Never take media content at face value…

The media industry is a powerful force in today’s world, ‘news’ is never quite what it seems, and youngsters should have better awareness of how it works by dipping into the BBC’s Bitesize on Media Studies, a free online resource that helps children in secondary education study for a GCSE in the subject. A key point this resource makes is that ‘organisations in the media industry produce content with the aim of making money from our consumption’.  It also makes the point that media producers are always seeking to grab our attention and to influence the way we think, our opinions, and the way we live our lives. Content, which we now tend to consume individually using computers, tablets, and smartphones, includes news which often triggers instantaneous, ill-considered, social media outcries.   

There’s always been a love-hate relationship between the media and businesses, governments, and politicians.  This latter group use the media when it suits them, and the media often challenges this group when it’s commercially attractive to do so. During his career, the Badger had some training and subsequent experience interfacing with the media, and he learned that there’s always a hunt for an angle and a story in every interaction.  The Badger often giggles when consuming today’s news because it’s easy to see what he was taught in media training played out by others. 

ITV’s  recent report about Amazon destroying unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses and sending things to landfill generated a giggle.  Their report was quickly repeated in, for example, the USA and Australia.  The Badger’s giggle was because Amazon’s response to ITV’s report, which rather predictably involved undercover filming and an ex-Amazon employee, was robust and played with a straight bat. It’s doing nothing illegal.  Its policy and priority is to resell, donate, recycle, or send items to energy recovery, and it says it’s untrue that unused stock is sent to landfill. Who do you believe? ITV, after all, is a commercial organisation with commercial motives, and the instant global spread of their story is likely to have generated income.

The Badger found himself wondering whether ITV – just another commercial organisation seeking profits for shareholders – is a valid scrutineer. He then giggled at the thought of the situation being reversed with Amazon doing undercover filming and investigations within ITV.  It would be fun to see not only social media predictably explode with ill-considered outrage, but also Amazon use the result to produce content distributable to consumers through its own services.  More seriously, however, given the pervasiveness of the media in every facet of life in our digital world, perhaps it’s time to make how the media industry really works a mandatory part of the educational curriculum. Our youngsters might then learn never to take the media content they consume at face value.  

Every generation blames the one before…

Last Sunday was Father’s Day, an occasion for children to acknowledge the contribution of their father to their lives. On Sunday, the Badger spent a few moments in contemplation at his father’s graveside before having lunch with his children and grandson. There were no gifts, just the company of loved ones, lively chat, and an amusing moment when the Badger was described as a ‘Dinosaur Dadasaurous – which is like a normal Dad but more awesome!’

The song ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and the Mechanics sounded out from the playlist providing the background music for the meal. It’s opening line of ‘Every generation blames the one before…’, and the rest of the lyrics seemed not only apt for Father’s Day itself, but also for a world in which the younger generation seems eager to blame the older generation for all of its woes.  This latter point became central to light-hearted discussion over lunch. Everyone had the same view, all be it expressed in different ways, that what’s wrong with today’s world is indeed the fault of an older generation! Why? Because it’s a truism and it’s been that way for millennia! Everyone felt that the question of whether today’s older generation really deserves the blame it currently gets will only really be answered decades hence when it can be seen whether the youngsters have screwed up any less than their predecessors!

Solutions to today’s economic, environmental, technological, and cultural problems will never be found by blaming the past and chastising those who happened to live through those times.  There’s nothing to be gained from inter-generational conflict, especially when there are always winners and losers in the real world. At this point, the Badger emphasises that it really was a light-hearted discussion over the lunch rather than a deeply serious and philosophical debate. Nevertheless, there was, however, unity in  feeling that the mob dynamic so often evident throughout social media is divisive for inter-generational relationships and also one of the world’s current problems that the younger generation need to face up to.  

