Knowledge work in an age of informational impunity

Academics, like journalists, cannot pretend that merely adding to knowledge, without a sense of moral purpose, is a responsible use of their time and energies. This is the edited text of an opening keynote speech given at the 2014 ACMC International Conference.

For some time now, I’ve been bothered by a troubling reality about my twin vocations as journalist and scholar. Both are premised on Enlightenment values of knowledge and reason as routes to human progress. We assumed that a more informed citizenry – informed both by the first drafts of history rushed out by journalists, and by the slow-cooked conclusions of academics – would help make this a better world, or at least stop us from killing ourselves.

For me, this assumption was jolted by events of 2003, when the United States attacked and conquered Iraq under false pretenses. How was it possible that the nation with the freest press in the world was so easily deceived by its government? The Bush Administration lied that Iraq posed an imminent threat to world peace and security because of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his ties to Al Qaeda. These were not subjective opinions but empirical claims that could have been tested and falsified. The American press enjoyed constitutional freedoms precisely to question propaganda and protect the public from the tyranny of official untruths. Yet they behaved more like bloodhounds than watchdogs as Bush led his country to the 21st century’s most deadly, destabilizing and unnecessary act of war.

Since then, my personal antenna has been sensitised to similar cases of what I call informational impunity, where knowledge alone seems powerless to ward off danger.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that open societies are overrated, or that we can do without free-flowing information. The primary struggle in many countries, including in this country, China, remains to secure the basic human right to freedom of expression. Right now, in Hong Kong, we are witnessing one dramatic manifestation of the human hunger for freedom and self-determination. At least Hong Kong is still well ahead of my own country, Singapore, in terms of freedom of thought. Back home, we continue to contend with crude censorship of critical documentary films, a sophisticated system of self-censorship in the news media, and the absence of any right to information or open government regulation (which puts us behind even China).

No, freedom is not overrated. But if freedoms are spreading – and as an optimist I think they are – we should ask ourselves, then what? There is enough evidence that while more information is necessary, it is not sufficient. There is a gap between knowledge and wisdom, and this can form a deep, dangerous chasm. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves, as knowledge workers prized for our contributions to the Information Age, if we are also adding to insight, or what Roger Silverstone has called “resources for judgment”.

One of the most positive stories of political development in the world comes from Southeast Asia, where Indonesia has undergone a remarkable transition to democracy. It has had a string of relatively peaceful elections, the latest a few months ago. As the world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia has much to teach the rest of Asia about how a free press and vibrant civil society can contribute to human development. It also has one of the most active social media populations in the world. Yet, despite all these sources and channels for information and ideas, Indonesia came dangerously close to electing as president one Prabowo Subianto, who had been reliably implicated for human rights abuses in his years as a special forces commander. When I asked my Indonesian contacts how this was possible, some were inclined to blame ignorant villagers who didn’t know any better; but others admitted that many of their fellow urbanites, well informed and educated, supported this dangerous bully.

In India, it was a similar story, except that the candidate with the blood-specked record actually won the election and is now the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. Thanks to India’s vibrantly free press and civil society, Narendra Modi’s words and actions – as well as his conspicuous silences and inactions over the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat while he was its chief minister – are a matter of public knowledge. It was no secret that he was a Hindu chauvinist who wanted to dismantle India’s pluralist tradition, that he would unleash allies who would use hate propaganda to neutralise minorities, and usher in fundamentalist ideologues who would censor history, art and literature to create a narrow and exclusive Indian identity. All this information was swirling about in the marketplace of ideas before and during the largest and most media-scrutinised democratic exercise ever witnessed on planet Earth. But, to no avail.

“Sleeper” threats like The Manchurian Candidate belong to spy thrillers of the 20th century, when we naively believed that you had to conceal your true colours to trick the public. Today, in an age of informational impunity, you can be yourself and still get away with metaphorical or literal murder.

Unknown knowns?

A year before the invasion of Iraq, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the state of knowledge about Iraq’s WMD with what has become a classic quote:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

I think Rumsfeld left out a fourth epistemological category that captures my main concern here:

The unknown knowns.

These are the things of which reliable knowledge is out there – yet it is studiously avoided, because the truth is too inconvenient to some.

The threat that Iraq posed to the world was less of an unknown unknown than an unknown known – UN weapons inspectors were providing knowledge that turned out to be correct, but these available truths were rendered opaque by the Bush administration. The knowable became unknown.

