoam fries will fall bouncingly into the cardboard container and look light and healthy. Mt Franklin bottled water doesn’t come from Mt Franklin it comes from your local Coke factory, Everest water actually comes from Texas, advertisers like to create a pristine image to match the idea of clean fresh virgin water this implies if you drink Everest you are more pure and cleansed than the Neanderthal drinking water from the tap – for free. Fiji water which has even been seen in the hands of Barak Obama was promoted as “Natural Spring Water, bottled far away from the 21st century in the remote South Pacific Islands” I’m not sure the Fijians are aware they are time travellers, and “preserved and protected in a pristine virgin ecosystem” I’ve been to Fiji it’s pretty yes, but it has roads, cars, factories, rubbish and airports just like everywhere else.11 Or lets take “Rob the dentist” from the Oral B toothbrush advertisements of the 80’s, they couldn’t show us his face because he is a dentist, at the time there was a law prohibiting medical professionals from endorsing products (a good law I think, in Society I’ll show how a position of authority can be used to make people do things they really don’t want to) however he went on to endorse the benefits of Oral B toothbrushes, and they sold heaps. Was he a dentist? Well he was an amalgam his back is one person the hands that of a hand model and his voice was John Laws a talk back radio host. 12 This is all simply bullshit with the purpose of getting you to buy their product, relatively harmless in comparison to what modern marketers in conjunction with child psychologists have started doing to our children.
Advertisers like to train us when we are young and easily influenced. “Club Penguin is my eldest [childs] favourite haunt” blogger Basil Hegazi writes, Club Penguin is a multi player online role playing game for children under 13, with many players are under 8 years old, her son spends hours playing it. The child plays games and completes tasks to accrue points which can then be traded for digital items like an igloo or furniture to put in the igloo. So he spends most of his free time playing the game to collect enough points to have more stuff in his igloo than the other players. And as he sits there playing card-jitsu with his online playmates Ms Hegazi can get other things done, it’s a bit like an online crèche she says. There’s a marketing angle to it of course, a whole array of branded items available for sale on the site; clothes, books, fluffy toys, games, puzzles, pins and of course jitsu-cards (with special powers) so you can play with your friends at school and move the fantasy online world to the real world. The constant nagging from her obsessed child is draining her bank account.
The mother Basil can see what is happening her son is being trained for esteem based competitive consumerism, the game lowers his esteem and gives the antidote; purchase more status items, when her son met a new playmate online “She immediately asked about his level of membership. Our boy informed her indeed he was a paid-up member, to which she replied – and this, I swear, is verbatim: “show me your member’s gear . . .” As in, ‘show me the stuff you paid for’.” 13 The site has a membership fee of $AUD6.95 a month or $64.95 for 12 months and is a product of the Disney stable. There are many other variants on the same theme including U. B Funkeys and Moshi Monster both of which are adding millions of users a month, with the purpose of training children to accumulate stuff to become popular, and therefore sell the company’s products.
A fantasy world is created and once in this fantasy the children are taught to accumulate possessions and the company being promoted gets focused attention on their products which are linked to this fantasy world. The information should have been “Jitsu- cards are a fun game try it”, but instead the marketers create a whole world in which the product is not just fun but a necessary part of the social interaction and hierarchy (does this sound familiar to the way adults are also marketed to?). The use of research conducted by child psychologists on behalf of marketers to help design ways to hold a child’s attention and make them want to buy outraged some psychologists so much they sent a letter to the APA (American Psychological Association) saying this was unethical, and a violation of the APA’s mission of mitigating human suffering, a group called Commercial Alert was set up to stop psychologists using their knowledge and skills to observe, study, mislead or exploit children for commercial purposes.14 (Keep this in mind later when we discuss the truthfulness of professionals). To put the forming mind under these sanctions and manipulations should be criminal, holistic thinking becomes so much more difficult if when we are creating our thought patterns they are isolated into fearful consumerism, our children are being programmed to gain acceptance and status from consumption.
Product and service providers, are self interested, it’s very rare they will be providing you with information that is disinterested or in your best interest. Don’t expect truthful information from them.
Scientists and researchers; even moreso than journalist have an ethos of forwarding knowledge to a wider audience after it has been through rigorous testing and analysis in a disinterested capacity. They often have access to quality information. Information from governments and companies can still be held from them but many have contacts within government and business which can bypass blockades particularly if the research is done for the benefit of a company or government however the act of doing research on behalf of another reduces or illuminates their disinterest. They generally have access to testing facilities and a ready pool of test subjects, usually university students. They also have the time and computational methods to investigate huge volumes of quantitative data and the time and money to get to source data such as archaeological digs and anthropological sites.
They should be a great source of truthful information. However their main funding source is the universities and private research facilities that employ them. More and more these organisations are being funded by self interested parties such as product and service providers or governments who would prefer economically viable research, that means they want to make money from discoveries. They want research to support an already held point of view in order to gain or keep power, or research that tells the consumer the product is physically or morally good, like red wine having health benefits or mining provides jobs and profits mum and dad superfunds. The University of Queensland accepted a grant of $350 000 from climate sceptics the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The grant will be spent on three environmental doctoral scholarship programs and although the IPA claim they don’t care what findings come out of the programs one of the three programs is research into agricultural practices and chemical usage which is a topic close to the heart of the IPA as they argue the regulatory assessment of herbicides and pesticides is too time consuming and expensive. Another topic is the effectiveness of banning tree clearing which is also of interest to the IPA as they question trees as an effective store of carbon in reducing the effects of climate change.15 This sort of research funding either directly or implicitly undermines the disinterest of the researchers, imagine getting one of these grants and finding that planting trees really decrease greenhouse gases, would you publish? Or would you self edit and find evidence to support your benefactor’s position? This sort of dilemma does not create the climate (excuse the pun) for thoughtful independent research.