As lunch finished, the Badger wondered what his own father would have made of a generation born this century who know more about the World of Warcraft or Call of Duty than they do about World War 2 and the austere, non-digital life that his generation endured.  Having lived through the war and its aftermath, he wanted subsequent generations to be free, to have better education than he had, and to face life’s problems with resolve, fortitude, and action rather than complaint because, as he would often say, ‘that’s life’!  A shudder went up the Badger’s spine. The playlist had moved on playing Frank Sinatra singing ‘That’s Life’!  It appears that fathers wield a special power on Father’s Day that transcends today’s technology. If only it could be harnessed to stop inter-generational blame games so that we concentrate on the future and not the past…

Noise…

The subsidiary’s numbers for the month didn’t look good. The decline over six months was continuing, and the CEO had convened a leadership team meeting to take some major decisions. Most attending believed that some market repositioning and restructuring needed to happen. The Human Resources (HR) Director, however, was resistant because staff wouldn’t like it. The CEO, unruffled and calm, simply asked, ‘What exactly is worrying staff at the moment?’ The HR Director said that in one region staff believed they should have a pay rise, in another there was upset that refreshment points often ran out of coffee in the afternoon, and that there was a general feeling that they should have better IT equipment.  The HR Director also said that the CEO was unpopular.  

The CEO smiled wryly and reminded the HR Director that whereas acting in the best interest of the whole company was in their job description, popularity was not. The CEO then reminded the HR Director to focus on the big picture and the company’s overall needs rather than pockets of noise which had little bearing on the major decisions that needed to be taken. The HR Director said little for the rest of the meeting. If you’ve had a leadership role then you might relate to this tale, because decisions are always taken against a background of noise containing a spectrum of comment, opinion, hearsay, and questionable information.

Noise, a word that first appeared in the 12th Century, has described the hum of daily life’s background information and tittle-tattle for a long time. In today’s world, social media produces much of this noise. The background level is the highest it has ever been because newspapers, online news sites, celebrities, politicians, and many others, feed off social media content to create the stories and content needed to fill airtime and their own objectives.  Today’s noise seems more important than it is, especially for recent generations who are not afraid to say what they think about anything using social media.

What’s the point of contributing your thoughts and feelings on social media platforms when it’s just adding to today’s background noise? Is anyone interested for more than a few seconds? Does adding to life’s noise make any difference when the best leaders make decisions in the interests of whatever entity they are leading, regardless of the background noise?  The Badger chatted to his teenage nephew about these questions, and it was soon clear that the answers depend on your age, your values, and your life experience.  However, the youngster noted that although many of their friends spent more time feeding social media than spending quality time with each other, they did wonder what their life really gained by contributing to the noise of the modern world. Perhaps teenagers have more wisdom than we give them credit for… 

Beware of the downsides of the ‘Bandwagon Effect’…

‘If you act too fast and don’t think things through then your mistakes will be difficulties long into the future’.  This is what the Badger’s father would often say if he thought someone was acting with haste or being overly influenced by a popular bandwagon. Three things caught the eye this week that somewhat obtusely reminded the Badger of these words.

The first was the lecture, reported here and here, by Jeremy Fleming, Director of the UK’s GCHQ. He warned of a tech ‘moment of reckoning’ and the real risk that the West might no longer be able to supply the key technologies on which we rely. He used Smart Cities and their threat to security, privacy, and anonymity, to illustrate his point. He also pointed out that it was decisions taken a decade ago that has meant the West has few companies able to supply the latest key technology components underlying 5G.

The second was English football’s announcement that it will boycott social media over the coming weekend in a protest over online abuse. Social media is pervasive and has been a concern to many about the voice it gives to the many undesirable aspects of human behaviour for a long time.

The third was the ad tracking spat between Apple and Facebook caused by the imminent arrival of Apple’s IOS 14.5 operating system which bakes privacy into its systems and could significantly damage Facebook’s ad network earnings.  This vitriolic locking of horns by two of the digital world’s money-making behemoths shines another light behind the scenes on how they make money from us all.    

