A functioning society

A functioning society

A functioning society requires a shared understanding. These profound words take a couple of seconds to read, a lifetime to fully comprehend. They have been important since we lived in tribes – they were, in fact, the foundation of the tribe. I give you information and you give me information. If our exchange is accurate we will continue to do so to our mutual benefit. If we mislead – either accidentally or deliberately – we will lose trust in each other and our ability to be supportive will decline. In the end, we will fight.

Our one-to-one communication remains vital. It is how we teach the young, how we live in reasonable harmony. On the journey since the tribe, media have stepped in to facilitate what St Augustine called ‘giving ear to news and gossip’. A valid description as it turns out. Originally called mass media because one channel served thousands or millions of people, they were quickly accompanied by market and social researchers, one of them pointedly named Mass Observation. The question posed to the public provided the answer supplied to the media (and others) to enlighten the public from where the answer had come. Neat.

Not perhaps fully appreciated as this process developed was the fact that there were points at which it could be distorted. The public loved it. Their humdrum lives were now illuminated by a racy morning headline or, for the men, a scantily-clad lady. Murdoch led the charge down the slope to what we now call the gutter media. It brought in its wake corruption beyond bribery into pornography and what is known as ‘fake news’.

Slithering through a sleaze of poor quality public relations, the advent of algorithmic analysis provided just what the manipulators had been looking for – ability to communicate exactly the message that would influence Miss A while at the same time communicating a different message to Mr D with equally rewarding results. One lie for the rich, another for the poor.

Buying a tube of toothpaste on the basis of these false claims was one thing. Fixing major contracts with a combination of data and corruption began to seriously warp the shared understanding. Changing the politics of a nation is another matter altogether. Where media once titillated it is now clearly capable of life damage beyond the acceptable.

We are responsible for our own lives. Those who wish to display their happenings and emotions on social media should be free to do so. They should be fully aware of the dangers of doing so and they should be protected from intrusion they cannot reasonably be expected to discover for themselves. The Internet transformed the Age of Information into the Age of Universal Knowledge. In the process it runs the risk of becoming the Age of Lies.

We are only now starting to realise the harm caused by non-physical sexual aggression. We must also deal with the risks involved in non-physical intrusion. As Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are in the process of showing us, they can be as dangerous, as demeaning and wholly unacceptable. It can be done if we approach it from both ends – education and protection. We cannot destroy freedom of speech, nor can we allow freedom of speech to destroy our values.

Our shared understanding depends on achieving both.

We call our shared understanding democracy.