While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.
I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.
Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.
But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.
First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.
“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”
Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.
Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.
For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.
A couple of days ago, a video¹ appeared on my Twitter feed of President Trump “trolling” news reporters, by making fun of the fact that social distancing was preventing them from packing into the press room. The guy who posted the tweet and his Republican followers found it hilarious, and I was confused as to why. So I asked.
The conversations that followed were frustrating, hilarious, and in some cases, enlightening. I was called stupid, braindead, naive, deluded, indoctrinated, an idiot, and a sheep. I was also called sinful, humourless, disingenuous, a degenerate, a hater, a troll, a bot, a loser, a snowflake, and a cuck (which I had to Google). One guy said I was Hillaryous. It was a hell of a lot of fun.
When explaining why they found the clip humorous, many of the people I spoke to gave the same reason: the press is a puppet of the Deep State, a mysterious and powerful group of Democrats who are trying to oust Donald Trump. By making fun of them, Trump is exposing them for what they are.
I’d heard of the Deep State conspiracy theory before, but hadn’t looked into it, and given that so many Republicans I spoke to believe the press to be a pawn of this obscure and powerful entity, I thought it would be worth trying to understand why, and to consider the implications.
The term “deep state” is believed to have originated in Turkey, where the government military formed a secret alliance with drug traffickers to wage war against Kurdish rebels¹. It was popularised by former Republican U.S. Congressional aide Mike Lofgren in his 2016 book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, which describes a group of highly influential people from government, finance, and industry that governs the United States from outside of the formal political process.
This idea seems plausible, but the theory has been twisted into something different by Trump and his colleagues, who redefined the group as malicious and deceptive Democrats hell-bent on removing him from office. Trump has pushed the narrative constantly since coming to office. At a rally last year, he claimed that “unelected, deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” In a White House press briefing a few weeks ago, he referred to the State Department as the “Deep State Department,” to the chagrin of Anthony Fauci². More specifically related to the press, in September 2018 he tweeted that “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do.”
Fox News and other radical-right political commentators have helped to popularise the Trump-angled conspiracy theory, and in addition to the President’s countless assertions of “fake news” media, it’s easy to see why so many of the Republicans I spoke to believe in the existence of a deep state that wants to remove him from office, with the press being a key component.
What’s alarming about this is that credible media organisations, for all their faults, remain the best place for understanding our world. They’re composed of trained journalists who adhere to strict standards and ethics, with principles such as truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability³. I’m not talking about infotainment organisations like Fox News, who despite their name, are incapable of producing anything remotely close to valuable news. I’m talking about news organisations with a proven history of factual, evidence-based reporting, who use credible, cited sources, and base each story on the most critical information for the reader; the newspapers that have been around for centuries, with cabinets full of Pulitzer prizes—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the BBC, to name a few. Despite having corporate owners whose business interests don’t always align with those of the journalists themselves, their stellar reputations position them as the most skilled public informers of the Western world.
Trump supporters don’t see them that way, and in their craving to consume news and understand the world around them, they turn to the Internet instead, a place where anyone can create a beautifully-designed professional website and publish their own version of the news. If they’re a half-decent writer, they can even make it sound credible. But these people are missing two key components critical to accurate reporting: journalistic standards, and the affiliation of a reputable news organisation. The Republicans that I talked to on Twitter sent me links to various different websites, which I’ll list in their entirety
Breitbart News, a far-right news syndicator which according to Wikipedia, publishes “a number of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and intentionally misleading stories³.” In 2017, the website’s editor Alex Marlow admitted that the website skews its coverage to protect President Trump⁴.
RT, a Russian government-funded television network (formerly called Russia Today).
The Western Journal, a conversative news site that is blacklisted by Google and Apple News for its blatant inaccuracy⁸.
Human Events,a conservative newspaper and website, which according to owner Raheem Kassam (former editor of Breitbart News), has ambitions to create a MAGAzine⁷. Wikipedia believes the stories to be “generally unreliable” and doesn’t recommend using them as a source in their listings³.
The Political Insider,a conservative news website which in 2015, to damage Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, published a fake picture of Bill Clinton receiving a massage from a woman⁵. They also base entire stories on quotes from Fox News hosts⁶.
Gateway Pundit, a far-right news website whose mission is to “expose the wickedness of the left,” and does so by promoting conspiracy theories. Wikipedia won’t use the site for sources under any circumstances, stating its history for “publishing hoax articles and reporting conspiracy theories as fact³.”
The Daily Wire, a right-wing conservative news site founded by Ben Shapiro, which has a history of failing to verify stories, and taking them out of context⁹. Wikipedia won’t allow sources from the site unless “outside of exceptional circumstances³.”
