Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Sound-bite communications and too much brevity

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While I have recently criticized older writers for being overly wordy, some modern forms of writing and whatnot is a greater evil: Those that fail to inform or, worse, actually mis-inform, through reducing communication to tidbits without context.

Consider e.g. a typical modern documentary: Someone with some connection to the topic is allowed to say a single sentence, taken entirely out of the original context*. There is a cut to the next person with some connection to the topic, who is also allowed to say a single sentence. There is a cut [etc., etc.] This goes on for five or ten minutes—and what happens after that I frankly do not know, because I have already turned the documentary off… To make matters worse, the connection is not necessarily very strong and the single sentences are often uninformative irrespective of context. At extremes, a documentary about a film-maker can start off with single sentences by people who at some point made a single film with him—or merely share the same field. (But happen to be quite famous…) The sentences themselves can then amount to “He is the greatest!”, “I loved working with him!”, and similar.

*From the optics, this context is usually a longer interview, which would, likely, have been more interesting to begin with. True, such interviews are rarely entertaining, but there is something to be learned and understood—and the point of a documentary is to give that opportunity. For entertainment, pick a good sit-com, action movie, or whatever the current mood calls for.

Note that it is very hard to say something sensible with a single sentence, even when that sentence is targeted to the purpose (not just torn out of context). Look e.g. at the immediately preceding sentence: It does a far better job than the aforementioned and is comparatively long, but it is still just a piece of the overall text. Consider how it would read without the context of the overall discussion or note how it would be just a claim without any support for its truth.*

*This is, admittedly, a situation that can be hard to avoid even in a full text, and not always something that I pay great attention to. A major complications is that what might seem self-evident to one person is not so to the next, e.g. because they have different levels of expertise or because their priorities differ. Another is that the overall text might give enough support when enough time is spent thinking, but that the reader will not necessarily be aware of this (or willing to put in the time, or smart enough), while the writer might be too stuck in his own context to realize that there are things that might better be spelled out. Even so, a larger block of text is almost always better than just a single statement.

Or take the reverse approach and contrast “He is the greatest!” with “He revolutionized the use of camera angles and I have never known a film-maker with such a drive for perfection. I was particularly impressed with his movie X, e.g. the scene where […]”: The former is just a sound-good/feel-good claim; the latter allows the viewer/reader/… to gain some insight, make his own verifications, find other sources of information, whatnot—e.g. through watching movie X with particular attention to the mentioned scene and/or camera angles.

The lack of context can even make claims misleading. For instance, “I loved working with him!” might have been exclaimed after an early successful collaboration, and does not necessarily reflect feelings after a later collaboration that lead to a major falling out—and knowing why the feelings were positive can have a massive impact on interpretation. (Did he make the experience pleasant or entertaining? Did he share insights into film-making that improved the speaker’s own abilities? Did he behave professionally when others might have exploded in anger? …) Similarly, “greatest” need not refer to the film-maker as a film maker—it might have been as a friend, a person, a philanthropist, boxer, or even be referring to physical size. (Other examples can be more subtle, while being vulnerable to similar objections.)

Somewhat overlapping, these single sentences are almost always lacking in nuance and have a tendency towards the hyperbolic—I have yet to hear “X is on my top-ten list, slightly behind Bergman. I waver between him and Fellini for eighth place.”, which presumably is not cool enough for a modern documentary.

I am left with the impression that the documentary makers just try to pump out a certain number of minutes of screen time (never mind its value per minute) and resort to a way that allows even those void of skill to produce those minutes. Possibly, a secondary, highly populist, concern can play in: To allow mindless viewers to get some degree of entertainment, e.g. through rapid changes (never mind that the result is unusable for those with a brain or a genuine interest—those for which documentaries should be made).

The problems are by no means limited to documentaries, however. For instance, there are many journalistic “articles” on the web, especially sport-centric, that consist of as many Twitter-quotes as own text… No analysis, no details, no information—just superficial impressions or sound-bite claims by others. My concerns are similar, as is my lack of enjoyment. I am certainly not informed by such crap.

Twitter, it self, is an obvious further example: If someone wants to inform the world that “I am going to the loo! Yaaay!”, Twitter might be an appropriate medium. For readers and writers looking for something with more substance, it is not a good choice.

