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What Ever Happened to the “Truth”?

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when there were just three TV channels, two local daily newspapers, a few local radio stations, and no cable or satellite TV. There were no personal computers — let alone the Internet — and so our news sources were pretty limited. We each picked our standard of truth for current events, but the choices were limited. Some defined truth by Walter Cronkite, some by Huntley-Brinkley, some by the position advocated by the local newspaper or radio station.

There were people with radical views, of course: Socialists, communists, right-wing militants, and extreme environmentalists. But these people had their own ways of communicating: low cost pamphlets, local meetings, quiet get-togethers at the homes of their members.

We’re taught as children that there’s a difference between a lie and the truth. But it’s described by our parents and teachers as such a black-and-white difference that we attach an emotional significance to the words. “That’s a lie” is not just a statement of fact — it’s an accusation. Liars are despised, vilified and punished. But what is the truth? And what is a lie?

Absolute Truth?
There are few, if any, cases of absolute truth. If I drop something, it will fall — except in space or in a rapidly descending airplane. That balloon is red — or is it orange or magenta? Babies come from a man and a woman — or a test tube. Two plus two equals four — except in certain chemical reactions where it might equal eight or even eight hundred.

We internalize our standard of truth because it simplifies life. We can’t question everything around us — we wouldn’t be able to react fast enough to deal with what life throws at us. So we accept certain things as truth, and we build on these truths to put together our own philosophy, our own moral code, our own way of explaining the universe.

We do this all subconsciously — we do it without even being aware that we’re doing it. We build a standard for truth based on our parents, our environment as children, what we’re taught in school, and based on the “truth” we see reported in the press.

Finding Truth used to be Easier
When I was growing up there was little variation in what we saw in the regular press. Big daily newspapers and the three television networks all reported pretty much the same thing. They looked at an event and interpreted it for us. We could disagree of course, but if we disagreed we knew that we were disagreeing with the “mainstream media,” and that made us view our disagreement in a different light. We might disagree, but we knew that we were in the minority. We knew that we had to do something to persuade others to join us. We didn’t just accept our version of the truth as the standard. We knew that we were opposing the standard, and that action would have to be taken to change the standard.

I never associated with any radical organizations when I was growing up, but I imagine that this would be the way that they would think. They might think they were right and that the majority of people were wrong.  But they dedicated themselves to changing the minds of the majority. They knew they were in the minority and they took steps to make their views known.

Today, Truth is Harder to Find
Today we have hundreds — maybe thousands — of cable and satellite TV channels. Many of these channels offer news programs that offer interpretations of current events from their own perspective. But that’s just the beginning, because there are millions of Internet web sites that offer their own interpretations of current events and their own versions of reality.

Choosing your version of truth isn’t as easy now as it once was. There is no longer a single interpretation of events that we can use as a reference point. There is no Walter Cronkite with whom we can agree or disagree. Now there’s Nancy Grace, Thomas Friedman, Rush Limbaugh, Al Gore, Glenn Beck, Michael Moore, Jon Stewart, and many, many more. And that’s just in the United States. Consider the opinions of Pope Benedict XVI, Gordon Brown, Hu Jintao, Desmond Tutu, Kim Jong-il, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Osama bin Laden. Each of these people defines the truth for some part of the world’s population.

Each person offers a different view of the truth. A logical person might listen to some of these people, get an understanding of their motivations, investigate the facts and make an informed judgment on who to trust. But who has the time to be logical?

Few of us investigate the facts. After all, it’s difficult, since we never see the facts — we just see interpretations of the facts. Once in a while we’ll see a web site or television show that attempts to pull together evidence for something important — like global warming — but most of us lack the specialized education that’s required to understand the difference between normal weather variation and a pronounced trend. Even for something that ought to be easy to interpret — like whether a health care bill will or won’t advocate euthanasia of the elderly — the words get in the way and an already suspicious public reads more into a paragraph than was ever intended.

“The truth” is a funny concept. We act like there’s an absolute truth — one that’s irrefutable and correct — and human nature compels us to build our personal philosophy on top of that absolute truth. But in fact truth is not an absolute concept — it’s a relative one. What’s true to me may not be true to you, and our behavior may be different because of our interpretations of the truth.

When I was growing up there was more consistency in our definition of truth. There were still differences; I’m sure the U.S. version of the truth was vastly different from the version in the Middle East or in the U.S.S.R. But within a single country there was more consistency. And I attribute that consistency to a clearer differentiation between the mainstream media and the fringe groups.

There is no mainstream media any more. Millions of Internet sites and hundreds of cable channels have leveled the playing field so that any communications medium is as mainstream as any other. No longer is there such a thing as a fringe group — all groups are both mainstream and fringe.

This puts the responsibility for determining the standard of truth squarely on the shoulders of the individual. Never before in history has this been the case. Never before in history has there been equal access to so many divergent views. Never before in history has an individual been put in a situation where he or she is pummeled with propaganda from so many directions.