A universities purpose is to build knowledge and respect, but they are constantly undermined by their sources of funding, one of the main reasons the University of Melbourne changed its undergraduate and graduate programs to what became known as the “Melbourne model”, based loosely on the model used by American universities where students need to do a broad undergraduate course in the arts, commerce, science, bio-medicine, music or environments and then move onto a specialist graduate degree in areas such as law, medicine, engineering and economics was to enable the university to become less reliant on funding from interested parties. They could charge students more directly and freely for graduate courses than they could for specialised undergraduate courses, and therefore moving more of their own money into research. In 2005 when the report Growing Esteem recommending the change was released one fifth of Melbourne University’s funding came from the Commonwealth Government the rest from student fees and competitive research grants and in all cases there were shortfalls which was undermining the universities ability to provide disinterested research and responsible undergrad education, they had doubled class sizes and commercialised research and professional advice as they competed with other organisations for more research dollars. Whether the Melbourne model is successful is still unknown, only time will tell, other universities are either considering the same model or directly competing by offering narrower vocational under graduate degrees. 16
As an example of how our universities are narrowing their courses to attract money from students one can now do such basically functional courses a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science and a Bachelor of Sport Development both offered by Deakin University, or a Bachelor of Ecotourism, and a Bachelor of Disability and Community Rehabilitation offered by Flinders University, or perhaps you would prefer to do some postgraduate coursework in Professional Development, Mentoring and Supervision at the University of Queensland which I’m sure will teach you how to work on your career. It won’t be long before there’s a under graduate course in Pilates, actually that may be coursework in the first two degrees mentioned. And I recently read of someone in the UK getting a degree in The Beatles the band not the six legged insect
So called philanthropic institutions that provide so much of the research funding and scholarships for universities are often just a veil for vested interest, the Ford institute gave millions to the University of Chicago in particular its economics department which also helped increase the Ford motor company’s footprint in South America the Chicago schools neo-liberal Freidmanites advised the dictators of Chile and Argentina to open their markets to foreign investment and crush organised labour movements.
The CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Australia’s largest research laboratory which is mostly funded by the Federal Government is forced in lock-step with supporting governments agenda, under the Howard government they were “encouraged” to do research that could have positive business applications, essentially discoveries that can be turned into profit for private business. Under the Rudd labour government which has increased their funding to $43 million the Chief Executive of the CSIRO Dr Megan Clark sees their role as continuing to develop national security and bio-security solutions. Which of course are core issues of the current government in response to a perceived threat of terrorism; even though there has only been one terrorist attack on Australian soil, the Hilton bombing in the 70’s. So it would be in the CSIRO’s best interests to not publish anything that diminishes this perceived threat. 17
Problems of censorship at the CSIRO were brought to the public’s attention when economic ecologist Clive Spash resigned from the organisation because his paper titled The Brave New World of Carbon Trading was refused publication by the CSIRO. The paper attacked the cap and trade system as a way to reduce green house gasses. The Rudd government was in the process of trying to get its carbon trading system (a cap and trade system) through parliament and did not need published research criticizing the scheme it was telling people is the best solution. After Clive Spash called for a senate inquiry into censorship within the CSIRO Dr Megan Clark agreed to publish the paper after amendments had been made, quashing further investigation. The original reason given for not publishing was that it breached the organisations charter, introduced by the Rudd government, that prevents staff from publicly debating government or opposition policy, this charter forces our researchers to censor themselves out of democratic public debate. 18 A closer inspection of the CSIRO charter reeals it to be quite contradictory, for the most part it advocates the researchers independence from the government and acknowledges their importance to public debate then finishes with “ As CSIRO employees, they should not advocate, defend or publically debate the merits of government or opposition policy (including policies of previous Commonwealth Governments, or State, Local or Foreign governments)”19 Its classic Orwellian doublethink, sure think what you like but don’t disagree with the people in power.
Another problem is the way research information is distilled to the general public, scientific research seems irrelevant to an average person because it is building upon a base of knowledge they are not already aware of, and it uses language they are not familiar with, and methods that are field specific and not easily understood by those not in the field. So most of this information comes to us through other information providers, such as journalists, advertisers, artists, politicians and writers (this book is an example) who may put the interests of themselves or those they are a conduit for onto the information, contorting, or completely misrepresenting it. It’s always best to get to the source papers if possible and find out who paid for the research but this isn’t always possible as funding often comes via foundations and institutes it’s those persons or companies funding the foundations that control the policy of the foundation, and therefore can influence the research, but this trail from benefactor to researcher is deliberately dark, I know for trying it’s extremely difficult to find who funds foundations and often one will only get another trust or company as benefactor the trail is endless. As mentioned before and no doubt not for the last time, taking any information as truth without corroboratory evidence is naive.