PragerU, a conservative media organisation that creates political, economic, and philosophical videos. The company has a history of conflicts with YouTube, Google, and Facebook over its content. It once posted a climate change denial video that uses a classic data trick to mislead viewers¹⁰.
New York Post, a right-wing newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. Wikipedia cautions against using sources for the paper, preferring “more reliable sources when available³.”
They also provided links from the Daily Kos, Breaking 911, and Powerline, whose credibility was more difficult to confirm.
While the sample of data is too small to be an accurate analysis of a typical Republican’s news sources, the vast majority of Republicans I spoke to provided news sources that were from inaccurate or blatantly misleading media websites, which in their words, could “wake me up” from my debilitating naivety if I gave them a chance. This is disturbing. Our understanding of reality is based on being told the truth, and the small cross-section of Republicans who I spoke to were forming their version of reality from websites that published inaccurate or misleading news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. The humour they derived from Trump’s trolling of the press was based on the idea that journalists create nothing but fake news, when almost every single news source they sent me was guilty of doing exactly that. The irony of this would be funny if the implications weren’t so severe—a warped version of reality in which liberals are deluded sheep, the press are the enemy, and Donald Trump is the greatest leader in the history of America. With the free press an undoubtable puppet of a malevolent, Democratic Deep State looking to usurp their beloved President, they get their news from paranoid, right-wing bloggers without the slightest idea of how to be good journalists.
Non-journalists can report the news, but they’re unlikely to report it to the standards of trained journalists who work for reputable media organisations. There’s no question that an article from the New York Times is more trustworthy than an article from Breibart News. It doesn’t matter that the Times is liberal and Breibart conservative—facts are facts. While the Times article may include language sympathetic to liberal ideals, which can influence the reader’s political viewpoint and shift them along the spectrum, it’s still rooted in fact. On the occasion that a reputable newspaper like the Times publishes inaccurate stories (like when reporter Jayson Blair was caught plagiarising), it’s big news because of their stellar reputation. People don’t make a fuss when Breibart News produce inaccurate stories, because they have a history of doing exactly that.
One polite and thoughtful person told me about his mistrust of the press, pointing out that a large majority of the US media is owned by just six corporations, an interesting point if you believe that the media have an underlying agenda pushed by their corporate overlords. This idea is backed by a controversial book from the 80’s called Manufacturing Consent, in which Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomsky describe a media that is part of a wider ideological framework, controlled by elite interests. While Chomsky still holds this position, he laments one of the book’s effects in a 2018 interview with author Matt Taibbi:
“I think one of the unfortunate effects of Manufacturing Consent is that a lot of people who’ve read it say, ‘Well, we can’t trust the media.’ But that’s not exactly what it said. If you want to get information, sure, read the New York Times, but read it with your eyes open. With a critical mind. The Times is full of facts.”
As one of the foremost intellectuals in the world, Chomsky’s position is worryingly close to the traditional, non-Trump-related idea of a controlling Deep State, a group that he prefers to call the “masters of the universe.” A comparison of the conspiracy theory compared to Chomsky and Herman’s position is outside the scope of this article, but if the authors of the book are to be believed, there truly is an elite class who sets an agenda for the press. This doesn’t turn hard-found facts by journalists into lies, but it does have an impact on the stories that they choose to report. For Chomsky, we should still get our facts from credible media companies like The New York Times, but remain skeptical about why the article has been written and chosen by the paper’s editors. Our choice of news remains between credible journalists who report facts, or news websites with a history of deception.
I’m sure there’s plenty of informed Republicans out there who get their news from credible sources, but this wasn’t the case for the people I spoke to on Twitter. They had a deep mistrust of what they call the “mainstream media,” which seemed a convenient way to group every media company together in order to stereotype it, and reinforce their beliefs. For these Republicans, getting a balanced view of the news is impossible because they don’t trust the news in the first place, instead choosing to get their information from shady, dishonest websites. They become trapped in an echo chamber of hateful vitriol, and because of their inherent tribalism and tendency for confirmation bias, escaping seems impossible.
As for Trump himself, pushing the Deep State conspiracy theory is a convenient way to undermine the credibility of a press that exposes his wrongdoing. Every whine of a “deep state” or “fake news” is an attempt to worm away from the uncomfortable facts, and to cast blame when he doesn’t get his way. For his supporters, it strengthens the idea that the press are a malicious and vengeful force of bandits who can’t be trusted. They’d wouldn’t be seen dead reading a copy of The Washington Post.
There’s no firm grip on reality without truth, and in a world where Trump supporters form their opinions from deceitful, inaccurate news, they’re plummeting deeper into dangerous fantasy, where lies are truth, truth are lies, and the rabbit hole is inescapable.
