Thursday, April 16, 2015

Terry Pratchett Thoughts. On the Role of the Media and On Citizens as Consumers.

I've been re-reading many of Terry Pratchett's books, in his memory.  I often come across little jewels (or chocolate truffles) of ideas.  For example:

"the public is not interested in public interest."

Which is true.  The reasons for that are many and varied, but it's almost impossible to try to write about topics of public interest on a commercial basis (so send money).

My most recent re-read is The Truth, about the first newspapers in Ankh-Morpork.  Mr. William de Worde starts the very first one, with actual news in it (though also stories about funny-shaped vegetables).  A competitor soon catches on with scandalous stories such as "a woman gives birth to a cobra."

de Worde gets a statement from the king of the area where this miracle-birth was supposed to have happened, at some cost for himself.  The king denied any cobra-human births to have happened.

The response of the readers was that of course the king would deny everything, of course.  In any case, stories about women giving birth to cobras are a lot more fun than stories about politics, say.

All that reminds me of American politics, in a gently ridiculous sense. Weird people writing or nattering about Hillary Clinton's cankles (a term for fat ankles) as if it matters what size ankles a president has and as if we ever otherwise measure the ankles of presidential contenders.  Presidents being judged on the basis of whether we'd like to have a beer with them.

Imagine using that way of judging for picking your neurosurgeon.

All this links in a vague way to a Finnish article I recently came across, on the new approach to citizens as consumers.  This is the part I wish to translate:

Kun on riittävän monta vuotta toisteltu, että kansa tietää parhaiten kaiken, ovat sivistysinstituutiot alkaneet nöyrtyä.
Korkeakoulujen oletetaan palvelevan paitsi liike-elämää ja politiikkaa, myös oppilaitaan, joista on tullut asiakkaita.
Lehdet ovat luopuneet vanhanaikaisesta valistajan roolista ja kyselevät yleisöltä, mikä on tärkeää. Nettiäänestyksissä media tenttaa lukijan mielipidettä asioihin, jotka eivät ole mielipiteestä kiinni: tuliko lama, lämpeneekö ilmasto, tappavatko rokotteet, mitä mieltä jengi.
Asiakkaan rooli voi imarrella meitä hetken, mutta demokratian ja sivistyksen osalta se on tylsä loukku: olemme aina oikeassa, ja siksi meidän ei tarvitse omaksua uutta.

My approximate translation:

When we have repeated for many years that the people (here meant as the audience) know best all the cultural institutions have begun to agree.  Universities are assumed to serve both business and politics but also the students who are now customers.  Newspapers have given up their old-fashioned role as educators and enlighteners.  Instead, they ask the public what is important.  In online polls the media wants the reader's opinions on matters which are not based on opinions:  did we have an economic recession, is the climate warming, do vaccinations kill.  What do you guys think?

The role of a customer can momentarily flatter, but it's a boring trap from the point of view of democracy and culture:  we are always right and that's why we don't have to learn anything new.