There is one more far greater problem with scientific research which also applies somewhat to academic publications, and noting what I have just said I have taken the following from a published essay in the Newyorker by science journalist Jonah Lehrer whom I have referenced previously in this book, although he is someone I trust as I have checked his source papers and I also respect the publication, I want to be clear about my sources. The problem he wrote of in the Newyorker is the decline effect. Overtime what was once a proven truth becomes more difficult to prove, the data becomes less and less supportive and sometimes reduces to opposing the original hypothesis. This effect is being recognised scarily in many medical trials, the effectiveness of second generation antipsychotics such as Zypreza seems to be wearing off. The early trials in the 1980’s showed a dramatic decrease in the patient’s psychiatric symptoms and the drug became one of Eli Lilly’s biggest sellers but more recent trials have shown less than half the effect. This decline effect is popping up in a broad range of research from genetics and medicine to human behavioural experiments.
Jonathon Schooler made his name as an academic star when he discovered in 1990 that describing something didn’t improve our memory of it, for instance if you were shown a picture of a person’s face then asked to describe it, the assumed logic of the time said this would help you remember the face, but Schooler discovered the opposite your memory of the face got worse. He published his papers in many respected journals and replicated them on other tasks such as remembering the taste of wine and solving puzzles, his original paper has been cited more than 400 times.
He noticed a problem though it was becoming harder to replicate his original data the improvement was shrinking, to the point now that some studies show no effect at all. What was going on? Well no-one’s really sure, some say it is just a reduction to the mean as more tests are done the data falls back to a middle level, but many of the original tests used a large number of subjects and had a wide spread, and in theory there should also be a rise to the mean in some data which wasn’t occurring. Another explanation is that scientists and researchers find the results they are looking for in 2005 epidemiologist John Ioannidis did a study that looked at 49 most commonly cited clinical research studies in three major medical journals 45 of these showed positive results, the researchers supported their theory. Interestingly many of these studies were not even subject to replication, and scarily of the 34 that were 41% were found to be wrong or that the effect claimed was greatly reduced. Scientists are just humans too, as Ioannidis says of his colleagues “It feels good to validate a hypothesis. It feels even better when you’ve got a financial interest in the idea or your career depends upon it. And that’s why, even after a claim has been systematically disproven you still see some stubborn researchers citing the first few studies that show a strong effect. They really want to believe it’s true”.
Another explanation maybe that no matter how controlled an experiment is there are still other variables unknown to the researcher affecting the results. This has been shown in studies of mice behaviour on cocaine using the same mice, the same environment but in different labs, and each lab showed startlingly different results. (Jonah Lehrer “The Truth Wears Off” the Newyorker December 13 2010) Or perhaps as a drug or theory becomes accepted the people and the world adapt to it and the effect declines, we notice difference not commonality. The jury is still out on the decline effect, so should we abandon all research as rubbish, of course not the world is not linear it is fluid and research is just one part of the puzzle, but a very important part as it highlights threads in the fabric of the universe.
After writing of the decline effect in the Newyorker Jonah Lehrer received a lot of emails in response, one of the most common questions was; does this mean we don’t need to believe in global warming? It’s worth me quoting Lehrer’s response as it highlights that absolutes are rarely provable and truth comes from a web of connected “facts” the stronger the web the more truth in the discovery.
“I’m afraid not. One of the sad ironies of scientific denialism is that we tend to be skeptical of precisely the wrong kind of scientific claims. In poll after poll, Americans have dismissed two of the most robust and widely tested theories of modern science: evolution by natural selection and climate change. These are theories that have been verified in thousands of different ways by thousands of different scientists working in many different fields. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that such theories won’t change or get modified – the strength of science is that nothing is settled.) Instead of wasting public debate on creationism or the rhetoric of Senator Inhofe, I wish we’d spend more time considering the value of spinal fusion surgery, or second generation antipsychotics, or the verity of the latest gene association study.
The larger point is that we need to be (sic) a better job of considering the context behind every claim. In 1952, the Harvard philosopher Willard Von Orman published “The Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” In the essay, Quine compared the truths of science to a spider’s web, in which the strength of the lattice depends upon its interconnectedness. (Quine: “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.”) One of the implications of Quine’s paper is that, when evaluating the power of a given study, we need to also consider the other studies and untested assumptions that it depends upon. Don’t just fixate on the effect size – look at the web. Unfortunately for the denialists, climate change and natural selection have very sturdy webs.” (Jonah Lehrer “The Mysterious Decline Effect” posted December 9 2010, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/frontal-cortex/ )
What I am encouraging in this chapter on information is similar, don’t disbelieve all information because it may be coming from interested parties or part of the research may be rickety look for overlaps from differing people and fields, and differing types of evidence, as the interconnections grow so does the truthfulness of the information.
Professionals; are generally trusted conduits of information that we rely upon everyday and are usually happy to pay directly for their advice. Most have a code of ethics and conduct that will include being diligent in their research, being accountable for the accuracy of the information they provide and they are liable for misinformation either by loosing their licence to practice or through the justice system. It’s their role to critically analyse source information disseminate it to the general public, and to make recommendations based on it for you. They include your doctor, banker, accountant, financial advisor, solicitor, psychologist, engineer, architect, and science professionals. They have access to a lot more information than the general public and are scrutinised by their peers. However they rely on the researchers and scientists for information so their advice suffers when research suffers. They are also susceptible to influence from interested parties an example of this is the psychologists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is currently being revised, the DSM is the guide for all psychologists on how to diagnose a mental illness and therefore whether it needs treatment or is just normal behaviour. If it needs treatment you may need a drug, pharmaceutical companies rely on diagnosis to sell product. The DSM IV which will be released in 2013 the first for over 10 years has come under attack for making what may be considered normal behaviours medical conditions and thus needing treatment, sexual dysfunction and bipolar disease are just two of many syndromes to have their definitions broadened to encompass more people. The majority of the panel writing the new manual have connections to commercial enterprises, and 100% of the panel advising on ‘Mood disorders’ and ‘Schizophrenia’ and other Psychotic disorders’ have financial ties to drug companies.20
The makers of drugs such as Viagra for sexual dysfunction, and Prozac and Ritalin for treating “mood disorders” will make more money if the disorders have broader definitions and more people can be diagnosed with the disorders and therefore medicated with their products.