The same can be said of the whitewashing of the records of Prabowo and Modi. In the much-celebrated marketplace of ideas, claims are supposed to be tested by open competition, leaving falsehoods rejected. But it turns out that the market can be distorted by the very instruments that we as communication scholars try so hard to develop. The Prabowo and Modi campaigns were masters of television and the twitterverse, backed by the best spin doctors money could buy and legions of young energetic volunteers.

The Bush Administration had Fox News. Research has shown that its viewers were more likely to believe that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction and supporting Al Qaeda. In other words, the more of Fox you consumed, the less your grip on reality – which is the opposite of the effect that news media are supposed to have.

Television satirist Stephen Colbert would later coin a word to capture the special quality of American right wing propaganda:

Truthiness.

This is stuff that feels right at an emotional level, regardless of its factual accuracy. News outlets like Fox spin a web of untruths into a kind of security blanket that ultimately makes people impervious to evidence and reason. They seem quite content to live in a cosy, simulated world where cognitive dissonance is reduced by changing their perception of the facts to suit they feelings. Journalists and scholars have wondered if we are in a new “Age of Truthiness”.

The millions of Modi supporters around the world who shout down his critics are among the militant champions of truthiness. But in most cases it is just apathy and indifference rather than conviction that results in information impunity.

Thus, while we celebrate the work of investigative journalists who expose wrongdoing and social injustice, the power of such revelations to effect systemic reform is questionable. I recently heard a Nigerian media freedom activist, Edetaen Ojo, lament the state of affairs in his country. After a few days, the impact of the corruption exposés fades away. “The public doesn’t get outraged; officials are incapable of shame,” he said.

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Sheila Coronel – Picture by Lilen Uy

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has a proud track record of such exposés. However, one of its founders, Sheila Coronel, has similarly cautioned against overstating the potency of people power informed by such revelations. Analysing why some exposés produce change while others don’t, she suggests that the critical factor may actually be the interests of elite individuals and institutions in either deposing an erstwhile ally or turning a blind eye.

The impact of watchdog journalism is often diminished by the inertia of governments, the unwillingness of elites to take action, the weight of bureaucratic cultures that are resistant to change, a law-enforcement system that is incapable of punishing wrongdoing, and an apathetic and cynical public.” – Sheila Coronel, in Corruption and the Watchdog Role of the Media (2010).

And of course public-interest investigative journalism is the exception, not the norm. Most of the media have no interest in social change. Entertainment values dominate, surrounding us with hybrid genres like infotainment, edutainment, reality TV and so-called “dramatisations based on real events”. On television, traditional journalistic standards have been replaced with what one scholar calls “branded political entertainment”.

The role of academics

Media scholars have a long tradition of critiquing such trends. Critical studies tell us that the industrialisation and commodification of media have blunted journalism’s potential to be a progressive, emancipating force. Professionalisation has had the unintended effect of creating boundaries between an elite class of communicators and those they claim to speak for – the voiceless and the marginalised. The routinisation of newswork, including the ritualistic application of objectivity, has turned the deeper democratic purpose of journalism into a symbol that has lost touch with its referent, a flag to be waved when convenient, but with little day-to-day relevance for the vast majority of activity carried out in the name of journalism. Profitability rather than moral purpose is what drives most of the enterprise.

In the courses we teach about media and society, and in our critical scholarship, we’ve become very good at stripping away the ideological gloss of modern journalism to expose these flaws.

Unfortunately, we academics are less eloquent about our own complicity in these developments. Like journalists who tend to be more critical of other institutions than their own, academics seem to be inadequately self-reflective. If we were, we would quickly see that industrialisation, commodification and routinisation characterise modern academia as well. Many universities have become as obsessed with performance indicators and rankings as media companies are with ratings, circulation and audience metrics.

It is tempting to blame that on the trend towards quantitative communication science or what C. Wright Mills called “abstracted empiricism”. However, I do not want to indulge in lazy stereotyping of different approaches and traditions in academia. The vicious territorial wars that go on within universities are the kind of thing that makes outsiders convinced that academics have too much time on their hands.

The fact that scientific approaches may not connect with normative concerns as directly as, say, the “communication for social change” approach does not mean that they are condemned to moral irrelevance. It is merely a risk. Quantitative methods necessarily require removing the clutter of context; on top of that, the more developed any area of research, the more fine-grained the questions asked. This adds more degrees of separation between the original normative concerns that may have sparked this line of inquiry in the first place, and the studies being carried out at the frontiers of knowledge.

To reiterate, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In medical research, for example, it may be very difficult for the layman to decipher the connection between recent Nobel Prize winners’ groundbreaking work and actual improvements to people’s lives. Cutting-edge medical research is so narrow and detailed that it is incomprehensible to most. Yet, such research can have amazing life-altering implications for human human health. So, we don’t all have to understand the connections between research and social impact; we just hope that the scientists themselves do.