So, why did these things remind the Badger of his father’s words? Because in a small way they are all a manifestation of the downside of the ‘bandwagon effect’ which has spurred the digital world on over recent decades.  Social psychology tells us that people tend to align their beliefs and behaviour with those of a group, and this has certainly been evident with the growth of big tech and social media companies over the last 20 years.  When people see others adopt a product, service, or technology, then they think it must be good – or at least acceptable – and so they jump on the bandwagon!  Even IT outsourcing and offshoring have not been immune to the effect. When jumping on a bandwagon, the downsides of doing so emerge much, much later. One way or another, the three items that caught the Badger’s eye illustrate this point and also the dangers of having acted too fast years ago without thinking things through properly.  

Today’s younger generations are not immune to the ‘bandwagon effect’, which is why the Badger takes every opportunity to echo his father’s words. They should learn lessons from the past and especially that it is often perilous to act fast because mistakes will emerge long into the future and not be correctable.     

Think before you write, never write before you think…

Last weekend, Sonja McLaughlan – a reporter for BBC Sport – was hit with a barrage of abuse on Twitter for her interviews following the England-Wales Rugby international – see here and here.  The BBC, and others, rightly defended her and have also pointed out  that ‘abuse for doing your job is not OK’.  This struck a chord with the Badger because last week he was horrified to see many abusive and defamatory comments appear on a social media platform in response to a post applauding Chris Whitty – the UK’s Chief Medical Officer – for his work during the pandemic.  That social media platform was not Facebook.  Nor was it Twitter. It was LinkedIn.

The Badger, who is always careful about what he contributes on social media platforms, decided to conduct an experiment. He posted a comment to the LinkedIn Chris Whitty thread simply pointing out that it was a sad day for society and LinkedIn itself when abusive and defamatory comments are made about a man who is just doing his job!  The comment triggered a response suggesting that the vast majority agreed, but it also triggered a higher ‘rant return’ than the Badger expected!  ‘Welcome to your professional community’ is the strapline on the landing page to login to LinkedIn on the web. The word ‘professional’ implies a community that upholds standards and respect. We should remember this when contributing on this platform if we want to preserve its value.    

Everyone, of course, is entitled to air their opinions, but the Badger this should be done respectfully and never in an abusive or defamatory manner. Social media platforms in general have become part of the personal critical infrastructure of many people, but they cause enormous problems in the realms of proliferating hate, manipulation, misinformation, and so on.   Trolling is everywhere, and, as the Center for Countering Digital Hate has neatly summarised, society faces many challenges in the online world.  Simon Jenkins  recent Guardian article entitled ‘Chris Whitty’s abuse is a symptom of social media out of control’  also makes many points about social media that are hard to disagree with. When it is not okay to abuse footballers on the football field, to abuse a colleague in the workplace, to be discriminatory, to write salacious things that are unlawful in newspapers, why do we tolerate the opposite on social media platforms?  The answer is simple; we shouldn’t.  Free speech – which existed in Western democracies way before the advent of social media platforms – is not an argument for the rampant abuse and the defamation of anyone.

The key word in LinkedIn’s ‘Welcome to your professional community’  is professional. If you cannot express your contributions and opinions respectfully then it rather suggests that you, and possibly the company you represent, are part of the problem. Think before you write, never write before you think!   

Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

‘Blue Christmas’ and Alvin and the Chipmunks…

A senior client at a large engineering firm asked the Badger to be an observer at a  meeting about a major programme that was off the rails. It was a whole day affair involving the client, the programme manager, and the key people from the IT, engineering maintenance, engineering operations, finance, resourcing, and stores and logistics departments. Throughout the day, individuals and departments blamed each other for  difficulties, belittled the programme manager and their decisions, and even questioned the company’s  strategic decision to embark on the programme. The Badger realised that everyone had lost sight of the big picture, were dwelling on the past, and engaging in internal politics and point scoring. At the heart of the  programme’s predicament was the wrong attitude, approach and behaviour of every one of those present.

At the end of the meeting, the client asked the Badger if he had an observation to share. The Badger just said ‘Today everyone has blamed someone else, dwelt on the negatives, and engaged in factionalised points scoring.  This programme is failing and so each of you is already tarred with failure. If you want to be associated with success then each of you needs to stop bickering and blaming others, unite around strategic objectives, and take personal responsibility for doing the right thing’.  There was silence. The client grinned and closed the meeting.  