As we see with child psychologists, researchers, and the writers of the DSM money from the powerful can lead the honourable people astray.
Artists have a certain self interest either to make a living from their art or to boost their ego, many get into the arts to fulfil a certain need to be recognised and understood by others. Although this is not the dominate motivation, artists do because they feel they must which benefits society as a whole and adds to the great legacy of mankind. Is the information they relate truthful? Well it depends upon the artist but as a guide they rarely have access to information other than their own experience and that which directly relates to their field of art, they do have a system of critical checking within the art community but this isn’t usually for truthfulness but for aesthetic value which is quite subjective. And they rarely use multiple sources of information in compiling their works. So even when disinterested, the truthfulness is minimal, if we are consistent in our use of the term. However artists do provide us with a different type of truth, a truth that lies in our emotional and spiritual integrity which is still a very important part of society’s information and knowledge, and many would rightly say a more important truth, the truth of the spirit untainted.
Entertainers are generally interested in their own wealth, popularity and ego; they get a buzz out of making you happy. Their purpose is to entertain, to put a smile on your face so take the information they give you with that idea in mind. They generally don’t have good access to information, no system of checking, and no multiple forms of information. Be aware that some entertainers will present themselves as professionals, artists or academics; in order to get your attention. This very rarely happens the other way around, an academic or professional presenting themself as an entertainer.
Academics; can overlap with researchers, professionals and teachers but differ in that their purpose is the analysis and collation of information into universal theories rather than testing it. They try to push human knowledge forward; they generally have good access to information and a checking process within the academic community which helps to weed out error. However like professionals they rely on research and can have trouble in these times of low academic funding in getting enough income to be independent from vested interests.
Teachers and mentors have similar roles; they are meant to be interested in the welfare of their students and therefore should provide truthful information. At this point I’ll make a point of deference between the modern move toward mentoring in business, personal trainers, and life coaches who do seem to be in the game either to further their own career or for personal financial gain. They may well have good intentions but these modern industries do seem to be compromised by a fake ideology promoted by advertisers – that we are all somehow imperfect and can become more perfect if we hand over some dollars to someone else.
However the true idea of a mentor (priests and monks can also fit in this category) has a long history and is based on the interest of the other. As is a teachers, they generally have a code of conduct and access to good information with the required skills to distil truth from fiction, although the peer checking is not as strong as in academia or science and research and their information is often passed on person to person verbally which can lead to inaccuracies, and or emotional vagaries. They also have a problem with control. The school curriculums are set by others usually the government which is self interested the new Australian National School’s curriculum is an example of central control from a government that very much likes to push its own agenda. Teachers must comply with the curriculum, even parents teaching their own children at home must comply. University tutors and lecturers are less centrally controlled as the curriculum is set by an academic in consultation with the university. But as previously discussed universities are under pressure from commercial interests and their own need to make a surplus which can dictate what courses are taught and what information is given priority. Universities now see themselves as businesses which must make money and gain prestige through research, and this necessity flows through to its teaching staff at the “chalk board”.
Much of our education has become very narrow and job specific this forces teachers and mentors to concentrate on relevant information often leaving out life experience and contradictory or web creating overlaps from other fields. That said a close understanding and caring relationship between mentor/teacher and student can be the most truthful conversation and education available to us and should be supported.
New first hand (bloggers and web 2.0); too many it’s these new sources of information which are going to be the saviours of democracy because they are seen as isolated from the influence of governments and product and service providers. Who are they? They are the Wikipedia editors, the bloggers, the twitterers in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, the VJ’s in Burma, the independent webzines, the YouTube video posters, and the forum chatters which are all over the internet. But there are many problems with these providers too. Firstly they don’t have a regimented system of accountable checking, often posts are made anonymously, the argument for this is it protects them from the fear of retribution just like the old journalistic informer, the case against is that they can lie and not be responsible for their untruth, because they cannot be fact checked on where they get their information because no-one knows who they are. There is a move away from this anonymity more people are putting their name to their posts and articles in an effort to bring respectability to independent journalism. More importantly systems of professional fact checkers are starting to develop as more money filters into these media. Wikipedia is a good example of the rise in mass bottom up information and the problems with it.
On 15th of January 2001 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia an open source encyclopaedia which would get its content from average people rather than a panel of experts, it was originally set up as a feeder site to Nupedia which was written by experts but was quickly overtaken by wikipedia in content and popularity which would become the most referred to encyclopaedia in the world with over 14 million articles constantly being updated and according to Alexa is the 6th most visited site on the internet with 12% of all web traffic heading to Wikipedia, it is only surpassed by search engines such as Google and Yahoo and the web 2.0 sites of YouTube and Facebook 21.
