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The Age of Hyper-cynicism

Simon Cooper

Anthony Giddens recently stated:

I doubt that corruption is more common in democratic countries than it used to be — rather, in an information society it is more visible than it used to be. The emergence of a global information society is a powerful democratising force.

Yet one can’t help feeling that the opposite is in fact more likely — that corruption is more common, that it is symptomatic of neo-liberal forms of government (not merely more visible), and that rather than being a democratic force the information society creates a widespread culture of cynicism where individuals customise their information-worlds as much as they do other parts of their life. The fact that Giddens is advisor to the Blair Government — the master of political ‘spin’ — is perhaps itself enough to invite cynicism.

There’s always been a link between trust, knowledge and civil society. What we regard as ‘truth’ depends on a degree of trust, as it is impossible to personally verify all that we come to ‘know’. Furthermore, social cohesion is predicated upon a degree of faith in others. Wittgenstein remarked that ‘scepticism can only be carried so far before it collapses in the face of our commitment to a shared way of acting’. The more we inhabit an information society, however, the less tangible are our relations to the others that provide knowledge. In the absence of face-to-face encounters we need to rely upon the credibility of public authorities and institutions in order to know and engage with the world. However, in the wake of recent events, our trust in those who generate such knowledge is fast disappearing.

Information released into the public realm seems increasingly tainted by commercial or political interests. In the past few weeks we have seen the return of the ‘cash for comment’ affair — the fawning letters written to Alan Jones by David Flint and Dana Vale indicate the uncomfortably close relationship between broadcasters, politicians, big business and the bodies supposed to regulate their behaviour. Elsewhere, intelligence agencies are under fire after their blunders over Iraq, yet the response by governments seems incredibly cynical. The complaints made by Lt Colonel Lance Collins about the politicisation of Australia’s intelligence services have generated multiple inquiries, their opposing findings selectively used by the Federal Government. In the UK Tony Blair has done nothing to allay fears about the manipulation of intelligence by appointing John Scarlett, the man held responsible for the notorious ‘Iraq WMD Dossier’, as the next head of MI6.

Yet the idea of a ‘conflict of interest’, the disclosure of which ought to make us wary of the credibility of any information proffered, has itself undergone a transformation. Traditionally, it didn’t matter how honest an individual might be, the mere possibility of conflict was enough to prevent one from occupying certain public or financial positions. Increasingly today we judge whether there is a conflict of interest by examining whether the individual seems capable of rising above the conflict. Thus David Flint is able (up to a point) to escape charges of a conflict of interest as ABA chairman simply by the claim that he is an ethical individual who can remain unbiased despite being close to figures such as Jones and the PM. The same can be said for Australia’s chief scientist Robin Batterham, who is apparently able to be the chief technologist for Rio Tinto and advise the government on environmental policy (which is, coincidently, pro fossil fuels). More generally, the act of ‘disclosure’, — whether by journalists on a publicity junket, or scientists announcing the results of commercially funded research — may satisfy the minimum standard of ethics for those in the knowledge industry, but hardly allows us to trust the information provided.

Why has this transformation become largely acceptable? One reason may lie in the fact that increasingly we are all called upon to manage contradictory elements in our own lives.

Contemporary work increasingly relies on the production of the ‘entrepreneurial personality’, a self that is able to shift identities and postures in order to deal with the rapidly changing contexts of work and life. Leisure time is increasingly generated through the shifting signs of media and information culture — the result being the adoption of a flexible and transient identity. The modern integral personality is replaced by a set of multiple and fleeting subject-positions suited to the rapidly changing contexts of work and life. Contradiction no longer results in a violent assault upon one’s being. Instead it is a temporary problem to be managed. Thus when individuals with a clear conflict of interest claim that they are able to radically compartmentalise different aspects of their being in order to ‘do the job’, this resonates in some way with common experience.

