“The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” – Jim Hightower
There are always things that people would prefer remained hidden. And there are people who have the courage to expose the truth. But is it just courage or is it also organization. Do you need a society that encourages openness rather than one where secrecy prevails?
The free press
Freedom of the press has emerged over the centuries as a right, the ability to say what you see or think even if that annoys or infuriates people. And people don’t like it, for obvious reasons. Journalists get put in jail, murdered and intimidated. Yet members of the profession carry on, looking for the story. But there are fewer of them because of the way the business works, people with the money pay to keep the media in business and money comes with influence and pressure.
Things have, of course, changed over time. During the Indian independence movement Gandhi understood the power of the press and the way the West would react when the truth came out in their newspapers. An informed population would do the right thing. Would the methods of non-violence have worked against nations that had a different approach to press freedom? Perhaps not.
These days we are all free to publish. If you run a demonstration then you will be on camera, filmed by the police, by your opposition and, if you have any sense, you will have your own team of camera people recording what’s going on. The intense scrutiny everywhere is showing just how much violence there is but it’s not showing anything new, it’s just showing up what was always there. And the thing about behavior such as this is it cannot stand the light, it takes a certain kind of individual to stand and lie in the full glare of the camera. But, of course, there are a few of them around as well. Things are changing, though.
The rise of database journalism
When I started looking at this topic I had an image of someone who headed into a dangerous situation looking for the truth. But it’s never that simple, where you suddenly go into a place that reeks of danger, from where you may not emerge alive. Perhaps it happens but if you were in that situation you’d try and tilt the odds of coming out alive in your favor before going in.
I remember many years ago, when I first entered college, a friend took me to a coffee shop and introduced me to a chap. This guy was sat on his own at a table at the back, or was he alone? Did he have a team around him, quietly watching? I was introduced to him and he asked a few questions, almost like he were sizing me up, like it was an interview and he was gauging where I stood, whether I was a resource or a threat. It was only when we left that my friend explained that this person was a rising local political activist, someone who would probably go on to be prominent in local politics. And that started to explain that air of menace and a hunger for power and the eye on who would help and who needed to be gotten out of the way.
But the majority of the time what investigators probably do is investigate. They look at records, ask for information, look for patterns. There is information out there and the absence of information is also a signal in itself. It’s a signal that you shouldn’t go there, invest there, do anything there. And then you hope that things will change, that people will realize that being transparent is good for business.
News and society
I started this post by thinking I would explore a story about a meeting, something I saw on a TED talk where this guy went and interviewed a gang leader and told his story. That’s the image at the top of this post, the feeling of terror and dread going into a situation that could be life or death. Would you do it? He did, not just on impulse, but after introductions, vetting, a process to reduce risk and build trust. Even gang leaders want to be heard, there are reasons why they have become the way they have. You remember Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, which was portrayal of the Mafia. Vito Corleone, the Don, didn’t choose to be that way. He was born into a situation where acting honestly got you killed and he then made decision after decision that led to him having power and wealth and control. There is a theme that even gangsters want to become legitimate business people – there is more money to be made out of the shadows than in them.
But when you look at the big picture, we are fortunate that we live in a society where there is more happening in the light than there is in the darkness. The freedom of the press is available to everyone. The cost of entry is falling and the ability to capture and share what is happening around you is within the grasp of many more people. Of course, there are also less people listening and a few people who get most of the attention but that’s not the point. It’s not about how many followers you have but whether shining a light in the spaces you live in will lead to improvements there.
A group of people that have no way to share news, no way to learn about what is going on cannot be seen as a community. You need that gossip, that shared knowledge about what is going on. And that’s one of the elements that you will need to build if you want to create your own community. You have to ask yourself how you will keep the news flowing, how you will keep people informed about what is going on.
But what is news and what is not? What we’ve learned over the years is that people get very good at manipulating whatever you put out there. If you go on the Internet, you expect to be attacked by people who want to exploit any vulnerabilities in your setup. A few years ago I set up a server and it quickly started getting thousands of attacks from computers trying to guess usernames and passwords. This is industrial, state sponsored espionage. You do your work expecting to be attacked, and do what you need to do to fix vulnerabilities. In society, this often comes down to rules.
So let’s look at that in the next post.