The Badger was reminded of this last night while sitting by the Christmas tree cogitating on television, online and social media coverage of new restrictions to curb the virus that impact everyone’s Christmas plans. The interminable hand-wringing, hysteria, political point scoring, shrill cries of unfairness and woe,  and blaming others for disrupting Christmas is very similar but unfortunate reality of today’s instant attention-grabbing world. The reality is that every one of us, without exception, has a responsibility involving uncomfortable choices and decisions if this devious virus is to be beaten. Just like for the wayward programme noted above, our individual attitude, common sense,  behaviour, and collaboration is what will determine success. Yes, recent restrictions make Christmas even more difficult for everyone, including the Badger, but we are a highly adaptable species and so we’ll cope.  

This year Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ from 1957 will be apt for many of us. This  Christmas will be difficult but also a rich source of memories and stories to be passed down the generations for years to come and so it deserves something to put a smile on your face.   Let’s make Christmas ‘glass half full’ rather than ‘glass half empty’  and listen to Alvin and the Chipmunks as we focus on absent family and friends! It might help to alleviate the gloom and put a smile on your face for a couple of minutes. And on that note, the Badger wishes you all a safe Christmas with as much happiness as it’s possible to muster in these turbulent times…

Information pollution…

After months of abstinence, the Badger treated himself to fish and chips  while visiting Crawley, a town which has seen sizeable unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic due to its proximity to Gatwick Airport. The chip shop was open, all the appropriate virus protection measures were in place, and a rumbling stomach made it impossible to resist! 

The Badger placed his order and the counter assistant, a lady in late middle-age, made conversation while she waited for a fresh batch of chips to complete frying. ‘Will you have the new vaccine?’, she enquired. ‘Yes. What about you?’, the Badger replied. What followed was a torrent of reasons for why she would not have the vaccine.  The lady said the government could not be trusted, the vaccine had been rushed, short-cuts had been taken, pharmaceutical giants were only doing it to make big profits, and that everything she saw in newspapers, on television, on the internet and on social media had made her very wary. Looking at her smartphone as she spoke, the lady went on to say that she wasn’t going to take the risk of getting ill from the vaccine because her elderly mother and her children depended on her.  The Badger listened and inwardly sighed,  but at that point the fresh chips became available and the conversation went no further.

Mulling over the lady’s words while eating the food a few minutes later, the Badger decided  that her view provided an illustration of  how ‘information pollution’ influences many in the modern world. According to widely available statistics, we  look at our smartphones at least  every 10 minutes during waking hours, much of it to watch  attention grabbing, instantaneous social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook. As the thought provoking article here points out, speed of information availability eclipses accuracy, and so misinformation, distortion, selectivism, and falsities easily become the norm pushing fact into the background.

‘Information pollution’ is rife and it is one of the biggest ‘man-made’ challenges for digital-native generations to deal with if we want society to avoid descending into anarchy. Regulation and legislation are necessary and inevitable to ensure media and social media platforms genuinely tackle the issue rather than just pay lip service to it.  Pollution, after all,  comes in many forms. The chemical, oil, manufacturing, farming, and pharmaceutical industries have to comply with laws covering poisons and pollution, so why should  ‘information pollution’ be treated differently?

So, there you have it. A conversation in a fish and chip shop can make you think!  As the Badger finished the last chip, he resolved to maintain the healthy analysis of information to get at the facts that has stood him in good stead in his work and private life for years. Accordingly, even with ‘information pollution’ still rising, having the vaccine is clearly the rational  and common-sense thing to do. Life, after all, is full of dealing with risk of one form or another.

Millennials; 100 years ago and today…

When the Badger entered the graveyard of the pretty, 13th century, English village church to put flowers on his mother’s grave, he was intending to write about the financial results of the tech giants. By the time he left, however, this intention had been consigned to the bin. Why? Because of thoughts triggered by seeing 318 white headstones of WW1 Canadian soldiers amidst the graveyard’s maple trees and acers in autumn colour. Most of these soldiers had  survived the Great War but were victims of the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic while waiting in a local military camp to be repatriated back to Canada.  Reading their inscriptions is always poignant, especially as most were aged between 18 and 30 when they succumbed so far away from home.  Their graves in this quiet corner of England are wonderfully maintained. If you’re interested, you can find who from the Great War is buried in a graveyard near you here.

