New Civilization News: False Information    
 False Information17 comments
picture 15 May 2005 @ 15:32, by Flemming Funch

It seems to be an integral part of our culture that we're inundated with phony messages that pretend to be useful information, but that really isn't.

The way it works is often that the more loud and visible and important a message is presented to be, the more likely it is to be complete irrelevant junk.

That's obvious in my e-mail inbox. Any message that is marked as URGENT, IMPORTANT, READ IMMEDIATELY, or that has its priority flag set to high, is almost certainly worthless spam.

And the more a message is written with strange words in small print, trying to be invisible, the more likely it is that it is covering up something you actually ought to know.

Most products you buy come with voluminous pieces of text which serve no useful purpose other than legally covering the asses of whoever produced it. They're usually in the smallest possible font and in a language that is meant to discourage you from reading it. But it will state that it is very important that your read it carefully. The text will usually either outline some monstrous contract you're entering into by accepting this product, or it will outline a lot of horrible things that could happen to you if you use it. Both of which might or might not be important or useful. You can't easily know.

I don't know anybody who routinely reads all the Legal Notices, User Agreements, Terms of Use, etc that they're presented with. Even if, legally, they implicitly have agreed to a lot of stupid things when they clicked on OK, or took the shrinkwrap off a package. Like that you won't sue the company that made it, or they own everything you do with that product, or something.

If I buy a piece of equipment, like a computer, it is quite normal that it might come with a thick booklet, which is nothing but legal stuff, talking about nothing but radio interference and electrical standards, in a bunch of different languages, page after page after page. And that they actually altogether leave out the instructions for how to use the computer.

People who consume pharmaceutical drugs have gotten very used to going right past all the small print. Even if it is stated in the commercials. "Might cause irreparable kidney damage", "Has caused cancer in laboratory animals". They actually say that on TV in the commercial, but very quickly, in a voice that makes you tune it out. But they can legally claim that they told you, and you were warned, and it is your own fault.

Advertisements are of course full of misdirection and false information. That is, the message that actually is conveyed isn't the truth, and it isn't what you need, and it isn't what would actually be useful to you.

The advertiser can claim that they didn't do anything wrong. They just show you some beautiful or fun images and some nice words, and the legal stuff is covered in small print somewhere. The cigarette ad shows you the freshness of a mountain spring, or high society elegance and beautiful dresses, and if you somehow end up thinking that has something to do with cigarette smoking, and that you'll be cool and fresh if you smoke, they can say it's your own fault. And that they included the warnings they were supposed to. But none of those communications actually convey anything very useful.

If I buy pack of cigarettes, it carries a message in bold letters telling me I'll die painfully of Emphysema or something like that. Which isn't overly helpful if I plan on going home and smoking it. It might be more useful to tell me that if I get plenty of exercise, eat healthy, take extra anti-oxidants, and drink plenty of water, it might be a good idea. And, by the way, that I would probably be a good deal healthier if I didn't smoke, or I smoked less. There's not a word about that. It is either mountain fresh elegance or it is instant death. Both of which are untrue.

We supposedly operate in a free market economy where a lot of things should sort themselves out by market forces, by supply and demand, by many people making little decisions on values. And the theory is that the people who make economic decisions in principle are perfectly informed. I.e. they make the correct value decision based on their situation. So the price of bread or gasoline would sort itself out, and if something is too expensive one either produces more or alternatives emerge, and so forth.

The trouble with that is that a large amount of the available information is false. Most companies have a huge budget for producing false information, so it is usually the misleading stuff that is most prominent.

Ideally our economy would be a bit like ants operate. You walk around, and the other ants give you simple messages. There's food over there, the anthill is over there, we have some dead ants to remove over there, we've got eggs over here. That works great for ants. But for us humans it is unfortunately much more complex. And most of the messages are misleading. There's tasty and healthy food over there, there are good deals over there, sign this contract without reading it, you're gonna be beautiful, you're gonna die. Most of it isn't correct, and it is meant to trap you into somebody else's self-serving business plan or political agenda.

Even when authorities of various kinds try to be helpful, it rarely works well. Most company cars and trucks in the U.S. have a sticker on the back bumper that says "How's my driving? Call 1-800...". What the hell is that supposed to mean? Should I call that number and say "Your driving is fine, your cornering is a work of art". I think it is meant for reporting bad driving, but that's not what it says. Most elevators carry the same one sign that says something like "If this elevator fails to operate, don't be alarmed, press the button marked 'Alarm'". Hey, I'm going to press the button marked 'Alarm' exactly because I'm alarmed that I'm stuck in the elevator, not for any other strange reason. Who invented that awkward sentence?

We're surrounded by signs and messages. Colorful, bold, verbose communications that people have been paid for writing and manufacturing. But rarely do they actually say the things we need to know.

The only reasonable anti-dote I can think of, other than most of us somehow getting very educated in honest and effective communication, would be to overlay a collaborative grassroots information network on all of it. Which is the kind of stuff that tends to happen on the Internet, and which will become more prevalent as more technologies become available. You know, instead of relying on somebody's advertisement you research it on the net and find what other people are saying about that product or company. Instead of relying on the company telling you about their products, you rely on enthusiast communities that catalog everything that's worth knowing. Instead of just ignoring somebody's terms of purchase, you might run into an independently produced cleartext explanation of what they say. Instead of just believing what is the "cheapest" or the "best" from a colorful message, you access some comparative database that tells you so. Instead of relying on road signs, you look up the route on the net before you leave.