Politics (especially Left/PC populist) and advertising are, unsurprisingly, other common sources of examples. Consider e.g. the utterly despicable pro-abortion argument (using the word loosely) “It is my body!”. Not only does this anti-intellectually reduce a very complicated* ethical question to a mere slogan, but this slogan is also extremely misleading—the main reason why this question is so tricky is exactly that it is not “my” (i.e. the current woman’s) body that is the main issue! The main issue is the body of the fetus, and involves sub-issues like when this body should be considered a human and when a disposable something else—which in turn involves medical, philosophical, and (for non-atheists) religious considerations. (Other issues not addressed by this slogan include whether and to what degree the interests of the father** and the grand-parents might need consideration and what the medical professionals consider compatible with their own conscience and religion. At the same time, it fails to use the single strongest pro-abortion argument, i.e. the medical risks resulting from illegal abortions.)

*So complicated that I have no clear opinion on the matter: I do not argue “pro-life” here—I argue against useless, illogical, intellectually dishonest, whatnot argumentation and cheap sloganeering.

**Including the negative direction, since he is usually forced to pay for the child when no abortion takes place.

Excursion on depth in general, especially regarding school:
As I have noticed again and again after leaving school*, what passes for education is often sufficiently superficial to be near useless—sometimes, even dangerous. The same can be said about much news reporting (even when the extreme cases above are discounted). Generally, society is filled with shallow information and a shallower understanding—while most people fail to understand that they know and understand very little. School amounts to twelve-or-so years of superficial orientation on most topics, where it would have been better to dig deeper into more select areas. History is possibly the topic in which this is the most obvious. Look at a typical school text on history, consider how many pages are spent on what topics, and then compare this amount of text with e.g. the Wikipedia article on the same topic—and compare the amount of depth, thought, analysis, whatnot. Reading the Wikipedia article once or twice and forgetting ninety-five percent of the data (but not insight!) will usually be more valuable than even memorizing the school text.

*Somewhat similar arguments apply to higher education too, but to a lesser degree and with more honesty: Achieving a diploma is somewhat comparable to getting a driver’s license—proof that someone is fit to enter traffic, but still trailing severely compared to what is expected ten or twenty years down the line. School, in comparison, often amounts to the knowledge that a car has four wheels and uses gasoline—superficial, border-line useless, and ignoring other numbers of wheels and other energy sources.

Excursion on “likes”:
It could be argued that “likes” takes this type of mis-communication to its purest extreme (or it could be argued to be another topic entirely). Consider e.g. the lack of a motivation why something was “liked”; the uncertainty of whether the text/video/whatnot was viewed as high-quality or whether it was the message that was approved; the typical inability to “dislike” something; the pressure some might feel to “like” as a form of payment (or the hope of getting “likes” in return, or the fear of disappointing a friend, …); etc.

Excursion on neglecting core groups:
Documentaries and entertainment (cf. above) is just a special case of a very disturbing tendency of neglecting the core group (traditional target/raison d’être/whatnot audience), for which something should be made, in favor of the great masses—failing to realize the betrayal implied, the damage done, and that it might be more profitable to hold a large portion of a niche market than a thin sliver of a mass market. A good other example is museums that (at least in Germany) focus so much on populist entertainment that I, as a core-group member, rarely bother to visit one. A particular problem is the drive to include children, even when they gain nothing museum-specific from the visit, and even when their presence is a disturbance to other visitors. For instance, when I lived in Munich, I visited an automotive or vehicle museum—and was ultimately forced to avoid large areas of the museum, lest I flip out. Why? A large part of the museum was occupied by some type of for-children-cinema and a slide—both in immediate vicinity of parts of the exhibition, both entirely lacking sound barriers. To boot, there was an endless stream of children running around and shouting between them. I note both that neither appeared to have any educational value (even discounting the limited value achievable in young children*) and that any hoped for gain in long-term interest in museums (if occurring at all) is outweighed by the adult visitors losing their interest. The true explanation is simply a wish to maximize the number of paying visitors—and education be damned. Other examples include sports’ events going for the ignorant masses, with imbecile commentators, idiotic camera angles, whatnot, and ignoring** those with an interest in and knowledge of the respective sport.

*It is a dangerous myth that children learn better than adults. Even when it comes to raw facts, it is highly disputable. When it comes to gaining an understanding, extrapolating, applying, it is horrendously wrong. See also e.g. [1].

**Note the difference between opening doors for the masses in addition to the core group vs. doing so through locking out the core group.

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 4, 2018 at 9:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] little to help the children and much to ruin the experience for the adult visitors. Cf. e.g. an excursion on neglecting core groups in an earlier […]

  2. […] in the sources that I saw) followed the naive and simplistic “it’s my body” line… To re-iterate my take on the abortion issue: “The main issue is the body of the fetus, and involves sub-issues like when this body should be […]


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