01 July 1998
In the early 1980's, at the start of the Age of Greed Apparent, amidst media glut, fading nationalism, and the growing awareness that private -- as opposed to political or national -- interests were determining government policy, the cyberpunk movement was born. By origin an SF literary sub-genre that spread "underground" through film, music, art, and gaming channels, cyberpunk presented a cynical view of the future of technology, characterized by zaibatsu, high-tech lowlifes, and media culture. Fifteen years later a passing glance at the world shows the zaibatsu struggling for power with provincial and global regulatory agencies, an expanding arsenal of cheap and portable "street level" technology, and a patently mass-media oriented global culture.
The bulk of information traffic through mainstream media channels is
prepared for public
consumption according to formulas derived from Goebbels, Ellul,
and other pioneers
in the fields of propaganda and mass communication. In the mass media
industry, the end
"product" is becoming farther and farther removed from the source
material that inspired
it; while in the case of entertainment "product" this simply results in
the production of
programs that are banal and virtually indistinguishable from each other
on a narrative level,
in the case of news "product" this can result in an abridgement,
excision, or even a
misinterpretation of factual information. It is for this reason
imperative that any party
interested in the pursuit of knowledge--that being factual, empirical
opposed to a simple, placative "answer"--become versed in the analytic
tools necessary to
cull real information from the vast sources of disinformation
being peddled as "facts".
Events which need not be related here led to the impromptu demonstration of three very rudimentary techniques used in the print media to affect the attention and perception of the reader. These techniques should serve as an introduction to the "mind behind the magazine", and should demonstrate also the proper frame of mind in which a periodical is to be read critically. In the name of brevity, laziness, and the fact that mainstream news periodicals are generally distasteful, only one demonstration has been provided for each technique; readers are encouraged to contribute further examples from their own experience.
Hide-and-seek Articles There is a disturbing tendency for periodicals to "hide" their articles amongst a number of full page ads, making the odds of randomly opening the periodical to a page with an ad equal to or greater than (>=) the chance or opening to an article. There are two basic tricks to this: moving the table of contents a random number of pages into the magazine (often 2-6), and not displaying page numbers on non-article pages. The first forces the reader to view ads simply to find out what is in the periodical; the second forces the reader to view ads when searching for an article--the search for an article in effect becomes a search for page numbers, often ending up in the reader finding a page number, then counting the number of pages until the next page number, simply in order to get their bearings within the magazine. Note that even more subtle variations of this technique may be used within articles through the use of half- and quarter-page ads which interrupt the reader's standard left-right/top-down order of reading.
Case Study 1: Business Week June 29, 1998 To start off with, the table of contents for this periodical is found after two dual-page ads (the first for Novell, the second for Hoechst) and is numbered as page four, indicating that publishers like programmers start counting at 0. The target article, "Is your car smarter than you?" in the Science & Technology section, is listed as starting on page 85. Experiment: open the mag in about the middle, you see a psuedo-article ("Special Advertising Section" for the U.S. Open) called "The World Golf Village" and a facing ad for Royal & Sunalliance. Objective: search for a page number. Flip back 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 pages... a column called "The Corporation", no page number. Go back to the starting point, turn forward 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 pages...finally a page number, coincidentally also the first page of the article, 85. Deeper investigation reveals that between pages 63 and 85 there are no page numbers.
The USA Today Syndrome This should come as no surprise in the modern "visual" age: people prefer to have information presented to them graphically. The "USA Today Syndrome" is a term that refers to the presentation of news or information in a format that is not only graphic but simplistic--for example pie charts with no hard information, maps of "trouble spots" with no geographic information, technical drawings with no technology in them. A bit of experience with journals (the serious quarterly ones that one rarely finds outside of libraries, as opposed to a weekly or monthly "journal" from the news vendor) will demonstrate that one can use charts and graphs to efficiently present large amounts of data (note that those large amounts of data must be present), that maps can contain topographical information which may contribute to one's understanding of why so many "trouble spots" (fires, famines, murders, etc) are occuring in such a specific area and not in others, and that depictions of actual electronic or mechanical components can demonstrate a leap in technology as adequately as a dicussion of those components. Failure to include full data in a graphic such as those mentioned is one of the prime symptoms of the "USA Today Syndrome", and in the case of these three graphic methods indicates that 1) there is not a large enough amount of data known to justify a chart/graph, 2) there is not enough information known about the topography of the mapped area or the incidents themselves cannot be placed in a specific, definite area on the map, and 3) the actual electronic or mechanical components either are not known or do not exist.
