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January 22, 2006

The Markets, Networks and Organizations of Babel

"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.... And the people said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.... And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language, and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do... Let us go down and there confound their language that they may not understand one another's speech... Therefore the name of the Tower is Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth." (Genesis 11)

Why? Why did the Lord confound the single speech of people and scatter them to the winds? Because armed with the power of a single langauge, people forgot they were people and not gods -- and immediately set up a project to reach into heaven and accomplish all that rightly belongs only to a divine hand. Hubris. Instead of doing the Lord's work, human beings took advantage of a divine gift -- a single language -- to attempt to substitute the human for the divine.

There is so much to accomplish here on earth. We do not need to set ourselves up hubristically to build towers into heaven. We do not need holy wars. We do not need to destroy ourselves with divine projects aimed at undoing the gifts of common language, common principle and common law. We do not need to cynically exploit sincere beliefs in all that is holy to undo our constitutional form of government, our commitment to the rule of law and our holy obligation to live in peace with others around the globe.

In the past few decades, technology has provided human beings with yet another try at one common langauge -- or, perhaps, a family of related languages known at HTML, XML and so forth. With the Internet, we now can speak to one another across the globe. And, in that sense, we all are one click away from inhabiting a single world. But, this world is not the world of places created in part by the scattering of peoples in Genesis. Yes, billions continue to inhabit that world -- wholly or partially depending on whether they have access to that 'click'.

For hundreds of millions if not billions of the rest of us, however, we now live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. This world -- and our shared values within it -- are much more dependent upon the purposes we bring to our lives instead of the places we happen to reside. And it is this world that offers all of us the chance to establish purposes of sanity, safety, sustainability and goodness within the ambit of what is permitted to human beings.

It is a world whose current distribution of health and well being (including the opportunity to have health and well being through work and effort) are shameful in the eyes of God -- any God or Gods, or for those whose views run to ethics only, in the eyes of any ethical standard. This distribution as well as access to opportunity arise primarily from the workings of our new world of purposes -- from the markets, networks and organizations of this new world as opposed to from places. The purposes of those of us who live out our daily lives in this new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families have the whip hand of the planet.

Our purposes in how we use the shared language of technology -- whether to attempt to substitute our will for the will of the divine through holy wars on others or on ourselves and our inherited forms of constitutional and democratic government -- or whether to use the divine gift of technology to share bounty, health and well being with others -- these will determine if we progress as a planet or, once again, find our common language confounded by a God, Gods or ethical precepts angered by hubristic projects.

The early returns are not promising. Consider only what has happened to accuracy and truth. "What effect," asks a columnist at the Financial Times, "is the web having on truth?" In his thoughtful response, he notes both bad news and possible good news. First, he notes that no one is around to fact check bloggers and others -- unlike editors used to do in traditional media. Of course, he rightly notes that editors and fact checkers seem no longer to fact check traditional journalists either -- that relying on newspapers for accuracy is but one more form of potential self-delusion in a world of spin. So, where is the potential good news? It lies in using the new technology in ways consistent with the new technology.

Our movement toward a single language is a many-to-many phenomenon. It is not a hierarchy. It is not a situation like the old fashioned newsroom where a division of labor and a hierarchy did the fact checking. Rather, it is many-to-many. Who will fact check the spin and bias of those who publish on the Web? Others who publish on the web. The issue is not so much will the fact checking happen. But rather will it happen fast enough and effectively enough to undo the gargantuan potential for misleading and private agendas?

A former head of NBC news has suggested, "News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising." It's a comment that falls short of wisdom about the workings of communication in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. In a world of places, his comment would make sense. In that world, a people lived together in a place and had to pay attention to those in power whose agendas could easily reflect the distinction between news and advertising. In our new world of purposes, however, there are always -- always, every time, permanently -- different market segments and organizations who want to suppress something that competing organzations, networks and market segments wish to expose and air.

In our world, then, every single piece of information that can be portrayed and communicated through our single language of technology is both 'news' and 'advertising' depending on the audience and the communicator. Was Clinton's sex with Lewinsky news or advertising? Both. It was news for those who would have suffered if not revealed. It was advertising for many who wanted to reveal and revel and exult in it for reasons that drove their agendas of political advantage, greed, power and self-aggrandizement. Is the Bush Administration's illegal spying on Americans news or advertising? Both -- and for similar reasons.

So, where does this leave us? With our own judgment, our own purposes, and our own concern for truth and accuracy. Neither news nor advertising in our world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families are necessarily either true or accurate. Sometimes advertising can be truer and more accurate than news; sometimes the reverse. But, even when advertising has more truth than news, we must remember it is advertising. It is brought to us by folks with purposes -- and, as with truth and accuracy -- it is our job to figure out what those purposes and choose whether and to what degree we agree or disagree with them. The same holds for news.

Are the purposes about greed, power and self-aggrandizement? Or, do the purposes incline more toward generosity -- toward both self-interest and interest in others, toward both value and values, toward both building health and well-being for ourselves as well as others?

In periods of profound change, the scarcest resources are effort/energy and meaningful language. With the information age, we live in a period of profound change. Whether and to what extent we find common, meaningful language in our new world of markets, networks and organizations -- including the language of truth and accuracy -- will have much less to do with distinctions between news and advertising than with the shared purposes we bring to our markets, networks and organizations -- to our world. If those purposes are shaped by greed, power and selfishness, then we will find our common, shared langauge of technology destroyed -- along with peace, prosperity, safety, sanity and sustainability.

If, on the other hand, we make it our shared purposes to reintegrate our concern for value (money, winning, profits and wealth) with our concern for family, society, democracy, the rule of law, constitutional government, spiritual brother and sisterhood, our precious blue planet, fairness, equity -- liberty and justice for all -- then, with God's blessing, we shall pass along to future generations a planet that is safer, saner and more sustainable.

Posted by Doug Smith on January 22, 2006 01:30 PM | Permalink

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» Both News And Advertising from Douglas K Smith
"News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising,” said Reuven Frank, a former head of NBC news. Insightful. And, incomplete. Frank's comment reflects the widespread bias for either/or certainity. Either news or advertising. If... [Read More]

Tracked on February 20, 2006 01:29 PM