Certainly, the ‘unmasking’ of commercial and/or political interests no longer seems to carry the force of outrage that it did in modernity. If social theory has argued for the ‘interested’ nature of much knowledge, social life has revealed the partisan quality of information in cruder ways. This ‘loss of innocence’ has occurred so rapidly that it is difficult to register the scope of the shift. The transformation of much of what constituted ‘hard news’ into lifestyle information has been accompanied by the sponsorship of such information — reports on travel, dining and health issues are increasingly commercially funded. Public sphere debates over education, science policy or free-trade are often carried out by privately funded think-tanks whose shadowy financial backers are enough to make one ask whether their agendas are entirely commensurate with the quest for truth. At a more fundamental level, the notion of disinterested inquiry or the pursuit of knowledge in the public’s interest has all but disappeared, as ‘pure’ research within universities disappears in the quest for profits.

If no longer a surprise, the corruption of knowledge by politics or commerce may be more significant than we think. It impacts upon how we come to manage the ‘risk society’ in terms of making decisions about health and safety for example, but also generates a culture-shift with respect to that society more generally. The first is illustrated by the example of medical research, where almost every sphere of activity has been co-opted by commercial interests.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Richard Houghton observes that:

Scientific journals … are owned by publishers and scientific societies that derive and demand huge earnings from advertising from drug companies and from the sale of commercially valuable content … I have attended medical conferences at which I have been urged to publish more favourable views of the pharmaceutical industry.

Houghton notes that many conferences have airfares, registration fees, entertainment and accommodation paid for by corporate sponsors, in return for being able to display promotional material. Houghton notes that:

In order for science to be reported and discussed among a professional society’s membership, sponsors will be given free rein to market their products to attending physicians … any claim that science and the practice of medicine are disinterested is utterly groundless.

Indeed the New England Journal of Medicine has revealed that scientists who argue in favour of a particular product are more likely to have a financial stake in the company funding research into that product than colleagues who have no interest.

The commercialisation of research transforms scientific practice in other ways, too. New findings become commercial property and are withheld from other researchers. Not only does this reduce the advancement of science by limiting the possibility of collaboration, it also means that findings are often not subject to sufficient scrutiny, as trial data is not released to the wider scientific community for further tests. The now-famous example of Nancy Olivieri serves as a case in point. Olivieri’s research on a drug for blood disorders was partly sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. When she discovered that the drug had potentially dangerous side effects, she wanted to publish her findings and warn patients using the drug, only to be threatened by legal action by the company, fired from the hospital she worked at, and ignored by her university (which was at the time lobbying the same company for a large cash donation to the campus).

Just as ‘spin’ seems not merely an aberration, but endemic to neo-liberal politics, so too the corruption of science lies at the heart of the commercial process, not merely at the hands of a few unethical individuals. The commercialisation of such information is clearly a public-safety issue when considering medicine, the environment or genetic engineering; but equally importantly we need to ask what the cultural effect is of a society where less and less information we receive seems credible. If the crucial problem (most prominent in the 60s) of cultural and aesthetic ‘alienation’ has been partly ameliorated by the rise of the media/information society, one consequence has been a further alienation from the political process. It is worth noting that many examples of deception, manipulation, fragmentary truths and spin have occurred in the generation of intense but transient spectacles — from Clinton’s sexual exploits, to ‘children overboard’ right through Iraq and WMD. Such spectacles may engage and divide people, but they help mask the fact that the major political parties have become virtually indistinguishable and the neo-liberal project continues unabated.

The decline of trust in the public institutions of knowledge — science, journalism, government — can only make us seek solace in more private and consumerist forms of information. The sheer range of information choices means that we can generate a meaningful life-world outside of the public sphere. A widespread cynicism about information results in a ‘knowing’ customisation of what information is suitable for us. Any shared sense of what we know (along with the capacity for public debate to challenge and change us) fragments and culture generally starts to resemble a giant ‘blogosphere’ — intense groups of like-minded interest — with all the intolerance that can occur within that sphere. The solution doesn’t lie with naive connections between information and democracy à la Giddens. Nor does it simply involve the project of ‘unmasking’ the partisan interests behind knowledge. Rather, it involves understanding the multi-faceted way in which the corruption of public knowledge lies at the heart of market societies rather than being a distortion of them.

 

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.