I’ve been thinking recently about the old acronym GIGO; for those of you not old enough or nerdy enough to remember, it stands for “garbage in, garbage out.” It served as an admonition to computer programmers to be sure they were putting in good data, since the computer could only work with what it was given. Garbage in always resulted in garbage out, and that kind of output was useless. This certainly applies to more than computer programming.
A list of my own input sources would look something like this: an album side with my morning tea, a daily email from the New York Times with headlines and a couple of sentences to give some idea of what the article was about, Seth Godin’s daily blog post, an email similar to the NYT from my local paper the News-Sentinel, another from the LA Times, a collection of posts on Facebook, regular conversations with my wife, weekly attendance at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, more or less regular conversations with friends, a DVR assisted dash through the evening news both local and national (one of the major networks), a nightly dose of Jeopardy, various TV offerings, and a little Stephen Colbert in the evening. I read in a variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, and occasionally (but not regularly) listen to a podcast like RadioLab or On Being. There are certainly more, but that’s the regular list.
Some of that is entertainment, some is information, and some is commentary on information. I need to keep reminding myself of that, because the distinctions get blurred, sometimes on purpose. The probability of GIGO goes up significantly if commentary is presented as information, and different types of entertainment present dramatically different world views as a working premise. It would be possible, without too much difficulty, to create a bundle of entertainment that would present the world as a dark and dangerous place, where evil lurks around every corner and almost no one can be trusted. The same is true of commentary as well as information. Conversely, there are information, commentary, and entertainment sources available that convey an image of the world as a place of beauty and hope. And so on.
There are layers and layers beneath the surface of this concept, and I couldn’t possibly work my way through all of them. I think too much anyway, or so I’ve been told. For me, the important idea is that I need to regularly check my sources of information and entertainment to evaluate the garbage factor. This is not easy; like most people, I look for input sources that reinforce the world view I already have, and realizing that one of my sources is at best mistaken or at worst deliberately misleading is as much a comment on me as it is on them. In addition to pointing out my own fallability, that should be a reminder that it’s important to periodically cast a critical eye on my sources.
The poet Jane Hirschfield’s summary of Zen Buddhism in seven words reads like a haiku and, for me, is something to keep in mind at all times:
Everything is connected
I think her words, especially that last line, help me reduce the risk of GIGO in my own life.