18 August 2006

The Media's Responsibility

“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity;
I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Very, very few of us directly experience events in DC or the Middle East. We only know about global warming because of a pattern of events and scientific measurements that no one person could have hoped to capture. The media both works as the community's senses and makes sense of the world. So, what is the reality it is working to depict?

Reality is that we live in world of massive interdependency, emergent qualities, system dynamics. From terrorism to the environment, economic growth and currency fluctuations to immigration and lifestyles, our world is the product of systems. Yet our language evolved in a time of fairly simple subject - verb - object constructs, linear relationships like "Og hit Mog." Language doesn't lend itself well to describing complicated relationships better captured by multivariate equations and systems simulations.

For now, we seem to have a divide. On the one side are those who represent the world in fairly simple terms - talk show hosts and most successful politicians. On the other hand we have experts whose explanations of the world are often too sophisticated and nuanced to easily follow. Yet in a democracy, it is vital that a critical mass of the electorate understand the world in order to throw their support behind policy that will be effective, which is one of the reasons that the founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson so emphasized the importance of education.

So, what is the media's responsibility in the midst of all this? It is to use its power of communication to translate the difficult systems issues into easy to comprehend reports, stories, and visual graphics. This is the central challenge of communities throughout the West, it seems to me. The concepts of systems dynamics need to be made accessible to the average person. It is not just good policy that depends on it - it is the future of democracy.

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