Saturday, September 29, 2018

Priceless Artifacts

1985 — A Southwestern College Classroom

The professor stood with his back to the blackboard, speaking to two dozen assembled students who were struggling to stay awake. 

“In archaeology, it is important to remember that the artifacts that we dig up are essentially worthless.  Usually, these objects were trash when the people who made them threw them away.  Take a clay pot, for example.  We usually find broken pots or just the small shards of pots for the simple reason that the pot was used until it broke.”

Pausing for emphasis, the professor pushed himself away from the blackboard and took a step towards the class.  “Archaeologists are quite literally, trash collectors,” he said.

The gathered students were obviously both skeptical and a little surprised.  The image of an archaeologist as a trash collector was not at all consistent with the Indiana Jones movies.

“Quite often,” the professor continued, “the more productive places to dig are trash middens.  When we did research at the sites of old frontier military forts, we discovered the most productive sites were the old latrines, which the soldiers also used to dispose of trash.”

“What did you find there?” asked a student.

“The most common discovery, other than the obvious, was a small whiskey bottle.  There were few places where a common soldier could secretly drink in solitude.  What the soldiers threw away, tells us a lot about life in the fort.” 

“Remember,” the professor continued.  “Once an item is recovered, where it was found and what was next to it often provide more information than the item itself.”

“Artifacts out of context have little value.  The object by itself is useless, but the information it can tell us about the culture that produced it is priceless.  An artifact becomes useless once we have extracted the data from it and we have learned everything we can from it.”

“What do we do with the artifact once we have studied it?” asked one of the student.

“After a detailed report about the dig has been written up, both the artifact and the report are carefully stored away.  Years from now, other researchers can use the data for their own study.”

2018 — A Southwestern College

The van pulled up to one of the storage facilities clustered at the end of the campus near the football field.  While the campus was huge, most of the important buildings—classrooms, libraries, and the vast collection of administration buildings—were clustered blocks away, in the center of the university grounds.  

The two men got out of the van, one opening the rear doors of the van while the other unlocked and raised the large garage door.  Inside, there were tightly packed rows of shelving, each bulging with cardboard boxes and paper bags.  One of the two men walked into the large warehouse, looking incredulously at the overflowing shelves.

“What the hell is this?” he asked.

“This is all the shit the archaeologists have been digging up out in the desert.   They have three more storage bays just like this one and they fill one up every four or five years.”

“Looks like the rats have got to a lot of these.  It’s all spilling out onto the floor and some of the shelving in the back has collapsed.  You can’t even read the labels on the boxes anymore.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the other man said while brushing away a spider web.  “No one from the department has been in any of the warehouses since I have worked here.  I doubt if they know where these warehouses are.”

“Do they even know what’s in here?  Is there an inventory?”

The other man pointed towards a large pile of moldy notebooks on one of the shelves.  “I doubt it:  that’s where all the notes and reports are kept, but after the roof leaked, we shoveled a lot of that crap out.”

The two men unloaded the van, putting new boxes and bags wherever they found room.  Finished, they closed the garage door and locked it.  It would be a year before anyone else  bothered to reopen the door to add more boxes and bags to the collection.

3018 — A Southwestern Desert

“Professor!” called one of the students kneeling in a shallow ditch.  “Can you come look at this?”

An older man walked over to the trench, one of several at the site, where his students were carefully excavating in the desert sand.

“What have you found?” he asked.

“I was using my brush to clear away the loose sand like you showed us and I found this,” she said, pointing into the bottom of the ditch where she had been working.  “There’s a whole pile of pot shards, but they are all different colors and designs.”

“That’s typical of these sacred sites.  The people who lived here placed a variety of offerings at sites like this, apparently as part of religious ceremonies.  This is one of several shrines where the people left offerings.  Over time, as the sand shifted, the remains mixed together.”

The professor stood and pointed to the large, crumbling concrete ruins at the top of the hill nearby.  “We usually find similar shrines located around such temples.  The people would drop off their offerings here, before continuing on to the temple, which could hold as many as forty-thousand people, where they would sit in a large oval around a holy rectangle we believe was occupied by their priests.”

“What was so important about the temple?”

“They probably used them for some form of ritual human sacrifices, but we’re not sure,” answered the professor.  “We know they must have been important because wherever we find such temples, they are always the largest and most expensive building in the community.  Usually, the ruins of such temples are the best-preserved buildings, so they was obviously the centers of community life.  We are still studying and researching the remains to try to figure out exactly what they were used for.”

“It’s a real shame they didn’t leave anything written down, explaining what they were used for,” answered the student.