The original Nupedia project which had a staff editor and a list of highly qualified volunteers and rigorous peer review process didn’t develop; the articles didn’t come quickly enough only 12 written in the first year. So they decided to use the wiki format which allows the browsing and updating of multiple interlinked web pages at any one time by multiple users. They have had a couple of persistent problems which are consistent with the other information providers in this new citizen based internet world, firstly disruptive editors, those interested parties that want to push their own agenda, or just destroy others work, and secondly funding. In 2002 after the dot.com crash the support from Bomis which had started Nupedia had gone, wikipedia now relied on the creator’s money and donations, it has held fundraisers and recently pleaded to its users for more money as it costs millions to run the servers and basic administration. Larry Sanger left in 2002 because of disagreements on how to deal with disruptive editors, Jimmy Wales preferred a “hands off” bottom up approach to regulating content, leaving peer review to the many editors to do what they thought best, this is based on the Tetlock idea that many sources of information will find truth just as well as a few experts but a lot quicker. However rules have been progressively introduced; in July 2003 a rule against editing your own biography was introduced, in 2005 new articles in English were restricted to those editors that had created a user account, giving their identification and contact details. In May 2006 an oversight feature was put in place where “trusted” editors could permanently erase a site.22
There are many people announcing the end of Wikipedia saying it is being overtaken by interest groups; or that a small group of elites in each field dominate the content, or worse that they are pandering to the lowest pop-culture. The doomsayers claim it will need to develop some sort of guild mentality to control quality and disinterest. This isn’t a bad thing to develop and hopefully Wiki will go down this path as most of our trusted information throughout history has come from those who vigorously maintained independence while supporting and reviewing the publications of others. For a world without Demokratia this is their best course, however it highlights a problematic for not just wiki sites but also Demokratia, will it develop into a guild and then an elite and then tyranny as Plato foresaw? Wikipedia has two problems one is aggressive self interested elements, the other a lack of funds, FSFP solves one of these directly and allows more people more time to interact and be genuine about their posts, and as we have seen in the game theories a selfish person will eventually be drowned if the co-operative have the means to out survive them. The FSFP stops what many see as a natural progression from community to tyranny, it encourages fluidity.
Many of the ground up web 2.0 sources such as twitter, youtube and Facebook have been most effective when large events have occurred in public environments like cities, where many people can cover the event with their digital camera, mobile phone (with image and sound recording) or handy cams. Citizen journalism sites Groundreport and Nowpublic came to prominence with the terrorist bombing in Mumbai in 2008, images and footage was being loaded onto these sites as they occurred beating all mainstream media who were forced to use a lot of this public footage, and personal accounts of the unfolding tragedy in their own reporting. The Huffington Post and twitter hit the big time with the democracy protests in Iran, running reports of the street battles and protests were being posted on twitter – twitter was also being used as a communication device to organise the protests – The Huffington Post had a team of part-time volunteer translators who could quickly translate the tweets and sort the wheat from the chaff, it beat the mainstream news reportage and got mainstream media coverage itself when Barak Obama requested a question from the Huffington Posts Nico Pitney directly in a press conference breaking with the normal protocol of giving the longest serving mainstream journalists the opportunity to question him. And today the day after the worst storm I’ve ever experienced hit Melbourne flooding streets, breaking car windows and collapsing rooves, there are dozens of video’s on YouTube most showing more than last night’s television news and they all have a rawness that seems very genuine. This new first hand information is spread in a very personal way, people linking video and photo’s into posts, text messages and emails it feels more like friends chatting than being manipulated by an advertiser.
Unfortunately YouTube and other new media have been discovered by advertisers and so has person to person communication via the internet, cell phone and email, they call it viral marketing or guerrilla marketing. Advertisements are put on YouTube that are made to look raw and unprofessional and usually have a funny or controversial angle to them, but there purpose is to get attention and eventually sell a product. Guerrilla marketing is a stunt or action which looks like people doing something interesting like flipping a car on its side or a street theatre performance which is really about getting people talking about a product via the new media and streaming video of the event, an interesting form of this is being used by ING Bank at the moment they are posting bills on stobie poles and alley walls in the inner city, normally the domain of independent music bands promoting their gigs, they ask people if they want something for free and have a web address at the bottom but no mention of banking, a bank account or even ING but it is in orange ink their brand colour, the purpose is to get you thinking it’s something new and underground drawing you to the website. It’s selling a new bank account.
So we come back to familiar problems of checking accuracy, having enough money to pay people to do the checking, and enough time to do proper research. The persistent difficulties in maintaining quality and independence and protecting people from retribution when they tell the truth about someone who doesn’t want the world to know what they are doing. Also with the amount of information now available it’s difficult to just sort through it all and find the truth, it takes time or a trusted disinterested other to do it for you.
This may all sound a bit gloomy, but there is hope and the seeds are germinating FSFP will help them grow, first however I’d like to deal with the top end of town and what information we really need to make informed decisions in this new trimodal democratic system.
What information is required for good democracy?
For a democracy to work it is necessary for its citizens to have access to truthful information on whom they are voting for, whom they are selling to and whom they are buying from, and the effects of their support for these persons on the wider environment and society. We need disinterested information in order to make concerned values based decisions. We need to know whether the people our money and labour supports have the same values as us, the core of monetary democracy is that your spending, or in the case of labour democracy your selling goes to someone that supports your values. I shouldn’t need to remind you that representative democracy is based on supporting those that support your values.