It’s difficult to find someone more refreshingly forthright, and with such clarity of expression, than American writing teacher John Gardner. After a long and successful teaching career, Gardner penned a book on how to write great stories—The Art of Fiction—which is held in high acclaim for its precision and effectiveness as a writing guide. As the title suggests, the book’s primary goal is to offer advice on how to write great fiction, though many of its lessons extend to writing in general, making the book a goldmine of knowledge for writers. Though often loftily arrogant and overly critical, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner attempts to improve our writing abilities, with resounding success.
For Gardner, a key component of quality, captivating writing is the author’s ability to produce clear images in the reader’s imagination, by using vivid and tangible real-world language.
“A scene will not be vivid if the writer gives too few details to stir and guide the reader’s imagination; neither will it be vivid if the language the writer uses is abstract instead of concrete. If the writer says ‘creatures’ instead of ‘snakes,’ if in an attempt to impress with with fancy talk he uses Latinate terms like ‘hostile manuevers’ instead of sharp Anglo-Saxon words like ‘thrash,’ ‘coil,’ ‘spit,’ ‘hiss,’ and ‘writhe,’ if instead of the desert’s sand and rocks he speaks of the snakes’ ‘inhospitable abode,’ the reader will hardly know what picture of conjure up on his mental screen. These two faults, insufficient detail and abstraction where what is needed is concrete detail, are common—in fact all but universal—in amateur writing.”—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Where possible, writing should evoke discernible imagery in the mind of the reader, who is being led on a curious journey, sentence-by-sentence. Writing that lacks concrete imagery can be dreadfully dull, like reading a scientific thesis concerned only with the driest and most serious of matters. One of the joys of experiencing great writing is the process of having your head filled with colourful, vibrant imagery, constantly twisting and warping anew, a compelling, elemental topic threaded through the entire process. Expository writing – the style used to explain concepts – becomes alluring when vivid language is used. This doesn’t mean that every sentence must be packed with dramatic, intense imagery, as though narrating an edge-of-seat thriller, but should rather be peppered with the occasional rich example to keep things interesting. This also makes writing itself more pleasurable, urging us to return to our desks to gleefully bash out another thousand-word masterpiece.
Colourful detail is important because it transports us to a place of ethereal wonder – a dream within our own minds, that we happily traverse in the hope of discovering something treasured.
“If we carefully inspect our physical experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.”—John Gardner
We cannot expect to create an enchanting dream for our reader with a limited vocabulary, or by repeating the same words over and over. A dazzling piece of work will be infused with a great variety of words, chosen not just for their precise meaning, but also for their sing-song rhythm and visual vividness. Stunted vocabulary only gets us so far.
“Limited vocabulary, like short legs on a pole-vaulter, builds in a natural barrier to progress beyond a certain point.”—John Gardner
Another aspect to be toyed and experimented with is sentence length, which can affect the rhythm and emotion of your writing, depending on the desired effect.
“Short sentences give other effects. Also sentence fragments. They can be trenchant, punchy. They can suggest weariness. They can increase the drabness of a drab scene. Used for an unworthy reason, as here, they can be boring. Between these extremes, the endless sentence and the very short sentence, lies a world of variation, a world every writer must eventually explore.”—John Gardner
“By keeping out a careful ear for rhythm, the writer can control the emotion of his sentences with considerable subtlety.”—John Gardner
Though it’s difficult for us to explain why, sometimes we write a sentence that just feels right, sitting snugly within our work, with a level of comfort so elevated as to make us envious. If we’re dissatisfied with a sentence, for the sake of becoming better writers, we must commit the time to ruthless splitting and reworking, until we’ve created something with greater clarity and appeal. With steady practice comes mastery.
“Turning sentences around, trying various combinations of the fundamental elements, will prove invaluable in the end, not just because it leads to better sentences but also because over the years it teaches certain basic ways of fixing rhythm that will work again on other, superficially quite dissimilar sentences. I don’t know myself—and I suspect most writers would say the same—what it is that I do, what formulas I use for switching bad sentences around to make better ones; but I do it all the time, less laboriously every year, trying to creep up on the best ways of getting things said.”—John Gardner
Technical skill isn’t the only thing required to become a masterful writer. We must take the time to satiate our heads with the insightful musings of others, sparking neurological connections and creating something new. As with the process of writing itself, if we have any desire to become experts, this requires relentless practice.
“In order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.”—John Gardner
A curious disposition is advantageous to the writer, as it causes her to seek out valuable sources of information, drink them in fully, and becoming a more rounded, knowledgeable human, with better worldly awareness and emotional intelligence. Interesting people are interested people – an essential trait of the writer who wants to create compelling work.
