Monday, August 20, 2012

The Trouble With the Information Age: The Information Is Mostly Crap

The trouble with having access to a limitless quantity of books, newspapers, magazines, television, the alternative media, and the statements of educators is that we rarely have means of knowing what of this so-called information is true.

In the distant past, when ignorance was near universal, what people knew, they knew from the facts of often hard experience. They knew that steam scolds, frost freezes, that there is no free lunch except by theft and that civil authority rests on brute force: all of which small stock of information was incontrovertibly true.

Today, by contrast, our knowledge is not only incomparably greater, it is mostly bunk. We believe, for example, that 19 more or less clueless Muslims with paper knives beat NORAD, the World's most expensive air defense system, and that, quite reasonably, no one was fired for NORAD's failure. We know that's true because all the media say so, because no book from a reputable publisher argues otherwise, and because any scholar who argues otherwise is promptly ousted from the groves of academe.

In addition, we believe that because some 19th Century bond trader named David Ricardo pointed out the rather obvious fact that, in international trade, countries benefit by specializing in what they do best, it is therefore an excellent idea for capitalists and bankers to take the capital accumulated in the West through the sweat of generations and invest it, along with the best of Western technology, in the Third World where wages are only three to 10% of those in the West, thereby robbing workers in the West of their livelihood, while enriching said captalists and bankers. This notwithstanding that David Ricardo explicitly stated that capital exports would negate the benefit of international trade to the country exporting capital.

Then, as the US builds out a totalitarian police state fronted by lightweight democratic puppets such as Dubya the torture president and Obama the Assassin, the "information"-rich American public express their confidence in the modern incarnation of the Gestapo.

Some, skeptical of the so-called mainstream media, look to the Internet and the alternative media for "true facts" about the world. But we know that Obama's modern incarnation of the Committee of Public Information has been set to work under the direction of erstwhile "Information Tzar," Cass Sunstein, to infiltrate the alt. media and destroy whatever integrity they may otherwise have had.

Even books, or perhaps one should say especially books, are now a source of very questionable "information." Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" (rated a "Best Book of the Year" by the Economist Magazine) comes to mind. Ridley, which is to say, the 5th Viscount Ridley, FRSL, FMedSci, DL, Eton, Oxford, author of talk "when ideas have sex" viewed 1.4 million times, author of award winning books, great grandson of architect Sir Eward Lutyens, nephew of a tory cabinet minister, etc., etc.)  would seems to be a well-educated chap and someone you might reasonably expect to tell you something worth knowing. But you'd be wrong.

Ridley's books is riddled with crass errors or outright lies.

Taking Adam Smith's now universally accepted insight that prosperity depends on the division and specialization of labor, Ridley offers seemingly superfluous support for the concept through examination of the way in which small populations are unable to achieve a high division and specialization of labor and thus suffer from poverty. An example he takes is that of the now extinct Tasmanians who, few in number and confined to an island, gradually lost many of the skills possessed by their ancestors who populated Tasmania before the land bridge to the Australian subcontinent disappeared many thousands of years ago.

Then he says, "In contrast to Tasmania, Tierra del Fuego -- an island not much bigger than Tasmania, home to not many more people and generally rather colder and less hospitable, -- possessed a race of who, when Charles Dawin met them in 1834, set bait for fish, nets for seals, ... used hooks and harpoons .... and clothing. [the difference between the two populations being] that the Fuegians were in fairly frequent contact with other people across the straight of Magellan so they could relearn lost skills..."

This must seem an odd claim to anyone who has actually read Darwin's account of his visit to Tierra del Fuego:
While going one day on shore near Wollaston Island, we pulled alongside a canoe with six Fuegians. These were the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld. On the east coast the natives, as we have seen, have guanaco cloaks, and on the west they possess seal-skins. Amongst these central tribes the men generally have an otter-skin, or some small scrap about as large as a pocket-handkerchief, which is barely sufficient to cover their backs as low down as their loins. It is laced across the breast by strings, and according as the wind blows, it is shifted from side to side. But these Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full-grown woman was absolutely so. It was raining heavily, and the fresh water, together with the spray, trickled down her body. In another harbour not far distant, a woman, who was suckling a recently-born child, came one day alongside the vessel, and remained there out of mere curiosity, whilst the sleet fell and thawed on her naked bosom, and on the skin of her naked baby! These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent.... At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals. Whenever it is low water, winter or summer, night or day, they must rise to pick shellfish from the rocks; and the women either dive to collect sea-eggs, or sit patiently in their canoes, and with a baited hair-line without any hook, jerk out little fish. If a seal is killed, or the floating carcass of a putrid whale is discovered, it is a feast; and such miserable food is assisted by a few tasteless berries and fungi. ...
Hardly convincing evidence, one would have thought, for the contention that the Fuegians were more prosperous than the Tasmanians or anyone else by virtue of their cultural connection with the larger mainland community. 