In a perfect world there would be accurate information on exactly who receives the money you spend, and the knowledge or labour you give, and not just the first receiver but all those down the chain as far as could be tracked efficiently. This is actually quite complicated and difficult to achieve, for instance take this simple transaction. You employ a wed designer to build you a website for an online magazine and pay her $8000, she pays some of this money to Dell to lease her Dell computer, and some to iinet for her internet service, and some for rent, food, phone calls, and her own personal entertainment, and she is saving for a holiday so she puts some money into an account at ING Bank (in their new low fee account she saw advertised on a stobie pole). From her point of view the sale of her labour and skills is supporting your webzine, so she is concerned about what the websites content will be, does it support her values, will it be a full of naked women and beer jokes, or IT news and current affairs. And are you likely to make money from the site (her labour and ideas) and if so what are you likely to spend that money on? Sponsoring a child in Rawanda or a sex tour of Thailand?
Once we have established to who the first parties are transferring their power to we should really look at the next parties. What does ING do with her savings? Who are they lending it to? Are they supporting gun runners, or doing micro finance in Tibet. How does Dell spend her money? Are they paying their factory workers $1 an hour and their directors $20 million a year? And so on and so on for all the parties receiving her money. The flow of power around the world can be traced through the flow of money, and as you can see when companies are involved it gets very complicated because they pool huge sums of money from many sources and then distribute it amongst more companies, trusts, institutes, directors and shareholders.
There’s also the problem that many people don’t want their monetary affairs known by the people they are transacting with, and I tend to agree that people should be allowed some privacy. So when dealing with individuals we rely on trust and a judgement of their character to guide us this is often intuitive and intuition is heightened by close interaction. So they are allowed privacy because we have personal judgement and we are surprisingly good at picking a liar particularly when free to observe. The privilege of secrecy should not be extended to companies because they are not people and therefore they should not be allowed the same privilege of privacy we afford people. We should be fully informed on how companies, governments, government departments, NGO’s, charities and religious organisations spend our money.
We not only require information on where the money flows but what is achieved with the resources, capital infrastructure and people bought with this money. Which sounds very much like full qualitative values based accounting which essentially it is, for those of you that were protected from the joys of 2nd year accounting and didn’t understand any of that, qualitative accounting is when you put a monetary value on things like environmental damage or employee happiness and include it in the company’s financial statements which affects their bottom line. Full qualitative accounting, plus full details of expenditure (including the names of those paid), and disclosure of the use of agents, dummy companies, and intermediatories to hide payments and a declaration of all owners and nominee company records is a necessary amendment to current legislation.
Qualitative Accounting, and full disclosure
Back when I was studying accounting in the early 90’s we were exploring ways to put externalities (a cost or benefit borne by someone outside the transaction, like a fisherman having the fish stocks contaminated by toxins pumped out by a factory up river from his fishing grounds) and qualitative (those utility maximisers and minimisers that aren’t easily converted into a dollar value like pain and happiness) costs and benefits into the profit and loss statement and therefore to be reflected in an entities bottom line, this would affect decision making and reflect the true costs or benefits of an activity. Things have changed since the 90’s in the 00’s they teach creative accounting (the subject is actually called that) where budding accountants are taught how to move expenses from one period to the next, to inflate or deflate the value of assets and liabilities to write up or down estimated values for goodwill (brand value) and many other lovely tricks to show the reader a better or sometimes worse picture of the company. I am suggesting that companies and organisations publish a full disclosure of all aspects of their operations outlining absenteeism, average hours worked, types of work done, pollutant outflows, energy use, photographs of buildings built and mines started, legal actions, and to whom they give our money including shareholders and financiers by individual name not holding company. The FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) which is the global body for setting accounting standards is currently working through a project on just this which unfortunately is more for the enlightenment of its members rather than as a precursor to a change in the standards.
We can divide qualitative aspects into areas of health a safety, environmental, aesthetic, knowledge, and human wellbeing (hours of labour required, conditions of labour). All areas could have a positive or negative impact on the profit and loss; for instance the building of a corrugated iron storage shed by the Yarra River has a negative aesthetic effect, but building the Opera House on Sydney harbour has a positive aesthetic effect. You will realise the inherent problem with qualitative effects and externalities is that there’s a lot of subjective opinion involved, that is why this report should be used as a guide for individual decision making within economic DemoKratia not an absolute too be used in isolation. Where applicable information other than a number (monetary) value should be used as evidence of costs and benefits such as photographs, test reports, and surveys so the reader can decide for themselves what is best.
Another problem is being able to compare like with like, is a company producing 100 000 bottle tops in a factory in Footscray emitting 10 tonnes of CO2 a year comparable to a car factory assembling 500 cars a year but producing 12 tonnes of CO2 a year?
It will be up to individuals to decide qualitative value because we are the only ones that can put our personal preferences and values onto the actions of companies, this is holistic values based monetary democracy bringing true human values to the bottom line. What we need is basic information in easily comparable form which all companies and organisations will provide. It’s not unlike nutrition information on food labels. Of course companies can and do lie in reports, and it’s their independent auditors who are supposed to make sure the reports are correct (although they are never expected to be 100% accurate according to the FASB). Even then as with ENRON and Andersons accountants, and more recently the discoveries at Lehman brothers, the auditors may not really be independent, and therefore not carry out their responsibilities to shareholders and the wider public. That’s why we require media and disinterested parties to provide information as well.
Compliance will be enforced by the courts but reinforced in a more immediate fashion by the public via monetary and labour democracy, essentially don’t work for, or buy from any company that doesn’t publish a full disclosure report, they must have something to hide. I can see consumer activists putting black crosses on the products of abstainers in local supermarkets. They will be sued for economic vandalism and the judges will uphold freedom over manipulation as they did with Gunns pulp mill.
