What do you do with the information that several hundred children have been killed or wounded to make a point? There are two things we know for sure:
Once you accept those obvious points, you then must decide what you can do. I’d like to avoid the blogger’s conceit: the absurdity that what’s written here might affect large numbers of people or somehow sway the body politic. No, the little clique of people around this virtual water cooler have more constrained choices. We need to do something that matches our time, energy and money.
One thing we can do is send some money for relief in Beslan, where 335 people, mostly children, were killed by terrorists, and even more hospitalized. Donovan Janus pointed me to Moscow Help.org, which says it has collected $196,082 in 2-1/2 days. I looked over the site and, for about 15 seconds, my cautious wimp within locked on to the fact that the site is half in Russian and half in English, apparently set up by expatriate Russians, mostly in the Philadelphia area. This is the kind of thing that can put a cynical person off.
But what kind of a response is that? Is one to remain ordinary in extraordinary times? No. In every crisis, there’s no end to the reasons to not act. The bright side of our post-9/11 dystopia is the reason to reach across the miles and transmit a signal that you care. So, after just a bit of due diligence, I ignored that small-minded person and clicked on one of their PayPal icons, which I provide here for your convenience. Or, you can start at the home page of the site and arrive at the following in due course (I left off the next row of donation amounts. You can’t blame them for keeping our options open):
We’re living in a Chinese curse, for sure. There are few things each of us can do, but the most interesting thing is certainly not the money, but the act of reaching out to others. Imagine with me an autumn when Americans reach out to the people of Beslan and Ossetia and find a way to communicate with them, not about death but about their lives. Perhaps the families of 9/11 victims could do the reaching. Where’s the sister city program when we need it? Where is the web service to make that more than possible–to make it obvious and compelling?
Well one thing we bloggers can do, is hope that people do reach out and, when good news comes out of this tragedy, to make as much of it as possible. Most of the news in the world is good, so why not make the most of it? In fact, could the blogosphere play a role in putting more good news on the front page?
That’s a question worth answering.
We’ve got Bad News and we’ve got Good News
I’ll take the good news.
Aside from the irritant that it doesn’t sell advertising, good news has much to recommend it. Good news is:
Discovering good news in scary events is hard work–perhaps the most creative human act after childbearing, which is the essence of good news. It’s hard because we’re not wired to embrace good news if there’s even a shred of bad news to attend to. So, while we’re each yearning for good news as a foil to our sack o’ woe, the payoff to our “content providers” when they deliver what we don’t want to hear is so great that there’s no room for what we don’t want to hear.
Programmers and producers yearn for the good news of more ad sales, which they get by giving us what we don’t want but which our reptile brain compels us to attend to.
At Spirit of America, Jim Hake has carved out a remarkable niche in the good news market space. Not only does Spirit of America receive full funding for our requests for health, school and sports supplies, we received 1500% funding of a $100,000 initiative to deliver good news in Iraq. It was an over-the-top response to a $100,000 appeal that seemed aggressive last April. Clearly, something important is going on here. Spirit of America is an expression of Jim’s urge to do something magnificent in this world, and it’s working. Jim sees the delivery of good news as a humanitarian opportunity, but some see it as a business opportunity.
Good Apples News Service – GANS
Like Jim Hake, Tom Munnecke is a visionary, though he’s not yet as well known. I think his contribution is already true though it hasn’t happened yet. Tom did extremely well in the business world by developing hospital management software, and now he wants to prove a point, inverting an old saying: that a few
I missed the first half day of the Munnecke-Omidyar meeting. As I walked in, I heard Tom mention an idea that had emerged the night before: a Good Apples News Service. Pre-conditioned by my belief in his good apples doctrine, the phrase immediately got traction for me. Wow! Here’s an idea whose time is overdue.
From there, it was obvious what the opportunity is: leverage the collective on-the-ground reporting of the audience that won’t shut up – bloggers – to distribute professional quality content to traditional outlets: the papers and broadcasters who are now hostage to the selective reporting of the established news services: Reuters, Associated Press, etc. This idea has the legs to go far because, like most ‘Net-based disrupters, it has a radically reduced cost basis and a far greater reach.
