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The death of context

The death of context

The interconnected globalised village within which we all live is complex, messy and multifaceted.  The majority of us spend most or all of our lives trying to understand it and our place in it, and are rightly suspicious of those who claim they already do.

The concept of a global village is more than a hackneyed cliché.  It is the result of unimaginable technological and communication advances in the last decades, themselves the inevitable conclusion of humankind’s single most distinguishing characteristic, our ability to collaborate in huge numbers.  This ability singles us out from the animal kingdom; indeed our near relatives, chimpanzees, start to struggle when they need cooperation from more than 6 to 8 buddies.

While nature has capacity for both serenity and violence, it has a predictable rhythm and order to it – it is often referred to as “the natural order” after all.  The human ability to cooperate at scale means that we have unique power to influence or disrupt that rhythm, as witnessed by the pace at which we accelerated to the top of the food chain, or our impact on global climate patterns.

The challenge of understanding and managing that power in a world becoming “smaller” is further exacerbated by the inconvenience that none of us know enough to justify almost anything we believe.

Professor Thomas Landauer from Department of Psychology of the University of Colorado famously ran an experiment in the 1980s which involved asking test subjects to recall different forms of information over varying amounts of time.  He discovered that recall turned out to be surprisingly consistent even across varying intelligence levels, and when converted to a value for the total amount of data a brain could store over a lifetime, produced a figure of around 200 megabytes.

It is pretty sobering to recognise that in an environment where information can be ambiguous and the world is complicated, our brains give us no more than a third of a CD (explanation link for millennials) of capacity over our lifetime to navigate and understand the world.  Yet somehow, on a daily basis we need to extract black and white (to make decisions) from the grey (the ambiguity of the data we use to do so).

Bringing all of these threads together, we can conclude that humans have the ability to influence a complex world dramatically despite our naturally finite brain capacity.  It seems to me self–explanatory therefore that we should be acutely aware of the shades of grey and actively pursue the knowledge we need to make good decisions.

Therefore, the last thing which the truth needs to express its fullness is a 280–character limit.  Or somewhat more alarmingly 33 characters, if you consider the average length of a Tweet, as opposed to the maximum length of a Tweet.

Recent high–profile Twitter exchanges illustrate the challenge.

When Conservative Foreign Office minister Mark Field manhandled a female climate protester at the Mansion House in London in June 2019, his entire life was summarised and judged in a 35 second video clip.  Somewhat depressingly, Twitter split down the predictable party–political and gender lines in assessing what happened.

You may recall homeless Manchester man Chris Parker heroically running into the Manchester Arena in May 2017 during the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert, having witnessed the blast, saw white smoke and heard screaming.  In his own words “It knocked me to the floor and then I got up and instead of running away my gut instinct was to run back and try and help.”  So delighted were the Twitterati that they organised a fundraiser for him, raising £50k for him in the process.

The only problem with all of this is that the reason he went back inside was to steal from the weak and vulnerable.  CCTV showed him stealing iPhones and debit cards.  Subsequent evidence illustrated that he ignored dozens of calls on the phones from distraught relatives, and casually bought himself a McDonalds with a stolen debit card.

Also, in May 2017, security researcher Marcus Hutchins was NHS hero supreme when he halted the spread of NHS WannaCry ransomware by finding its kill switch.  Immediately feted by all, he enthusiastically embraced the “I was only doing my job guv” trope.  All was well until it transpired that his expertise in the area was the result of years of writing Malware when he was a teenager, for which he was arrested in the US in April 2019.

Fortunately, editorial policy in this column precludes me even considering how this applies to either the ‘B’ word (Brexit) or the ‘A’ word (Trump).

The Daily Mail is rightly ridiculed for its perpetual pursuit of categorising everything in the world as something which either causes or cures cancer (or both), but social media is playing the same zero–sum game with right and wrong.  We have lost sight of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s perfectly expressed truth that the battle–line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.  We all have capacity for right and wrong, good and evil, and frequently do both.

We therefore need to resist our impulse to rushed virtue signaling and public tribal alignment.  We need to fight our ever–shortening attention spans to pursue context to make sense of the grey.  It is neither our job nor responsibility to Tweet moral judgement within minutes (or seconds) of skim–reading an article which supports our worldview.

Context is the tool which enables us to embrace the complexity and ambiguity of the world, and to live well within it.  It cannot be found in a 30 second video or a 33–character Tweet.  We silence it at our peril.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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