The seeds are germinating
It’s all a bit too hard, there’s too much information, most of which is supplied by interest parties who are looking after themselves not the world at large or even you, our trusted established disinterested providers like journalists, teacher, scientists and professionals are being compromised by lack of money and interested parties and the internet just has so much out there you can’t find the information required to become a decent democratic citizen. Don’t despair the seeds of decent information are with us and are growing. There are many people trying to provide disinterested information on the environmental impacts of products, and unbiased comparisons of products and services. People are using monetary democracy to support trusted disinterested publications and websites, and technology is enabling more people to become information providers themselves. Our governments are trying to help, they are! Governments have legislated that public companies must provide annual reports naming directors and executive salaries, and the major shareholders, however this needs to go further. They are also the ones who legislated nutritional information be put on food products so we can make informed health choices at the point of sale, again they can do more. Following is just a few examples of real people trying to get truthful information to us, but there are many more and they need our support.
In 2001 Nick Ray and Clint Healy were outside Melbourne’s Crown Casino protesting the World Economic Forum, although they had not yet met they would become business partners, the catalyst for their business was a woman’s T-Shirt, on it was a large black question mark, under the question mark read “ Your dollar is your vote. Who did you vote for today?” Four years after the protest they met through an environmental group and decided to set up The Ethical Consumer Group, they realised that they may be saying they wanted a more sustainable environment but their buying habits were not backing up their words. They had trouble finding answers to questions they needed to know about the companies they were buying from. Were the products tested on animals? Were they organic or genetically engineered? How many food miles had they clocked up? Did the companies have a good humanitarian track record?
In 2008 they published their first booklet, The Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping, and printed 10 000 copies, in 2009 they printed 25 000 copies and it sold for $5 in newsagents. The booklet provides a product list naming brand names, the name of the company showing parent and related companies (very important) and symbols next to both telling consumers which is the better buy, those they couldn’t find any information on, ones to avoid, companies to boycott because of continued international criticism, and whether the company is Australian owned.23 Nick and Clint build on the legacy of the old staple of disinterested Australian consumer advice, Choice magazine and website. Choice has been been giving consumers independent advice as long as I can remember and has over 200 000 subscribers. It gives independent and transparent reviews of products and services, looking at whether the products do what they claim, their environmental impact, and their value for money. 24
It’s not just small independent non-profits that are pushing for more accurate information to be available to the democratic consumer. The world’s biggest retailer Wal-Mart is trying to find out the social and environmental impact of all the products it sells, it wants to know their carbon footprint, how many litres of water were used to make the product, and the air pollution caused, and much more. It plans to recruit environmentalist, scholars, and suppliers to compile all this information into an international index and rating system which will include a much broader range of social and environmental impacts than ever before, it’s essentially nutritional ratings for the environment and society. 25 So far they have just made the announcement of their intention but we watch with interest for the results.
And also from the United States where 11 metropolitan daily newspapers have closed due to financial insolvency since March 2007, and many others have changed formats to internet only, there is a movement to citizen journalism trying to keep debate alive and their elected representatives accountable. A major problem is the decline in local or regional newspapers that give residents the opportunity to discuss local issues and keep their councils and Mayors in check. According to small town journalists the back room deals start happening as soon as the newspapers close. So citizen journalists are responding to this need for transparency, in Seattle a network of neighbourhood blogs is being attempted along the lines of “I went to the school board meeting, I went to the planning meeting and here’s what happened” 26. Extending local first hand information on what their governing organisations are doing and using this new medium, the internet to allow others to scrutinize their work, and debate the issues, this is a great idea and more people should become aware of similar local initiatives.
And finally a perfect example of monetary democracy encouraging and supporting good information and similar values. In the June 1 2009 edition of the New Yorker Magazine (also available online) Dr. Atul Gawande wrote an article “The Cost Conundrum” looking at health care cost variances between Texas and other states. Charlie Munger, American billionaire Warren Buffets business partner liked the article so much he sent Dr. Gawande a cheque for $20 000. Warren Buffet said of the decision “My partner Charlie Munger sat down and wrote out a check for $20,000 to him and he’s never met him, never had any correspondence with it [the magazine], he just mailed it to the New Yorker and he said, `This article is so useful socially.’ He says, `Just give this as a gift to the–to Dr. Gawande.” Dr Guwande donated the cheque to Brigham and Women’s Hospital Centre for Surgery and Public Health for an international health project they are working on in coordination with World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiology and the World Health Organization.27 You can see money acting as the catalyst for encouraging ethical values, Munger believed Dr Gawande was like minded, truthful and decent so he gave him the power to put his values into action and that’s exactly what Dr Gawande did by supporting a hospital that helped the needy. This action also sends a message that good informative writing will be financially rewarded, and had Dr Gawande been less financially capable he could have used the money to support himself while he wrote more articles.
The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, there are now virtual farmers markets, you can wander around a virtual village with market stalls showing produce, you can ask the farmers and producers directly about their produce, asking them what their animals are fed, or what chemicals are used on the farm, and for 6 pounds your purchases are delivered to your door. An iPhone application Ustream lets you capture images and sound on your iPhone streaming it directly to the internet to be viewed by your friends or anyone, this is a developing problem for live sports telecasts which are the main form of income for all major professional sports. Anyone at the game can now be the camera man streaming the action from their perspective to be viewed by anyone for free. The professional music and film industries have been conducting a running battle with file sharing sites like bittorrent which allows normal people to share digital files of music and movies with anybody for free. Apples iPad may be the answer to some of these problems for established content providers as they want to make people pay for the content users view or download to the iPad, however if iPhone is used as a guide the only people to gain income are the application creators, those making it easier to access the information not the information providers.
