Thursday, February 20, 2014

The dangers of infotainment

One of the most dangerous features of the contemporary public sphere is the prominence of infotainment and pseudo-knowledge. At its most pernicious, this subtle poison takes the form of papers or books on questions of public policy. They are usually produced by think tanks with carefully disguised interests to further. They are masterworks of sophistry. They include enough facts to establish credibility and the average reader's credulity before going on to build arguments predicated on the suppression of contrary evidence. They are thus opinion masquerading as knowledge. They trade in breezy platitudes seductively packaged in smooth, trouble-free language. Over-simplification is their stock-in-trade. They usually have a short life cycle and there is a constant re-supply. These two features mean that the authors of infotainment are rarely held to account. The report or book that caused such furore five years ago and led to a rash of reviews, departmental restructures and a short-term boom in training sessions and seminars are long forgotten by the time their predictions and prescriptions have proven to be little more than smoke and mirrors. 

Harry Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit correctly identified bullshit as a greater danger to public debate than lies. The liar knows the untruth of his or her statements. The bullshitter does not. She has convinced herself of the validity of her thinking and is set on convincing others. The real problem with infotainment begins when it is taken seriously by decision makers. Senior managers, politicians and CEOs are busy people and often not as good at critical thinking as we like to think. They glance through the executive summary of the latest breathless call to action, they watch the PowerPoint show by this or that consultant and - having been brainwashed that doing nothing or even just waiting is not an option - jump on the latest band wagon. After all, CEO's are paid do stuff, aren't they, and at least doing the latest thing peddled in that new best seller gives you a sense of doing the right thing. The result is more resources wasted chasing tails, pursuing needless and ill-founded change for its own sake. All the while, the infotainers move on to the next round never being held accountable for the long-term disappointment of their past endeavors.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A convenient crisis?

In Vienna these days the the largest, most prestigious and best funded theatre - the Burgtheater - has hit tough times. In December news broke that the theatre's long-serving General Manager had been fired after auditors had exposed financial irregularities. There is no suggestion that the manager had acted to enrich herself. Instead, her actions simply reflect the fact that accounting tricks have become necessary to balance the books while continuing to deliver the customary number of productions, maintaining fair pricing and delivering high artistic standards. The problem has been brewing for a while as public funding has been frozen for several years, resulting in cuts in real terms. Sound familiar?

In the USA a number of professional orchestras have also filed for bankruptcy in recent years. During a visit to London last month arts activity also seemed to be below pre-crisis levels. After thirty percent cuts to the arts budget that is probably inevitable. Is all this just a sign of belt-tightening during the worst financial crisis in eighty years? Or is it a sign of a general fracturing in the relationship between the public funding masters and the subsidized arts? Perhaps the great post-WWII flowering of state-funded arts activity is drawing to a slow end. 

If so, the first victim will be (is) artistic experimentation, diversity and innovation. Arts companies faced with financial cuts routinely react with a "retreat to the ramparts". The tried and tested repertoire mainstays take up ever more of the programs, new work is curtailed, reduced or cut altogether. Ultimately the arts then become less meaningful, less vibrant and less artistic! Perhaps most worryingly, I sometimes get the feeling that would suit many governments just fine.