Monday, 30 June 2014

Rolf Harris - Search engines help us with our emotions

Rolf Harris – Does Google tell us how to feel?

With the news today that Rolf Harris has been found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault, we are confronted with a conflicting emotional response and a dilemma: Many people of a certain age will remember Rolf with some degree of fondness, the charming colloquial aussie lilt, the apparent fondness for animals, of course the drawing and even the songs. This imagery is in direct contradiction to the feelings conjured up by the thought of the acts for which Harris has been found guilty. 

Did you notice what I did there? I used “Rolf”, his familiar first name, in the positive statement and “Harris”, the more detached and formal surname in the negative comment. The world does this to us all the time, but doesn’t always point it out.

There are few things more repugnant than a person who abuses their position to commit such unsavoury acts. But those acts soil a previously shiny persona, enjoyed by many.

We often hear expressions of particularly polarised opinion on matters such as these, totally one sided, probably because of the understanding that we the readers, the consumer of media, will spend very little time listening. This requirement to grab our attention can lead to a shortening of the detail, a summary of the narrative, bullet points of fact. It has to fit into the short window that we demand.

Modern life, with 24hr rolling news, opinion all around, sound bite sized snippets and “balance” does not have a great deal of space to include a more complex view. Black and white are great, but they are seldom the whole story, what about grey? The media only gives us what we ask for and, increasingly we are asking for shorter, less complicated information supply.

Herein lies the problem, back in the days when our lives had space for a morning newspaper, we were able to take the time to have all the possible sides to a story explained. Of course there was the headline cover story, bold type, heavy font, but as we read further into the paper it would become a more subtle variant, explaining the complexities, until deeper still, we could find the opposing case, the counterpoint. People need time to consider and process, then we are able to reach a complex and balanced decision, form an opinion on any subject and it will usually contain a response something like “Yeah, I agree with almost all of that”.

All this variety still exists, but it is seldom found in one place. Now, if we want a selection of opinions, they are just a search away, on the internet, we are training ourselves to find the variety we crave, but we have to learn to filter the search depending on the speaker (or writer).

So it seems that when people are asked to share their emotional response to a new controversy, they will often look for support from the internet. A Google search to help us decide how we feel about something. Our feelings about a convicted sex offender are usually pretty negative. Likewise, our affection for childhood memories of lilting songs and colourful artwork are equally clear. This forms a contradiction that we must wrestle with, to reclassify the contradicting feelings.

I believe that the inevitable struggle is what really drives us to hit the search button. My worry is that a little too often, people will accept the opinions that a perfectly reasonable Google search request returns as fact, as their own opinion. If this is allowed to happen, then we may be letting Google tell us how to feel, then they really will be powerful!

I resolve to dig a little deeper, to strive to question and to not accept the first opinion my media offers to me. Maybe I should try Bing or Yahoo a bit more? (Are other search engines available?).

Thanks for listening

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