12 January 2005

Industrial-strength deceit

Teresa Neilsen Hayden hits one out of the park. In three thousand words she takes us through infographic design, to reading infographics critically, to the sinister implications of the wrong kind of good web design, to "tort reform," through the legend of the McDonald's coffee court case, to the black black hearts of American corporations, concluding ...

Deceiving us has become an industrial process.

Most chilling is the array of skills that TNH has to marshal in the process. When she says ...

There was something too slick and simple about the site. It smelled wrong. An organization of real human beings who are trying to address genuinely complex issues ought not generate a webpage as smooth and featureless as a bowlful of Maalox.
... I know exactly what she means, because, as it happens, I'm involved in the website business and I surf obsessively and I know about a range of advocacy organizations and so on. So I've seen articles on the web and followed their links to websites of organizations and said to myself, “there's something more here than meets the eye,” just as she did here. But most often I file it mentally under “didn't have time to get to the bottom of it,” because there's not always time to dig and think and figure out what's really going on.

I talk a lot about the importance of critical reading skills as essential to using the 'net as an information resource. I often rant about how one of the things we need to do is educate the next generation about the epistemological challenge made visible by the ’net — “how do I know that what I read is true?” But this example scares me. It's scary because it reminds me that the level of critical reading that TNH demonstrates here, the critical reading that I like to think that I do, the critical reading that is necessary to use the 'net and be a good citizen in a democracy and so forth, is really really hard. I'm not sure that everyone can be taught to be as crafty as Teresa Neilsen Hayden. Especially when there are very smart people working systematically to subvert our ability to trust the ideas we encounter.

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