As words change amid Info Age, ‘Truth’ rises to the top

Mural on building in San Francisco, California (PHOTO: Simon Doggett, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Every time we use a word we create a small, rapidly vaporizing artifact of a time, a place, and its people. That’s why language is the cornerstone of any culture.

Each year I report on the annual list of top words from the Global Language Monitor in Austin, Texas. I spoke with Paul JJ Payack, Director of the Global Language Monitor, last week. I usually write this piece in December, but the Language Monitor website suffered a server attack just when it was time to prepare the 2016 list. So after fixing things, Payack decided to release his list earlier in the new year from now on.

Thus, on May 1 the GLM will release the top words for both 2016 and 2017. Payack previewed the list for me in our conversation.

The year 2016 brought a surprising entry for top word. The “word” appears as a meme, a picture passed around the internet that evokes meaning. The picture in question depicts a Syrian boy covered in dust and blood from an explosion. I had seen it and you might have as well. This meme explains how the United States and Russia, Islamic extremists, and regional powers have been drawn into a strange, terrible war with more than two sides and an uncertain outcome. The only thing clear is the boy’s suffering.

The 2016 top word also implies big changes in the way we transfer ideas. Pictures and symbols become sorts of words, spreading as fast or faster than combining letters due to their universal translations.

One might hope for a cheerier word atop this year’s list. At first, it would appear so. The top word for 2017 is “truth.”

But the reason truth has risen so high, Payack explains, is because truth has become so much more difficult to verify. The very democratization of word creation has also become a form of tyranny, as beliefs — no matter how ignorant or malicious — reign independent of truth.

Beliefs come from our culture, experiences, peers, parents and our self-chosen consumption of information. Generally speaking, when we believe something we seek information to support that belief. This is the blessing and curse of the human mind. Challenged with new information we learn but, once programmed, we tend to stop learning.

And no, this is not some recent trend. This is human nature, a trick of perception dating back to our brutish ancestors who were more like us than we care to admit. Modern life — especially modern media — amplifies this survivalist trait the way drugs dole out dopamine. In fact, they are the same thing.

“What is called the 24-hour News Cycle is actually just the tip of the tsunami washing over the planet at an ever-quicker pace,” writes Payack in describing his organization’s top word for 2017. “Indeed, the nature of the beast hasn’t changed at all. It is our outdated techniques, that haven’t kept up with the new reality: News now emanates at the speed of thought, from tens of thousands or, even, millions of sources.

“This goes back hundreds of years,” Payack told me over the phone. “How did we check news [in ancient times]? By checking the original sources. We have lost the ability to check original sources, and so we’ve been outstripped in our ability to fact check.”

Payack reminds us of the tremendous deliberation that went into printing the original sources from which we understand the ancient world. Committees of dozens or hundreds of scholars or theologians deliberated for years over what would be passed down to future generations. The sheer act of writing a book took a level of education, resources and time that nearly all living people on Earth lacked.

So … Excuse me while I offer my uneducated opinions about science, politics and religion across half a dozen social media platforms … OK, that’s done.

Quite obviously, the technology of sharing ideas changed greatly since these old times.

“The technology is only going to get crazier, so we have to learn how to handle this,” said Payack. “The problem is not fake news, so much as that we have lost the ability to check facts.”

I recognize this all to well in my work as a writer and college instructor. We spend countless hours online sorting ourselves into factions with the information we share, while precious few of us have any understanding of where the information actually came from. And whether we believe ourselves to be an astute intellectual or a self-described redneck, our confirmation bias continues to steer us into the weeds.

In 2017, we live in a civilization desperate for the truth. May we remember, or relearn, how to find it. Wars that kill children will not be prevented by distortion and dogma. The truth, tempered by faith and reason alike, will set us free.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 30 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

 

Comments

  1. Joe musich says:

    Thanks Dr Brown. Your thoughtful piece brings up much. This quotation from your source,“The technology is only going to get crazier, so we have to learn how to handle this,” said Payack. “The problem is not fake news, so much as that we have lost the ability to check facts.” Now here is the chicken or egg discussion. And yet what does not come up is the “desire” or “the understanding of the importance” of being honestly informed. In a collective society accurate information is important in making what is referred to as an “informed” decision. Where once we were only involved in a gigantic “telephone game” where the message from beginning to end changes as the information is being passed around but without malicious intend by participants. Now the message is intentional altered by any given number of participants for their own end. When needing to make important collective decisions about life, limb and happiness accuracy is of supreme imporatance. In the search for these nuggets of truth that affect us all caveat emptor or buyer beware has no place. Letting caveat emptor be our guiding principle only leads to destruction. I was reminded with the reading about the spitting in the face at one of the Trump rallies last summer. This comes to mind only because it brings up in me all the questions about the word truth discussed here. It is not a pretty video. It is ugly and that seems to be where we are. The report is not “fake news!” It actually happened. It cannot be denied. The ultimate question is what are the truths that are being held onto in the video. Where are are participants in out new telephone game. And ultimately Dr Brown how do they get to where you would like them to be ? Here is a link ….http://www.businessinsider.com/man-spit-on-at-a-donald-trump-rally-2015-11

  2. joe musich says:

    Great book… especially in these times. On Bullshit

    https://www.amazon.com/Bullshit-Harry-G-Frankfurt/dp/0691122946

    Here is an excerpt review from Philosphy Now which gets to the crux of the matter, _…. Be this as it may, when a person rejects the notion of being true to the facts and turns instead to an ideal of being true to their own substantial and determinate nature, then according to Frankfurt this sincerity is bullshit.” link https://philosophynow.org/issues/53/On_Bullshit_by_Harry_Frankfurt

    Which about sums it up.

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