What we should avoid is a situation where we researchers have gone so deep down the rabbit holes of scientific inquiry that we are lost in a wonderland of our own making; where we cannot articulate even to ourselves, let alone the wider public, the deeper moral purpose of our work; where our measures of impact are as meaningless as high scores in a video game – artefacts treated seriously only by those similarly entranced by competition for its own sake.

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Robert Oppenheimer

The general problem we’re facing here is the alienation of knowledge workers – journalists and scholars alike – from human relationships and human needs, as a result of overspecialisation. This is of course nothing new. It is captured most powerfully in the reaction of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, to the success of his little research project. At first triumphant that this theories worked – “like a prize-winning boxer”, according to one account – he was later revulsed by what he regarded as the unnecessary bombing of Nagasaki, and remarked that he felt he had blood on his hands. “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

It reminds me of an interview that BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet did with an Israeli army officer in charge of a tracking the origins of Hamas rockets. “Why is it that targets like a school, a shelter, a United Nations shelter would have been hit so many times if you have such good intelligence?” Doucet asks. The officer replies: “We know where the fire comes from… but in this room we don’t have any decision related to attacks.” Doucet: “So you just send the information.” Captain: “We send the information.”

As communication scholars, can we do better? Even as we continue figuring out “who says what to whom with what effect”, can we be clear-headed about why we want to know and to what purpose the knowledge we produce is to be put?

Or do we just send information?

The experience of Oppenheimer and the hard sciences that some communication scholars want to emulate teaches us something about those degrees of separation between moral purpose and current research: that gap is invariably filled by power. This results in consequences that you didn’t intend – assuming you had any intentions in the first place, and were not just pursuing research for its own sake. How reassuring it would be if we could leave it to an invisible hand in the marketplace of ideas to produce socially desirable outcomes from the knowledge that we churn out. Too often, though, that unseen hand belongs to powerful interests opposed to a more just, free or sustainable world.

Similar concerns have been expressed in the field of ecology. The latest State of the World report published by the Worldwatch Institute is titled, “Knowledge is not enough”. “The fundamental sense of connection that people had with the natural world has disappeared in most places,” says Monty Hempel, one of the authors of the report. He argues that environmental education must go beyond teaching science; it should include ethical, cultural, and political dimensions. Perhaps this is what communication science should be doing more of.

Environmental science is of course one of the classic victims of truthiness. Thanks to corporate-backed disinformation downplaying the threat of climate change, public opinion and government actions have lagged behind the best available scientific knowledge and risk assessments for more than two decades. Because of this concerted effort to unknow the known, the most information-rich generation in the history of human civilisation may ultimately be responsible for its most catastrophically ignorant act.

To sum up:

I believe, first, that these times call not just for more knowledge, but more crucially for “resources for judgment”. Second, the media are indispensable for this task and need to embrace it. And, third, while the media’s failings have been critiqued in communication scholarship, media academics are also guilty of the same tendencies, of producing knowledge on an industrial scale, without necessarily connecting with pressing social needs.

I’ve compared the academia’s challenges to the media’s. But I should add that academics are probably in a better position than journalists to resist the tide.

In the news business, the most idealistic and principled editors and publishers invariably find the going tough because they must confront with an unforgiving market. It is extremely difficult for them to persuade the public to be more discerning in its media consumption, because its tastes are already overwhelmed by less nutritious fare. Media face a Catch-22 situation: financially sustainable quality media depend on a public appetite for good journalism, but a taste for good journalism can only be cultivated through exposure to quality media.

Universities, in contrast, are relatively insulated from mass taste; in fact, the masses expect good universities to be elite institutions – for the people, yes, but not of or by the people. Public universities and research universities are relatively autonomous from the capitalist market. This means that, compared with media institutions, leaders in academia who want to prioritise social impact should have a relatively easy time – they really only need to persuade their peers and a relatively small number of policy makers.

Unlike the media, it is not some iron law of the market, not external forces beyond our control, that restrict academics’ social impact. If we are trapped in a game, it is a game of our own making – an abstract, arcane construction that the public and policy makers barely understand, and that they would not miss if we abandoned it in favour of some other ways to benchmark our impact. We can help to bridge the gaps between knowledge and wisdom, we can help build our own and others’ resources for judgment. If we don’t, it is simply a failure of our imagination and ethics.

This article revisits and elaborates on arguments made in a speech last year at the IFLA World Library and Information Congress 2013.

Alice in Wonderland pictures: DISNEY, JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH

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