It is still a bit too much work to find it and access it. Ideally you should be able to bring up that kind of stuff instantly and anywhere. Which might come with location based services. You see a building and you click on it and hear what other people say that it is, rather than relying on the sign by the door. You see a product or a brand name, and you click on it and hear what information other people have gathered about it.

We might very well get to a point where most of the phony information becomes irrelevant, however expensively produced it is, because we bypass it right away. I.e. you never rely on it, but you instantly access an unbiased cleartext overview of what it is about. Nobody would buy a product based on its ad or its packaging in the store, because they would always know if it really is the best choice.

If we could do that well enough, a lot of otherwise well-established businesses would suddenly fail, because it would be clear that they aren't producing anything useful, and they can no longer cheat. But at the same time economic activity could operate at a much higher level, because more people would make more informed decisions, so value assessment and exchange would be more productive.


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17 comments

15 May 2005 @ 21:43 by ankh : Good idea, Ming
for having the cleartext overview, but I doubt most companies will try that honest approach - too chicken. Unless someone has the guts to start it and it snowballs because there will be sudden success. That is what it will take, I think.

The more I see ads on tv for medications the more upset I get - and I was upset to begin with that these things were being advertised on tv to tell our doctors what to give us! I find that I am more turned off than ever to all of these medicinal products and wouldn't dare try any of them simply because of the possible side effects, even if they are rare. So in a way, they are doing a service to me in that way lol.

I find the best approach to anything is being up-front about it. I saw one ad on an Israeli network that had a great idea - they wrote that we are being bombarded with too much noise in our lives already so their ad would be silent to honor our peace of mind. They just wrote some very basic words about their product, to the point, and that was it. That got my attention. (And I'm sure they saved money not having to use sound, too.)

As for the other small print items - yup, you're right about that. The important stuff is left to the small print that most people don't bother reading. I think they make sure it's so complex and long that it bores people right off the bat from reading it, making the company's defense that much easier. Look at the news - I say that laughingly. What IS news isn't - and what ISN'T news, is.  



15 May 2005 @ 22:11 by ming : Alternatives
One thing that people clearly would want, but which the companies usually hate, is alternatives. And a clear outline about how the given product is similar or different to those alternatives. Of course I'd want to see what the range of available solutions are, and what their pros and cons are. I'd want to know that the presented namebrand product has the exact same formula as the generic version that costs half. I'd want to know what else is trying to solve the same problem. And of course I'd be willing to pay for the best solutions. But, yes, they're too afraid of being found out, and afraid of having to be judged on the actual quality of what they put out.  


15 May 2005 @ 22:58 by ankh : The consumer
the companies expect the consumer to do all the hard work comparing products or treatments - as if we'd even know where to begin in some cases. I have seen a few companies comparing themselves to others - to show that they're offering more for less, such as internet companies, or even some food products. But it has a long way to go. Pharmaceuticals aren't interested in alternatives to their products, they want to sell their own. Then we have this other problem with health insurance companies who will say you HAVE to have the generic product when your doctor says no, or if you can't take the generic. You can usually get your doctor to change that but everything is a hassel these days. I'm still waiting for a real health program in America. It is the worst right now.

One trend I have seen of late ticks me off - that is companies like Norton selling the anti-virus program or MS and their Windows for use on only one computer. I think that's outrageous and unfair business practices. If you buy a regular product, the company doesn't tell you where or how you can use it once you purchase it. Why should software companies be able to do that? Why can't I buy one program and use it on all my pcs at home or at work, that are my personal computers? I understand their fear of being ripped off, but there are simple ways to track the owner of several pcs for home use or small business use that don't have to break a person! The greed is all encompassing.  



16 May 2005 @ 00:27 by Ge Zi @24.126.199.23 : second opinion
Hi Flemming, and this is exactly where the second opinion could come in - have the alternative information right there where somebody looks. My example always being that somebody looking up what the IRS has to say also finds the information what it really means to be a tax payer and that he is probably not one.
Or another example the site of the tarot card reader where somebody my give first hand experience.  



16 May 2005 @ 02:07 by ming : Good Information
So, the question is how to inspire the kind of behavior that makes it truly useful. It isn't basically terribly hard to make a network of alternative information for all sorts of things. Like, it can be referenced to websites, to brand names, product names, place names, etc. OK, there can easily be some argument about how to create the categories, unless one can just add any number of them. But if it is open for anybody to contribute to, the question is to avoid that the target companies go and enter phoney information, or that their competitors go and enter damaging statements that aren't real.

Examples of what works well are Wikipedia, or many enthusiast sites. People who catalog everything there is to know about past car models or computers. Which is most easy when nobody is trying to protect some economic interest in that area, like the company that no longer cares about their 5 year old products. But more tricky when we're talking about what's going on now.

Oh, we can say what we want in blogs and so forth. The thing is what's the best mechanism for organizing it into a reliable instant semantic web utility of some kind.  



19 May 2005 @ 03:27 by phil jones @200.96.164.98 : small print
Good point. I've been thinking for a while there ought to be something like a "small print" wiki where volunteers read the small-print of contracts (particularly of online services you sign up for) and give a list of warnings about important things you should be careful of. If we all do one, wouldn't be long before we covered most of them.  


24 May 2005 @ 05:59 by Bob Hiltner @208.186.7.149 : Joel on Software example -w. st. 101
http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/WallSt101.html
apropos brain twister on bond derivatives..
Here's the puzzle I published on my website yesterday:

You have $100,000 to invest. Which government bond should you invest in?

Bond A, B or C?  



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