And frankly, I don’t think we’re ready for this.

Next week: some ideas on how we can better cope with our own personal search for the truth

Sidebar: So what does this have to do with technology or business?

We have the same problem in business and IT on a smaller scale.  There’s just as much debate over the “truth” in business and IT as there is in the world at large.  Should executive salaries be capped?  Should marginally unethical behavior be criminalized?  Should legislation impact IT designs (as Sarbanes-Oxley has done)?  Should business drive technology or should technology lead business?

Business and IT are not isolated from the rest of the world — they’re a part of it.  And the same issues with absolute truth (and the lack of it) have a huge effect on those of us who take an active role in the leadership and strategy for business and IT.

An Example
Just as there is in politics, I see increasing polarization among advocates of various technology platforms.  In their 1984 TV ad, Apple positioned themselves as an opponent to the corporate establishment.  The Apple versus Microsoft competition has escalated in recent years not only in the Mac versus PC area but more importantly in the area of the iPhone versus everything else.  The iPhone and the Blackberry have redefined computing to require mobility.  Google has made a play for the corporate desktop using SaaS tools.  And a lot of the “truths” that we took for granted in the early days of IT are true no more.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kapil Agarwal September 29, 2009, 3:22 pm

    Hi Harwell,
    In my opinion this article covers a very narrow view of the relationship between truth and media coverage. To me it seems that the smaller and limited choice of media took people away from the truth and allowed the media to manipulate the view of the truth to suit their requirements. It seems to me that, with the growth of internet and individual reporting, we are getting the truth (straight from the horse’s mouth rather than editor’s perspective) after a long time. I think that there are many people around the world today, who are ready for truth and working to get closer to it everyday.

    • Harwell September 29, 2009, 9:29 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I think you’re correct that with all our many Internet information sources, there’s probably a higher probability that the “truth” is out there somewhere than there was with just a few media sources. I know I oversimplified the Walter Cronkite example; I feel pretty good about Walter’s version of the truth but there’s no doubt in my mind that his newscast misrepresented certain aspects of reality even in Walter’s day (I don’t think he did it deliberately but he was deceived by the U.S. government). The early days of the Vietnam war were a good example of that misrepresentation.
      But while today there’s a higher probability that the truth is out there somewhere, it’s not at all clear where it is. Everyone claims to have the truth, but many of the sources conflict, and most of the information on many web sites is based on incomplete research, half-truths, opinion, bias and spin.
      The main problem I identified in the article is the problem we have in trying to sort through all of these possible sources of truth to determine which one to believe. My post tomorrow (September 30, 2009) will give you some of the advice I’ve tried to follow myself in building a base of sources that I trust.
      This is not an easy problem to solve for any of us, and I welcome suggestions.

  • Brian Wirthlin October 20, 2009, 10:56 am

    The distinction you’re drawing is between absolute truth and oversimplification – can we at least agree what constitutes an untruth? Does not knowing something is untrue absolve the speaker of misleading his audience? Does pretending not to know? Or is it enough to just pretend that the concept of truth is so subjective as to be meaningless?

    • Harwell October 20, 2009, 12:40 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure where you get the idea that “the distinction [I’m] drawing is between absolute truth and oversimplification.” Yes, we define our “truth” in order to simplify our lives, and yes, some people’s version of “absolute truth” is just an oversimplification of the facts as they see them, but your use of the word “distinction” puzzles me. Perhaps you can clarify.

      You make an interesting point about whether we can agree on an untruth even if we can’t agree on a truth. I think there are probably a lot of situations where even though we can’t agree on what’s true, most of us (maybe all) can agree on what’s false. For example, we can all probably agree that a human being can’t survive underwater for long periods of time without some supply of oxygen (maybe a bad example, but it’s the first one that occurred to me). If someone started preaching that if you believe in a certain religion then you can breathe underwater without oxygen, then that would be misleading and a lie (unless the claim could be verified scientifically). If someone repeated the belief it would still be a lie, even if the repeater thought it was the truth. Should repeating a lie be discouraged? In my opinion, yes. But should be person repeating a lie be disciplined? In my opinion, no, unless that lie directly leads to harm to others, and even then this is a real gray area.

      I personally don’t think that all truth is subjective. But there’s a layer between an objective truth and our perception of it, and there’s work involved in discovering the truth. Scientific principles are our current versions of our perception of the truth. And as we discover more about science we often find that perception shifting. Newton’s Laws were regarded as the truth until later scientists discovered refinements to those laws. Newton’s Laws are still a good approximation of the truth in most cases, but they in themselves aren’t “the truth” — they’re just an interpretation of it.

      Or here’s a more basic example. For a long time it was thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. That was the “truth” at the time. Then it was discovered that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and the “truth” changed. Did the relationship of the Earth and the Sun change? No, it was as it has been for all these years. But our interpretation of an “absolute truth” changed, and our “truth” — the way we viewed the universe — was altered accordingly.

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