This highlights a fundamental problem. We don’t like paying for information. To us it’s like offering your mum $50 for some marital advice, it feels wrong. We will pay for newspapers and magazines because we receive something tangible in our hands, the paper and ink so it feels like we were buying something, that’s why we are also happy to pay for apps for a phone that make access easier, but still feel we should have access to information for free. This ideology has a good ethical history and is the reason we have free libraries and have had for centuries; all people should have access to a communal knowledge. However to provide quality information takes time and effort and therefore in a market based world, money.
The flat payment addresses this directly by providing information providers with a constant income while they collate, package and investigate for us. More will need to be done than just providing a small payment, the new democracy encouraged by the FSFP will require even more truthful information than we currently get, and as I’ve shown our traditional information providers are being undermined by interested parties which can get their claws into those that would rather be independent because decent people are not financially supported by our current system. We need an information system which is independent and well funded and government legislation that forces organisations to be transparent about all they do and whom they support.
To create this system you must use the extra money from the flat payment to support information providers you trust for their independence and values, this will allow them to continue to produce quality work, to employ independent checking and advice and help to protect them from retribution. You should also put some effort into making your own knowledge available to others, and the time lost to other activities is compensated by the flat payment. Being a decent democratic citizen does take effort, but this effort will be soothed by some extra time and money. If we all work towards creating truthful information we will make a better democracy.
Other related articles by David J Campbell
The history of money – our great medium for communication
The power and freedom of money
1. Anders Ostergaard “Burma VJ – Reporting From A Closed Country” documentary 2008
2. Nielson Online Internet an Technology Report, 2009 in Kristi Barrow “Internet usage in Australia beats tv, radio and print for second year” www.kristi-barrow.com/internet-usage-in-australia-beats-tv-radio-and-print-for-second-year/
3. Victoria J. Rideout, Ulla G. Fouhr, Donald F. Roberts, “Generation M2- Media in the lives of 8 to 18 Year olds” Kaiser Family Foundation, January 2010
4. ABS figures for population and Jack Herman “State of the News Print Media in Australia 2007” Australian Press Council, www.presscouncil.org/snpma/snpma2007.
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7. ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, 2008-09” 16/12/2009 www.abs.gov.au/ausstats
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9. Hungry Beast episode 1, ABC TV, October 2009, and Ninemsn staff, “Denton owns up to media hoax” www.ninemsn.com.au, Sep 28 2009
10. Sally Young “It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world of government advertising” The University of Melbourne uninews Vol 13 No. 9 June 2004 http://uninews.unimelb.edu.au/view.php?articleID=1468
11. The Gruen Transfer “ Fiji Water – The nature of water” ABC Television, 1 April 2009, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/gruentransfer/ads/Wednesday1April2009.htm
12. The Gruen Transfer “ Oral B toothbrush – Rob the Dentist” ABC TV, 25 March 2009, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/gruentransfer/ads/Wednesday25March2009.htm
13. Basil Hegazi “Monkey see, Monkey monetised” February 9 2010 http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/blogs/pinch-of-basil/monkey-see-monkey-monetised/20100208-nmaa.html
14. Rebecca A. Clay “Advertising to children: Is it ethical?” Monitor, September 200, Vol 31, No. 8 page 52, www.apa.org/monitor/sep00/advertising.aspx
15. Andrew Trounson and Greg Roberts, “Dispute over climate sceptic uni grant” The Australian May 7 2008, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/dispute-over-climate-sceptic-uni-grant/story-e6frg6oo-1111116267330
16 Margaret Simons, “Dangerous Precedent”, The Monthly, March 2010
17. Fran Foo, “CSIRO gets more funding” The Australian, May 13 2009.
18. Dan Harrison “Scientist quits CSIRO amid censorship claims” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 4 2009, http://www.smh.com.au/environment/scientist-quits-csiro-amid-censorship-claims-20091203-k8vb.html
19. Public Research Agency Charter with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Hon. Kim Carr and Dr John W Stocker, Nov 11 2008, http://www.csiro.au/files/files/pn9m.pdf
20. Lisa Cosgrove, Sheldon Krimsky, Manish Vijayaraghavan, Lisa Schnieder, “Financial ties between DVM IV Panel and the Pharmaceutical Industry”, University of Mass. Boston, Tufts University, Medford Mass. 2006. http://www.scribd.com/doc/28180452/DSM-Writers-Paid-Off-by-Big-Pharma-Tufts-University-Study.
21. Alexa, http://www.alexa.com/topsites
22. Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.com
23. Daniella Miletic “Buyer alert: authors deliver advice on guilt-free supermarket shopping” The Age, April 4, 2009
24. Choice, www.choice.com.au
25. Stephanie Rosenbloom, “At Wal-mart, labelling to reflect Green intent” The New York Times, July 15 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/16/business/energy-environment/16walmart.html
26. David Scott “A changing climate”, The Age, March 8 2010
27. Danny Shea, “Atul Gawande, New Yorker write: I didn’t accept Warren Buffets partners $20 00 check”, the Huffington Post, 1 March 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/01/atul-gawande-new-yorker-w_n_481454.html