Freedom of the press, 2019, rated from good (deep blue) to very serious (deep red), as self-assessed by members of Reporters Without Borders. From NordNordWest, CC-by-sa-3.0 de, via wikipedia. These are not good times for journalists and independent media. Not only are many investigators, whistle-blowers, journalists and reporters murdered every year for simply reporting the truth, in many countries the ‘information’ media are concentrated in very few hands and hugely biased and/or corrupt, so much of their citizenry has no access to truthful reportage or to accurate, complete facts about what is going on in their country and our world.
I confess: I am an accountant. That is true in two senses. First, I made my career, much of it anyway, with a large public accounting firm. I did the usual accounting stuff: preparing and auditing financial statements, doing taxes, and, when it didn’t conflict with my auditing duties, providing a gamut of financial and business advisory services to hundreds of (mostly entrepreneurial) companies.
But I’m an accountant in a more essential way as well. The word “account” originally meant “to calculate or reckon” — to assemble data and draw conclusions from them. When a reporter provides an “account” of something that happened, she provides both the facts and reasonably deduced or inferred conclusions drawn from them. This involves a mix of investigative science (determining what all the relevant facts, which may not be obvious or entirely known, are) and the art of critical thinking (deducing, through analytical thinking, and inferring, through inductive reasoning, what the facts “add up to” — what they mean).
Good reportage, accounting for what happened, is very different from entertainment or editorialization, which is the business that almost all the so-called ‘information media’ are now largely or exclusively pursuing. Entertaining stories (including fiction, ‘personal interest’, and celebrity news) are deliberately designed to distract from the issues, and they are completely unconcerned with the truth or its significance; as fiction and faux news outlets now have far more readers than the few remaining real information media, this is clearly a profitable strategy. Editorial stories (statements of pure opinion, unsupported, distorted and/or invented data, and conjecture about the future) deliberately obfuscate the truth by omitting opposing perspectives and the data that support them; they are designed to comfort readers that those readers’ current opinions are righteously correct, whether they actually are or not, and they, too, as the popularity of the wankers on talk radio and online wingnut sites demonstrate, can be profitable undertakings.
In short, our capitalist system, which has no intrinsic regard for the truth but only for increasing revenue and income, offers no place for true reportage, for actual, rigorous accounting of what happened and what it means. The truth, as Greta Thunberg is showing us, provides neither comfort nor distraction. There are many, these days, across the political and philosophical spectrum, who argue that there is no ‘unvarnished’ truth — that everything has multiple interpretations. This argument is flip and disingenuous: any competent reporter, investigative journalist or critical thinker can explain the process of ascertaining the truth and its implications, and the errors to avoid, to provide the reader or listener with a complete-as-possible accounting of what is known, and not known, the various ways this information can be interpreted, and the plausible conclusions.
This blog has endeavoured, over the past 16 years, to provide an accounting of what I’ve read and thought and learned, a chronicle of what I see as a civilization in full-on collapse and my own coming to grips with that, and of what science and philosophy seems to be telling us about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. With practice, I think I am getting better at it.
So I am, in that sense too, an accountant.
What got me thinking about this was an article by Craig Mod, sent to me by my friend Ben, entitled Media Accounting 101. In it, Craig describes the implicit ‘contract’ between writer/publisher and reader, in books and to a lesser extent newspapers, CDs and DVDs: The content is fixed and, as a consequence of the transaction, the reader/customer is free to resell it and use it any time and place any way they wish. Contrast that with the content of social media and to a lesser extent all online media: The seller is not selling content, but rather advertising — readers’/viewers’/listeners’ attention. The actual customer is the advertiser, not the content provider. In fact in this contract the content and the content provider are largely irrelevant and ignored — the sellers of consumer attention (the NYT, Facebook etc) may be somewhat or completely indifferent to what content passes through their channels (and would prefer not to be ‘responsible’ for it), and the content provider (investigative reporter, writer, composer, performer) is often paid a pittance, or nothing at all.
This is a very different contract, which is probably why books remain trusted, carefully read, and valued, while the content of online media — slippery, ephemeral, artless, mostly unverified and unverifiable, and needing no ‘truthiness’ at all (to sell advertising, it need merely be attention-grabbing) — is throw-away, unabsorbed, not taken seriously, and pretty much worthless.
The contract with a real information medium requires that the producer invest energy and integrity to create a credible and useful product, and that the reader invest energy in the form of critical thinking in order to make sense and use of the content. When there is nothing ‘in it’ for the seller to care about the quality or integrity of the content, when there is no money or reward (and much risk) for the content provider to do their important investigative and thoughtful work, when the content is mostly unverified, fake, and/or useless, and when the reader has never been educated to be able to think critically or to appreciate the value of corroborated, well-reasoned reportage, the result is a contract that is worthless to the reader and content provider, and valuable only to the advertising seller and the advertiser. And if you believe, as I do, that advertising is almost entirely a waste of time, money and human energy, then the value of the entire enterprise is zero.