“Yes, it is.  But, by studying these artifacts, we hope to understand their culture.  That’s why you should be sure to carefully label the paper bag for those pot shards—we wouldn’t want to lose the data.”

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Semantic Rigor

The science fiction novel is sixty years old, and like much of what Heinlein wrote, eerily prophetic.

The other man turned toward Lazarus. “Cousin, did we hear what I thought we heard? That is the first case of asocial group violence in more than twenty years . . . yet they reported it like a breakdown in a weather integrator.”

“Not quite,” Lazarus answered grimly. “The connotations of the words used in describing us were loaded.”

“Yes, true, but loaded cleverly. I doubt if there was a word in that dispatch with an emotional index, taken alone, higher than one point five. The newscasters are allowed two zero, you know.”

Heinlein, Robert A.. Methuselah's Children (Kindle Locations 600-602). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Ignoring the plot of the story, what the author is saying is that, in order to insure accurate and unbiased news casts, the fictional society of the future had established laws insuring what the author called “semantic rigor” to provide for “factual detachment in news reporting.”

The fictional conversation above took place in the near future, following a societal collapse that occurred after a period the author called the “crazy years,” during which society had succumbed to “semantic disorientation”.  For proof, he provided a long list of crazy newspaper headlines.  As you have probably already guessed, most of the supposedly absurd headlines seem tame compared to today’s real headlines.  The one about California students demonstrating to outlaw homework is, however, almost scarily accurate.

Unfortunately, the dystopian future that Heinlein feared has already come to pass.  The fact that the news comes in political "flavors" is apparent to anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television.  What is new, however, is the recent total abandonment of any semblance of restraint in the wording of such stories.  The language is so deliberately inflammatory and emotionally charged, that the prose could only be the result of a carefully conceived marketing plan. 

Objectivity is out.  Throwing red meat to your political base is in.

We have always had some of this.  Fox News and MSNBC have been two sides of the same coin for years, but since the 2016 election, it seems that all the various news channels are engaged in a war for viewers.  Now that the internet has made all news sources equally available, they are also all in competition with each other.  The newspapers I read the most often are online and are from New York and Miami; I almost never read one published within  less than 250 miles of where I live.

Since news sources can no longer count on regional patronage, they have to compete on the basis of attracting and retaining readers by telling them exactly what they want to hear—And that they do!

This has happened before:  in the last years of the nineteenth century, Randolph Hearst began building his newspapers' circulation through sensational news stories that sacrificed truthfulness for sensation.  Hearst gambled correctly that some readers were more interested in a good story than in the accuracy of the reporting.

For years, the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have varied depending on the region where the paper is to be sold.  The same stories are reported, but the headlines and the photos used vary frequently, depending on papers' target readers.

What is sadly different today, is that there are competing versions of the truth.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, 'Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Moynihan was wrong—Depending on which facts are reported, and the context in which they appear, there can, indeed, be competing versions of the truth.  Journalists have begun to realize that they can attract an audience by reporting exactly what that audience wants to hear and by reporting only the versions of stories that the reader wants to see rather than a balanced presentation of different viewpoints.

If you study history, you learn that truth is objective.  If you doubt that, you obviously haven’t spent a few decades working in academia.  (Enema U didn’t actually lose all those football games—we came in second.  The other team was next-to-last.)

By constantly reinforcing existing prejudices, an audience can be effectively captured and by validating existing prejudices, the news becomes as addictive as heroin.

The trend is accelerating, too:  Facebook and Twitter already select among various news sources and articles to present different stories targeted to deliver what they believe the reader wants to see.  If I do a Google search for a news story, my desktop and my iPad already deliver different search results.  For whatever reason, my iPad believes I am more politically liberal than my desktop does.  My desktop believes I voted for Trump while my iPad, on the other hand, thinks I supported Hillary.  Both are wrong.

This political polarizing can only get worse.  It is inevitable that in a relentless drive to attract ever more revenue, the people who sell "news" will find more effective ways to market their product.  I won’t see the same news my neighbor does nor hear the same analysis, so inevitably we will form different opinions.

Every generation has shared tragic moments.  For my parents, it was Pearl Harbor, while for me, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and for my sons, it is 9/11.  Besides these moments, my generation also has some shared cultural memories.  I remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I remember when I first saw a Star Wars movie, and I remember watching the last episode of MASH.  Those shared memories, which make up shared cultural, social, and political context, are becoming increasingly rare.

Already, I see different ads than you do.  Amazon recommends different books to me than it does to you.  Netflix offers me different movies, and I doubt that I have heard the same music as you.  Eventually—and increasingly—I will have different facts than you do.  These different facts will progressively separate me from you.  

We will just not have different opinions, since I will no longer be exposed to multiple different viewpoints; you will just be wrong.