Case Study 1: Business Week June 29, 1998 The "Is your car smarter than you?" article has two "USA Today-esque" features: a cutaway car view on page 85 and a "Cars get Siliconized" graph on page 86. The graph is useless and trivial, a y-axis of dollars (cost of semiconductors per vehicle) from 0 to 300 and an x-axis of years from '92 to '01; the cost starts at $50 in 1992 and ends at $275 in 2001--useless knowledge, the price of chips in auto manufacture, but potentially indicative of the article's claim, that the trend towards computerization of cars is increasing (interestingly enough the graph is a steady slope, indicating no "increasing trend" but rather a "consistent trend"). The cutaway graphic, however, deserves more treatment. The car is teal (very easy on the eye) with 15 numbered details that are referred to (though not altogether explained) in the caption. The caption labels the detail-items with high-tech descriptions that are somewhat clarified in the article, however the illustrations of these technological advances is simplistic to the point of being insulting: "By-wire steering" is the label affixed to a picture of a circle (steering wheel) and cylinder (steering column); the "60 microprocessors" are a cube the size of a Car Wars power plant behind the back seat, the "yaw-and-pitch sensor" is a cube on the dashboard, and the worst of the lot is an advanced acceleration system labelled "acceleration" and depicted in the graphic by a thin rectangle (gas pedal).This is not a technical drawing, it bears no relation to the text other than by scattering a random sampling of keywords across an amorphous depiction of a car, and it does nothing to illustrate or illuminate points made in the article.
Science Fiction - Science Fact As devotees of the venerated Analog magazine will attest, there is a great difference between "science fiction" and "science fact". The term "science fiction" is used to refer to a literary device in which the author extrapolates--hopefully with a sound scientific or technological background--the existence or application of various technologies; usually this is to provide greater narrative berth, or to sound out implications of a new or theorized technology. The term "science fact" is used to refer to "cutting-edge" technologies that exist in theory or in practice. It is quite commonplace for technical articles in mainstream magazines to devoid themselves of any "science fact", thus making them read as "science fiction"--that is, the visions or propaganda of various technological industries. Technical articles that lack a certain degree of verifiable scientific or technical information are bound to confuse the scientifically aware reader, by presenting a premise for the existence or potential existence of a technology without any actual proof of its existence.
Case Study 1: Business Week June 29, 1998 The "Is your car smarter than you?" article once again. A brief sample of the technical illumination supplied by the article: "In 'by-wire' systems, when a driver turns the steering wheel or stomps on the brake, the movement doesn't directly turn the wheels or apply the brakes as it used to. Instead, the motion is detected by sensors and relayed to computer chips. These chips then signal motors to turn the wheels or activate the brakes. Once microprocessors entered such control loops, they brought the ability to do more than just relay the driver's intent. They could embellish it with intelligence." Again: "With a different set of sensors and motors, the way a car rides can adapt to road-surface changes on a second-by-second basis. Other sensors will surround cars with an early-warning cocoon. Infrared detectors can spot the heat of a car in the blind spot and sound an alarm when you flick the turn signal before changing lanes." The key here is such technical jargon as "chips", "motors", "sensors", and "microprocessors"; even the Barsoom stories had more scientific explanations of equipment. What is not covered is any actual discussion of the technology involved. How are these sensors going to keep from being damaged by dust, rattle, age, etc? While the increased emissions (non-chemical) from vehicles interfere with their own instruments? How long will the average operating life of a car be with these enhancements as opposed to without them, especially since car stereos seem to wear down after 3-5 years of vibration and hard turns? What happens when the car loses power? Will the IR sensors be impaired at high speeds due to their proximity to an internal combustion engine? Why does this article create more questions than it answers?
There are plenty of similar techniques in use by print and graphic media. The sad part about the whole affair is that there is no national/global conspiracy to deprive the masses of information; rather, this is the result of decades of stimulus-reponse testing conducted by media companies and researchers when they monitor audience response through sales, surveys, and public or private feedback (usually in that order). The "media industry", if you will, has a "target" for everything it produces; the more general the target, the greater the sales potential. To appeal to the most general target (the "masses") you must shoot for the lowest common denominator--the slowest one in the herd, the sickest and oldest and most banal antelope. Mass-market periodicals (and even paperbacks and television shows) are targetted at anyone with a grade 7 education (age 12), while newspapers target anyone with a grade 3 education (age 8).
The consumer as targetted by the media industry is a mindless beast. Extensive media analysis has shown that violence, porn, and celebrities--all means of vicarious living for the masses-- sell like nothing else. Compounding the effect are the short attention span acquired through years of media overstimulation, and the quickly fading memory resulting from information overload or saturation and from the general distraction/escapism offered by various media channels in public and private life. In the end the audience for any mainstream publication is appeased by quick, unrelated stories that require no further investigation, no background knowledge for full comprehension ("never confuse them with facts"), no self-interrogation to determine one's opinion on a matter. Homo Consumerus is a slow-sitted, lazy beast that requires constant distraction from its surroundings before it will consent to being milked; its bovine nature, however, makes it quite easy to placate.
Appendix: Towards a Reversing Toolkit
The term "reversing" is used rather than cracking for the simple reason that cracking is simply a crude application of reversing; often, as the Hiew manual states, a matter of "changing 07xh to EBxh". Obviously a reversing toolkit for reality would require coverage of media analysis, fundamental logical and critical skills, an introduction to varied frames of reference ("mode x") and the means to switch between them, and an inspiration to search for knowledge. At this stage only a few pointers can be given in follow-through for the preceding work.
Advertisers, producers, and artists will all try to circumvent your conscious will by taking advantage of the following "loopholes" in the individual:
All Rights Reversed, 1998. Hail Eris!