Vivek's blog: December 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is quality dead?

I freely admit it: I have a vested interest in quality.

I work for a company that prides itself on offering what appears to be a commodity - travel information - but that commands premium prices because of the painstaking expertise and layers of checking involved.

But quality ain't what it used to be. Now I'm not one to moan about those-darned-upstart-bloggers-taking-my-newpapers-away-why-don't-they-get-off-my-lawn? or demand that we go back to lovingly crafted horse-and-buggies in place of those mass-produced nightmares that clog our roads these days.

However, there's part of me that sees the market constantly rewarding quantity over quality. CDs replaced records, and my hard-core musician friends tried to convince me that there was no way digital music could be as true as analog. I couldn't tell the difference - but I can with mp3s. The vast majority of music being listened to these days is so compressed that much of the nuance is lost. That's why you get bands like the Arcade Fire, who think that dynamics are something to do with engineering.

It's happening in content. It's passé to talk about "user-generated content" versus "expert content"; the fabric of the web is what it is. But now we're seeing companies like Demand Media using volume to overwhelm search engines, build tremendous traffic and get rich off low-quality page views.

Yes, this is affecting me directly. When I have a fathering-related question, I turn to Google. These days, the first several links are from aggregation sites that put together Q&As from people who are far from experts. I need to dig deeply to find opinions by people whom I trust.

You know what I'm talking about: places like Yahoo! Answers, which make me weep for humanity. It's like reading pages and pages of YouTube comments. It saps your will to live.

So I miss that authoritative stamp that used to come with publication. This probably makes me old and cantankerous. I'll admit to being both if someone can provide me with reassurance. Where can this prematurely grumpy old man go for his daily dose of quality?

(Image courtesy John Pozadzides, Flickr Creative Commons)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fact is opinion. Isn't it?

My partner, Janet, enjoys telling me that in a postmodern framework, there is no objective truth.

If that's the case, then we are truly living in a postmodern world, at least politically. Never before has reality been so divergent depending on one's political point of view.

Take the United States as a case study. Unending strife between Republicans and Democrats is nothing new, but the field of disagreement has moved to the arena of fact rather than opinion or philosophy.

In general, Democrats believe that there is scientific evidence of global climate change caused by humans. Republicans, looking at the same numbers, dispute this conclusion. Similarly (to stereotype crudely), Democrats believe that there is evidence that humans evolved from an apelike ancestor. Again, Republicans dispute this. This occurs despite the fact that a liberal or conservative view of government has, theoretically, nothing to do with conclusions about biology or climatology.

What's more, political belief systems increasingly appear to control people's perception of history. Many conservatives believe that a link was proven between Saddam Hussein and the events of September 11. Many liberals believe that vote recounts demonstrate that Al Gore defeated George W Bush in Florida during the 2000 election.

Although this trend may be disturbing, it shouldn't be surprising. From a young age, I quickly learned that point of view colors reality to a frightening degree. If you're a sports fan, think about how what team you support alters your view of events. What's clearly out of bounds to one team's supporter definitely clipped the line to the other team's supporter. An obvious rule violation to one is well within the spirit of the game to one's counterpart.

So next time you are 100% clear on the facts, and your opponent seems to be ignoring them in favor of other facts you've completely discounted, pause a second. You might just get at some form of objective truth.

How modernist of me.

(Image courtesy chibart, Flickr Creative Commons)