Manipulations: Is it time to rethink the ethics of news?

The purpose of this blog is, as you know, to comment on ethics in the news. It is written here just above: “Practical Ethics – Ethics in the News”. In this post, I am going to diverge from this purpose, and address a somewhat different topic. Numerous recent events that have been reported in the news raise the following question: what is the ethics of news? What should they be? Below, I outline what I perceive to be a very problematic tension that currently exists between the reality that journalists work in, and the ethical ideals that they subscribe to, and that we as consumers expect of them. I finish with speculating in what we can do about this, on the ethical side of things. Continue reading

For theta’s sake, smash up your TV and go for a walk

You can get experienced meditators to produce, on demand, feelings of timelessness and spacelessness. Tell them ‘Try to be outside time’, and ‘try not to be in the centre of space’, and they will.

These sort of sensations tend to happen together – so strikingly so that Walter Stace proposed, as one combined element of mystical experience, ‘non-spatial-and-non-temporal’.1

Why should that be? asked an Israeli research group in a recent and fascinating paper.  And was the generation of these sensations related to alterations in the sense of the body? Continue reading

Innovation’s low-hanging fruits: on the demand or supply sides?

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.

This is an addendum to a previous post, which argued that we may be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it. I noted that we underestimated the innovative aspect of the CD because many other technologies partially overlapped with it, such as television, radio, cinema, ipod, walkman, landline phone, mobile phone, laptop, VCR and Tivo’s. Without these overlapping technologies, we could see the CD’s true potential and estimate it higher as an innovation. Many different technologies could substitute for each other.

But this argument brings out a salient point: if so many innovations overlap or potentially overlap, then there must be many more innovations that purposes for innovations. Tyler Cowen made the interesting point that the internet isn’t as innovative as the flushing toilet (or indeed the television). He certainly has a point here: imagine society without toilets or youtube, which would be most tolerable (or most survivable)? Continue reading

The innovation tree, overshadowed in the innovation forest

Cross-Posted at Less Wrong.

Many have pronounced that the era of innovation dead, peace be to its soul. From Tyler Cowen’s decree that we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit of innovation, through Robert Gordon’s idea that further innovation growth is threatened by “six headwinds”, to Gary Karparov’s and Peter Thiel’s theory that risk aversion has stifled innovation, there is no lack of predictions about the end of discovery.

I don’t propose to address the issue with something as practical and useful as actual data. Instead, staying true to my philosophical environment, I propose a thought experiment that hopefully may shed some light. The core idea is that we might be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it.

Imagine that technological innovation had for some reason stopped around the 1945 – with one exception: the CD and CD player/burner. Fast forwards a few decades, and visualise society. We can imagine a society completely dominated by the CD. We’d have all the usual uses for the CD – music, songs and similar – of course, but also much more. Continue reading

Phones 4 U, Ke$ha and becoming offensive

Channel 4 was censured by Ofcom this week for cutting to a light-hearted sponsorship advert just after viewers had watched the particularly graphic and disturbing rape scene in the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Phones 4 U sponsorship ad was thought to be especially inappropriate for that moment as it features a couple apparently having sex, during which the woman pauses and asks to the camera ‘I’m faking it, can I upgrade’? Ofcom received 17 complaints about the timing of the advert and this week concluded that ‘the juxtaposition of a light-hearted sponsorship credit featuring a woman during sex with a disturbing and distressing rape scene in a film was clearly unsuitable… In Ofcom’s view this clearly had the potential to be offensive to viewers’.

The timing was clearly unfortunate, but to say that the juxtaposition was offensive is a stronger claim.  Of course, the psychological effect of being immersed in a violent scene at one moment and then confronted with the same(ish) subject matter presented trivially will not do much for the viewer’s aesthetic experience. But the regulator’s suggestion seemed not only to be that the juxtaposition detracted from the viewer’s enjoyment, but also that it was in some way wrong. Continue reading

Sexy Indian Costumes on Sale!


I’ve been to Cologne recently, one of Germany’s main Carnival cities. In the window of a shop I passed, I saw some residues of the just ended Carnival season for sale – amongst other things, a Native American costume. Like many others of the sort, it consisted of a brown faux suede suit, a colourful feather hair decoration, and a little fake axe. And – not to my surprise – it showed far more skin that it concealed. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture. However, “Indian” Carnival and Halloween costumes like that can be found all over the internet, may it be in the (sadly unavoidable) “sexy” women’s version like the one I saw, or in the male “warrior / chief” version.