But if one ludicrous misrepresentation of Charles Darwin by a graduate in Zoology with first class honors from the University of Oxford does not a Lord Haw Haw of the New World Order make, what is one to make of the Right Honorable Lord Ridley's energetic rebuttal of those who say that "'Wal-Mart is the world's largest sweatshop' for paying low wages even though Wal-Mart pays twice the minimum wage..."

Ha! There you are, Wal-Mart is not evil. On the contrary, they provide thousands and thousands of Americans with darned good jobs. And if you doubt that you'll find his Lordship's book has lots more about Sam Walton's prosperity-generating Wal-Mart stores, which according to Ridley provide "enormous benefits that (especially the poorest) customers reap in terms of cheaper more varied and better goods." 

But Ridley has nothing whatever to say about Wal-Mart forcing suppliers to offshore production destroying good jobs for Wal-Mart's "poorest customers" in the process. And as for the claim about Wal-Mart paying twice the minimum wage, that seems as inaccurate as his Lordship's recollection of Darwin's account of the life of the Fuegians. And in fact, Lord Matty would have us believe that Wal-Mart employees, like the Fuegians, really have a jolly high standard of life.

Yet, as Henry Blodgett writes in the Business Insider,
Walmart pays its average "associate," of which it has about 1.5 million in the U.S., just under $12 an hour. This equates to an annual salary that is below the poverty line.
Moreover, employee comments reveal Wal-Mart to be a company heartily loathed by many of its employees who consider it to be both exploitive and abusive. And Wal-Mart does not hesitate, apparently, to cheat workers outright. But then how else would the Walton family's wealth have come to exceed that of the poorest 120 million Americans.

And so the book goes: everything is for the best in this the best possible of all capitalist worlds. Corporations are not evil. It is to the corporations we owe our liberty. Corporations are weak and vulnerable, yet they have brought prosperity and freedom, ended slavery, cruelty, child abuse and oppression. I'm not making this up, but I cannot quote the whole insane book.

And the beauty of capitalism, says Ridley, is that no one is in charge. Everything works to achieve greater and greater happiness for all through the working of the collective intelligence.That 146 corporations, including banks such as Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan control almost half of all international business activity, or that these corporations largely finance our so-called democratic election campaigns and the think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations that advise governments, is not something Matt Ridley would have you worry about. He refrains even from mentioning such potentially worrying facts. But then Ridley was himself a banker: specifically, the Chair of Northern Rock during the years leading to its bankruptcy that cost the British taxpayer billions.


  1. "And the beauty of capitalism, says Ridley, is that no one is in charge..."

    Anarchists say the same as Ridley. The subtext of all such quotes is Smith's "invisible hand", a theological concept lifted to help Ridley (etc) loot the world.

    But articles like this (excellent BTW) still make me want to at least browse the book. Bad for blood pressure, but curiousity kills more than cats.

    1. If you want to understand the religion of the New World Order, Ridley's Gospel is a book to read.

      "The twenty-first century ...[is] a time when battery farming and unilaterally declaring war have just about become unacceptable." (P 104)

      "There is a direct link between commerce and virtue." (P 105)

      "It is not just cruelty and indifference to the disadvantaged that have retreated with the spread of the collective brain." (P 106)

      "Freedom itself owes much to commerce. The great drive to universal suffrage, religious tolerance and female emancipation began with pragmatic enthusiasts for free enterprise ..." (P 107)

      "The lesson of the last two centuries is that liberty and welfare march hand in hand with prosperity and trade. (P 108).

      And so much more ...