Craig makes the argument that only publications that draw their revenues overwhelmingly from subscriptions rather than advertising need to worry about the quality of their content (in doing so they switch back to the type of implicit contract between book-seller and book-buyer). That means they at least theoretically have to care about its veracity, its thoughtfulness, its imaginativeness, and how well it is composed, which, again theoretically, means there should still be incentives for content providers — investigative journalists, great synthesizers and teachers, and thorough and balanced reporters.
But if you look at the newest ‘subscription’ models they have shifted from pay-for-specific content to stream-everything — so that now content providers are again being paid for the attention they can grab, which is much easier if you’re loud and outrageous (or heavily bankrolled by vested interests), than if you’re competent, painstaking and thoughtful. So instead of getting a dollar for each ‘sale’ of a song, the musician now gets a half-cent for each minute their song holds a listener’s attention, each time they play it. The inevitable result is the infantilization of the music industry — the pandering to morons who listen to nursery-rhyme rap ‘songs’ over and over for hours, and the starvation of serious musicians. The same is true in all other media using this model — just look at the “trending” videos on YouTube and you will quickly feel much more hopeless about the future of our world. Oceans of amateur, mindless, worthless garbage.
And now you can get your video on a flat-fee-per-month ‘subscription’ (Netflix); you can get books the same way (Amazon Prime). If they can get everyone to subscribe, then they can raise the flat fee every year and make more and more revenue without any ‘selling’ work. And as they control the channel, they can squeeze producers to give them the content at a lower price each year (sound familiar? It’s the WalMart race to the bottom model, where producers get paid ever less and customers get ever more shoddy products). And the producers in turn, eager to please their shareholders too, will squeeze the content providers, which means — surprise! — a constant deterioration of quality.
And that’s precisely what’s happened to the information media, which is a large part of the reason that the map at the top of this post looks so grim. There is no money to be made in our industrial growth economy in quality, in originality, in the crafting of remarkable work — or, ultimately, in the truth.
Our preoccupation with constant-attention technologies is clearly dopamine-related, as Craig points out — we are in every sense addicted to these modern toys, and unable to tear our attention away from them. But while Craig is convinced that we can wean our way off them by making it easier to turn our attention to more high-value activities like reading books, I think he’s naive. There is simply no incentive for the modern human to break this habit, and there are a million corporations working furiously to get us even more hooked.
Although none of this can survive the accelerating collapse of industrial civilization (so this mass addiction can’t last all that much longer), it’s all predicated, in my opinion, on a house of cards that no one seems to want to acknowledge. And that is the fact that advertising doesn’t actually work.
It’s a myth, one that everyone benefiting from it wants to keep believing, and so it continues. There are several similar myths — the myth that stocks are actually worth the ludicrous prices that investors keep paying for them (especially when interest rates are suppressed to near zero, so there’s no opportunity cost to throwing ever more money at stocks), which is completely predicated on high rates of growth continuing forever. Or the myth that it’s a lack of scientific knowledge and of ‘cures’, rather than our abominable industrial western diet, that is responsible for our soaring rates of chronic and debilitating illness, and almost all of our deaths. Or the myth that our fiat currencies are actually solid and worth staking our future on, or worth anything at all. Or the myth that executives in corporations actually make better decisions and therefore deserve more credit and (obscenely) higher salaries than their front-line workers.
Why do we believe these myths? Because we want to. Because they reinforce the systems that we think are instrumental in giving us the quality of life we enjoy and which we are terrified of letting go, so domesticated have we become. They don’t need to be true as long as everyone keeps on believing they are true and behaving as if they are true.
What would happen if we stopped believing that advertising is a worthy investment, that it generates much less than it costs? For a start, our economies would collapse, especially the economies whose costs are most advertising-heavy and whose revenues are most advertising-dependent. The internet would surely collapse, deprived of the illusion that it was actually providing anywhere near enough value to anyone to justify its colossal cost, and starved of 90% or more of its operating funds. The reality is that advertising simply raises cost, and forces ‘competitors’ to do more advertising to keep from losing market share, and so it continues, in runaway inflationary style, to the point that the vast majority of the cost of almost everything we consume is a pass-through of the cost of the producer spending ever-more to shout ever-louder over the similar voices of competitors about why it’s worth more than them. It’s a giant con. To the customer, it provides absolutely no value. But don’t dare tell that to the producers, or the advertisers, whose margin and whose very existence depends on the myth that it does.
Perhaps someone should call them to account. It’s an age-old expression, meaning ‘hold answerable for their actions’, and it takes us full circle, back to the assembling of data and the drawing of reasonable conclusions from them. Back to valuing accurate information and not convenient myths. Back to an acknowledgement and healing of our addictions instead of pandering to them.
Back to a curiosity and thirst for the truth, instead of a fearful and bewildered acceding to lies, inurement and distraction. Back to wanting to know, at all costs, instead of amusing ourselves to death.