“Part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values can we affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are.”—John Gardner
“Anything we read for pleasure we read because it interests us. One would think, since this is so, that the first question any young writer would ask himself, when he’s trying to decide what to write, what be ‘What can I think of that’s interesting?'”—John Gardner
Throwing ourselves into the world with courageous zeal, tasting every experience, and committing fully to our lives (the good and the bad,) helps to develop an intricate, multi-faceted character, filled with wisdom, lending an unmistakable magic to our writing. We’re able to understand the world, offering insightful, original, and resonant frames of reference for our readers.
“On reflection we see that the great writer’s authority consists of two elements. The first we may call, loosely, his sane humanness; that is, his trustworthiness as a judge of things, a stability rooted in the sum of those complex qualities of his character and personality (wisdom, generosity, compassion, strength of will) to which we respond, as we respond to what is best in our friends, with instant recognition and admiration, saying, “Yes, you’re right, that’s how it is!” The second element, or perhaps I should say force, is the writer’s absolute trust (not blind faith) in his own aesthetic judgments and instincts, a trust grounded partly in his intelligence and sensitivity—his ability to perceive and understand the world around him—and partly in his experience as a craftsman; that is (by his own harsh standards), his knowledge, drawn from long practice, of what will work and what will not.”—John Gardner
John Gardner’s The Art of Fictionis filled with gems, which the studious writer can use to become a more skilled and engaging artist. With the right knowledge, a ton of effort, and a little help from Gardner, we can gradually ascend to mastery within our field.
Our humble, trusting paragraphs, an essential component of quality writing, have been led into dark alleys by content-producing “experts”, and found themselves mutilated. Once a solid, distinguishable group of ideas with the purpose of demarcating meaning, the paragraph is now an amputated, unrecognisable mess, writhing on the page while surrounded by its detached, isolated limbs, as though Hannibal Lecter decided to pursue his passion as an editor.
It’s hard to resist the advice of the so-called experts, who boast tens of thousands of Medium followers, and claim to earn thousands of dollars from writing. We want to be successful too, and we’ll try whatever it takes to get there. But when you become successful by altering an essential component of writing – a rule crucial to reading comprehension – you may be a personal success, but you’ve failed everyone else. You’re strengthening our abhorrent quick consumption culture, which is more interested in cherry-picking short, sharp sentences from an article, and so losing the coherence required to properly understand it. We cannot scan an article and expect to comprehend and retain the information fully, appreciate the rhyme of the sentences, or indulge in the vividness of a beautifully descriptive word. Scanning is fine for simplistic, dull writing, but untenable for properly-written pieces. Our desperation for expeditious success is folly – the more frantic our pace, the less we retain. Rather than finishing an article with an entrenched, meaningful idea, we’re left with disjointed bits of incoherent information, carelessly flung into our brain.
A paragraph is determined by a group of related ideas. It cannot be cleaved into smaller pieces without affecting the quality of the writing, or impairing the reader’s ability to understand your intention. If you’re targeting cherry-picking scanners, maiming the paragraph might be a suitable approach for you. But if you’re a writer who wants to produce unhindered, precise content – conveying your ideas perfectly while being a joy to read – don’t listen to the success-at-all-costs charlatans who advocate shorter paragraphs. Their unallayed ambition is wreaking havoc on popular online writing, with impressionable, aspiring writers copying the technique in the hope of becoming successful, contributing to the disfigurement of our once-wonderful art, and making the world a bit more stupid.
It’s woefully distasteful to read an article that is mashed up like a dog’s dinner. The thread of our understanding is cut, discarded, temporarily lost, and we scramble for it like blind fools, finally locating it, only to lose it again during the next “paragraph.” Though the writer may be bursting with good ideas, their failed and misguided execution ruins the reading experience – an encounter that might have been blissfully satisfying. It’s a tragic situation for both writer and reader – the former being encouraged to convey their valuable ideas in a handicapped way, and the latter being deprived of an enjoyable and instructive spell of reading.
An article is not the same thing as a tweet or a Facebook post, and shouldn’t be written as such. It’s a collection of ideas under a common topic, carefully and thoughtfully expounded. Appropriately-sized paragraphs are essential to communicate an idea properly – what is writing if not a method to transmit ideas? What does it become after being butchered by dollar-hungry content frauds?
It’s time for us to collect the remains of our precious paragraphs from the crime scene floor, throw on our scrubs, and like skillful surgeons, stitch them back together into healthy, related units of information. Their treatment has been grievously unfair, and it’s our responsibility to restore them to their former wondrous glory, so that our treasured ideas can be fully comprehended once again.