Cocktail Napkin, meet Business Plan
So let’s game this out a bit. What does a News Service do, what will a new one require and what will those resources cost? Here’s what I think is required:
That seems straightforward enough, but we’ve left unanswered a crucial question. What’s good news? Like art, we may not be able to define it, but we know what we like. That’s good enough for the readers, but a little weak for a business. Interestingly, Tom Mandel and I separately leapt to the same conclusion:
Good News is actionable.
Now that’s a metric you can build into your mission statement. Some stories may sound like bad news, but if the reader can take an immediate action to improve the situation, then it’s good news.
So what would the business process look like? I think it’s a funnel maintained by professionals, filled with amateur work, lovingly crafted, vetted by other amateurs and professionals, and refined into quality journalism with the speed and competence of a Linux bug fix or a Wikipedia update:
Well, it’s a start. A few of us will continue to push on this notion and, if it has the legs I think it does, maybe we can turn it into a little enterprise with the usual desired characteristics: vanishingly low overhead, no fixed costs, global potential and unlimited scalability. All that with the purpose, if GANS succeeds, to fundamentally improve the perceptual foundations on which society makes choices.
Other than that, GANS has little going for it.
Dragons of Eden
In 1978, I discovered what made me tic by reading Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden. In it I learned that I had a triune brain: 3 layers of mind overlayed on the spinal cord by evolution but, unlike the tail we each sport in the womb, all the pieces are in daily use. In order of their evolution, they are the reptile brain, the mammal brain and the human brain. Some call them the reticular formation, the paleomammalian brain and the neo cortex. Whatever you call these levels, they each have unique biologies and modus operandi.
The reptile brain has no emotions. It takes in all sensory input, makes very rapid calculations and reacts to threat first and opportunity second. This is the mechanism that was designed to detect the difference between the sound of a branch cracked by a 2-ton carnivore from the sound of a branch cracked by a 2-ton herbivore. Conditioned by its environment, it now alerts us to stock market collapses and a slight distancing in our lover’s voice, even over a cell phone. It would be easy to dismiss this most primitive of functions, until we realize that every shred of sensory data is filtered through it, and only the information deemed useful even has a chance for further processing. Also, even though the reptile brain is only about as big as your forefinger, it has 70% of your brain cells. That’s why its bias for threats over opportunities is important to news editors and politicians.
The next layer, added by early mammalian life, is sometimes called the cat brain, because it’s the one they use. It takes the information deemed as useful by the reptile brain and colors it through the use of neurotransmitters and hormones. A reptile is savage, yes, but in a kind of detached way, which the paleomammalian is able to kick up a notch. This brain is what gives meaning to a bitch in heat. If you’re looking for Mr. Hyde, this is where you’ll find him. We’ve all heard the sound of the cat brain at work, under our window on a warm night. Fortunately, this bad boy is only able to act on the information passed to it from the senses, through the reptile brain. In some persons, it’s even moderated by the neo cortex. I’m still waiting for that feature to kick in.
The human neo cortex, in theory at least, calls on prior learning and objective processing to weigh options and make better decisions. Remember this the next time you get into a political discussion. The reason our fancy brain doesn’t work so well in political mode is its amazing lack of evidence, since the reptile brain pays more attention to office and bedroom politics and spun-for-TV sound bites than to news that matters and arcane issues of governance and human potential. Of course the cat brain is happy to provide all the emotion needed to get both parties lathered up over information they don’t have, since their respective brands of disinformation have been packaged and delivered so skillfully by the prosperous fear mongers on the nightly news.
It’s all the dragon’s fault. If something seems scary (suggested by tone of voice, excitement, stridency and sound track), our unblinking lizard brain pays close attention, while ignoring the more relevant news: green grass, skies of blue; people all around us, saying how d’ya do.
They’re just sayin’ I love you.