This book was published in 1992, before the internet really took off and while bulletin boards were still in their heyday. So in the author's projected future, news is delivered not by specialist media companies producing articles, but by discussion and opinion via newsgroups. This is how Vinge envisioned galactic communication in the future times, complete with opinionated wanking, flaming and a fairly small signal-to-noise ratio. At one point in the story, one of the main characters is trying to keep up with the news and has to get her ship's computer to collate and filter the newsgroups to try and get a picture of what's being said, because of the sheer volume of it.
It got me thinking about the way I find out what's going on in the world these days. I was a late adopter of the internet (~1999), but the first thing I discovered about it was its potential in connecting me with people around the world and hearing what they have to say. Back in 1992, I was watching the news on TV and reading the occasional paper. I was also pretty young and not very discerning.
Once I got onto the internet, I could not only access news, I could also access opinion about that news, and my faith in the traditional media to deliver me objective information began to erode. Now, if I see TV news or read a paper it's with a jaundiced eye, and I'll often go trawling through the internet to find opinion on the topic, just to get what I consider to be a broader picture. And often, I'll find out about a particular happening in the world through hearing about it in some forum as someone spouts their opinion on it, before I ever see a media article about it.
When I want to buy something, the first thing I do is go looking for product reviews, or post to my blog asking people what they think. When I have an idea, bringing it up in an online forum for others to opin about will often add meat to it, validate it, or cause me to rethink it. Meanwhile, even though I'm attending lectures to learn about social policy and other Humanities topics, the real application and practice for critical thinking skills happens for me in forums where the issues are discussed. Name your ism, somewhere out there is a forum where every possible way of looking at it is being discussed and applied.
So I think Mr Vinge wasn't too far off the mark with his view of how news is spread in the future - it seems to me it's happening now. The internet has made it possible for people to communicate their doubts about the validity of the information we previously accepted as objective, to discuss alternative possibilities, and (I guess) for people like me to gather a variety of perspectives and decide for myself which angle, or angles, make the most sense.
Of course it's also allowed the extremists to run wild and the trolls to have a field day, but I think having 20 perspectives to choose from is always going to provide me with better information than just one - I just have to develop a good filter to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. And I'm kind of glad we've improved the interface from back in the days of bulletin boards.
One thing that communication across cultures has brought home to me is the differences in sense of humour. I noticed this a lot in South Africa after having visited the US. Often in the US I found myself making a joke that'd crack the average Kiwi up, only to have it fall flat. In Africa, the same joke would not only be understood but the South Africans would pick it up and run with it. Particularly noticeable for that was the droll, dry quips that are standard Kiwi humour fare.
I had a chat with an American about this at Psylent Night. He said he didn't get Kiwi sarcasm because we were too subtle about it for his ear - he said that in America if someone's being sarcastic they make sure you know they are being sarcastic - which for me seems to cross the line from sarcasm to just being mean. Whereas for him, without that obviousness he couldn't tell if the person was being sarcastic or serious, and he felt like he was being taken the piss out of, which in effect felt mean to him.
Meanwhile, one aspect of US humour that I really struggle with is satire. I know what satire is, I understand why it's supposed to be funny, and some satire I even enjoy - but for some reason the US brand of satire I just don't get. Here's an example which was touted to me as hilarious:
I didn't find this funny at all. I can see why it's supposed to be funny - it's pinpointing the craziness of the anti-abortion side of the choice debate by taking the arguments a few steps further and making the ridiculousness of them obvious. But to me, it's just not funny. I don't know if it's the deadpan way it's delivered, or the fact that the things they're saying are ridiculous, or what. It just.. meh. And Kiwis are deadpan specialists, so I doubt it's that. Witness Flight of the Conchords (which got really popular in the US).
Another example is Best in Show. I know it's supposed to be funny - it's often been explained to me as an example of classic satire that's really hilarious and treats its characters with indulgent affection. But from my perspective it wasn't only not funny, it portrayed its characters as objects of ridicule who were completely unaware that everyone else thought they were ridiculous. To me, this kind of thing isn't funny because I imagine myself blindly going through life with everyone thinking I'm an idiot, not knowing why people avoid me and thus unable to do anything about it, and I think it's mean - the equivalent of children in school picking on the weird kid but never telling them why. The Kiwi equivalent of this is what we call 'cringe humour' - Eagle vs Shark is an example of this. There were funny moments but for the most part, I just felt sorry for the characters and wished they'd get their shit together because I could feel how much it'd hurt to be like that.
Yes, I probably think too much. But I still don't get what's funny about US satire. Oddly enough there is some British satire I find quite amusing. In my search to find out why this is (other than the obvious cultural differences), I found this, which I think is quite enlightening. It seems to me that British satire (in general) is more Horatian, and US satire is more Juvenalian. This would tie in with what my Minnesotan friend said about sarcasm as well. US satire isn't supposed to be funny, it's supposed to be pointed. And because my Kiwi-culturalised brain is accustomed to looking for subtlety, the pointedness is magnified into ugliness and that comes across as meanness. On the other side, to an American, without that magnification it would be difficult to tell whether the portrayal is actually satire or serious, and could seem as though the piece is actually taking the piss out of its audience (rather than its characters), which comes across as insulting.
Any Americans want to confirm/deny/explain? Or Kiwis for that matter..
Meanwhile, on Friday we watched Stranger than Fiction. I really liked it.