Continue reading

Hillsborough, Heysel and the Availability Bias

One of my clearest childhood memories is of seeing images  of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster on the television news. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in the crush, with an estimated 766 injured. I lived on the other side of the world, had never been to see a football game, and presumably had little comprehension of what the victims had gone through, yet the images of the crush, and of a few people being hauled to safety from it, made a strong and disturbing impression. Continue reading

Censoring Foetuses

In the US, Randall Terry is challenging Obama for Democratic leadership. Strangely, his reason for doing so is in order to be able to show graphic anti-abortion adverts  featuring aborted foetuses, holocaust victims, and a black person being lynched. Continue reading

Celebrity Culture

Every Saturday evening, and often on other evenings too, my daughters sit goggling at the TV talent show X Factor. Am I witnessing the long tentacles of the dreaded ‘celebrity culture’ we are said to inhabit reaching into my living room? I think not. I confess I find the show
tedious, but as part of a ‘mixed cultural diet’ it seems to me pretty harmless.

But doesn’t it encourage viewers to think that fame is a great good – perhaps the highest good? The view that fame is desirable is a very old one. Indeed it seems to me doubtful that our culture is any more celebrity-obsessed than many others. Reputation or renown (kleos) is a core value for Homeric heroes, for example. Of course, what one is famous for also matters. Had Hector stayed at home and not gone out to face Achilles, he’d have won a global reputation for cowardice and that’s just what he didn’t want.

But the X Factor is no different. The contestants want to be recognized as world-class entertainers. And since such entertainment has standards of excellence analogous to those in many other areas of human activity, and gives pleasure to many people, that aim in itself seems respectable enough.

But isn’t it what one is that matters? As Aristotle says, ‘honour appears to depend more on those who honour than on the
person honoured, whereas we surmise the good to be something of one’s own that cannot easily be taken away’ (Nicomachean
, 1.5).

Doubtless there are some people with enough faith in themselves genuinely not to care about whether their talents or achievements are recognized by others. They just get on with whatever they’re good at. But the vast majority of us want recognition, partly perhaps because we believe we deserve it, and because that recognition provides evidence of the genuineness of those talents and achievements. But another main motivator must surely be that people want to matter, to be important, and often enjoy that sense of importance. Fame can, then, make you happy.

But of course it often appears to make people unhappy, to be a ‘Dead Sea apple,mere dust and ashes in the eating’, as Sidgwick puts it (Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., p. 110), largely because of the pressures and restrictions our society imposes on celebrities, and the constant anxious struggle to remain in the limelight. Potential X Factor contestants might be well advised to consider Philip Larkin’s suggestion in ‘Born Yesterday’ that there’s a lot to be said for being ordinary, or even dull,

‘If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called’.

Murder in an English Village

Midsomer Murders is an ITV drama based around English village life: it pulls in millions of viewers and has been running for over a decade.   The co-creator of the series has just been suspended for saying he deliberately kept ethnic minorities out of the series.  “It wouldn’t be an English village with them”.   Cue outrage from all sides.  The executive is either an out –of-touch-bigot, or his suspension is ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Curiously, much of the furor has focused on the empirical claim that English villages are not generally very multicultural.   But if that’s what’s at stake, then the dispute can be quickly resolved by checking the demographic facts.   English villages are far less racially mixed than urban areas, and no doubt there are many English villages that are entirely, or almost entirely, white.   (On the other hand, if the executive’s aim was to reflect typical English village, then Midsomer Murders should be rewritten without the homicide).

It seems to me there are several considerations that should come into play in these sorts of disputes.

  1. Is there a range of programming across the spectrum that reflects a variety of lives and lifestyles?
  2. Is there a reasonable range of opportunities for actors from all backgrounds?
  3. Might the incongruity of the presence of an actor with a certain ethnicity hinder the drama?  Thus, unless it was making a deliberate dramatic statement to have a white actor playing a typical inhabitant of an Indian village would be silly.

If the answers to 1. and 2. are ‘yes’, we should be relaxed about a show containing only one racial group.   How much an audience is conscious of an actor’s ethnicity will depend on many factors, including conditioning.  Thus, the Royal Shakespeare Company now routinely has black actors, playing roles like Henry VI, and, thankfully, nobody seems to find this at all strange.