The spectacular autumn colours, the rows of white headstones, and the fact that the Badger’s grandfathers served in and survived the Great War and the flu pandemic, triggered thoughts about just how different life was a 100 years ago. There were no anti-viral drugs and no antibiotics. There was no National Health Service, no television, no radio, no telephones for the masses, no electricity in the vast majority of homes, and – in the UK – the vote for all men over the age of  21 had only just been granted through an Act of Parliament in 1918. Life was tough, much tougher than most today have endured, but people got through it even though > 200,000 people died in the UK alone during the 4 pandemic waves between 1918 and 1920.

Today we are in the midst of another global pandemic but with tools and capabilities at our disposal that would have been pure science fiction 100 years ago.  Yet Western democracies are struggling to cope, politicians are arguing and scoring points off each other rather than standing shoulder to shoulder, broadcast and social media is full of scaremongering, selectivism, and naysayers spreading gloom and confusion, and economies are crumbling. Behaviour underpinned by the modern digital capabilities available through our smartphones, tablets and laptops has contributed to polarisation and disruption!  Yes, today’s tech gives everyone a voice, but what use is that if rationality and common sense is in the minority and society can be seen to be progressively fraying?  The Badger’s in a strange mood. Perhaps he’s being unfair.

Staring at the grave of a 20 year old soldier from Ontario, a millennial of the last century, the Badger wondered what the soldier would think about his counterparts today and the world they live in. Hmm. However, as the Badger left, a small group of millennial cyclists stopped to look at the graves. They started chatting about this very thing. From what the Badger overheard, there’s hope for us all yet…  

Everyone seems offended by everything all of the time!

One of the things we all learn as we go through life is that everyone is different. Some people are brutal and selfish, some are supportive and caring, some are extrovert and some are not, some are hand wavers and some are into detail, some are structured and cautious and some are impulsive and carefree, and so on.  Finding our own way of dealing with people who are different to ourselves is one of life’s journeys.

Last week the Badger met a young graduate who has just started their first job since leaving University. They are finding the people they work with ‘difficult’, describing all their work colleagues as strong personalities who are focused solely on getting their work done on time and to budget. They admitted to finding it tough, not unusual for youngsters who leave University with an expectation of the work environment only to find the reality quite different. They also mentioned that they were offended by many of the attitudes, opinions, and behaviours of their work colleagues.  The Badger listened carefully, gave some general advice, and then told them something his father had said fifty years ago when the Badger came home from school one day offended by a teacher’s unflattering comments on an essay submitted as homework.   

His words, which have stayed with the Badger ever since, were:

‘Life is full of offence, but you can choose to be offended, or you can choose not to be offended. The better person will choose not to be offended because the alternative is to accept a path to permanent resentment and hatred’.

The youngster reacted by saying that unlike five decades ago ‘Everyone in the world today is offended by everything all of the time’. The Badger agreed that the evidence for this is tangible and suggested that it is one of the downsides of the dramatic evolution of the internet, social media, and mobile tech in the last twenty years. Playfully, the Badger also said that it wouldn’t be that way if people didn’t spend all their time glued to their smartphones and social media. Oh dear! That was a bad move.

The youngster thought, wrongly, that the Badger was having a dig at a generation that doesn’t know a time before the internet and social media. ‘I’m offended that you should say that’, they said. The Badger, slightly taken-aback, simply rolled his eyes and said, ‘Don’t be’.  The conversation ended and the youngster walked off in a huff tapping something into their smartphone.

That was last week. This morning, the Badger found out that they will be leaving their employer before their probationary period is up because ‘they don’t fit in and their performance is below expectation’.  Not surprised, the Badger thought. Perhaps now they will appreciate that the world is not your oyster if you are offended by everything all the time…