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Iran, Technology and Truth: Do You Care If Your Information Is False?

By Rob Enderle
Jun 22, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Whether you're identifying with a religious group, a technology group, or some other group, I often wonder if you truly care if the information you receive is false. If you look at how people flock to Web sites that are obviously on the extreme right or left of an issue, or if you watch debates on abortion or gay marriage -- or even whether the sitting president has a clue -- don't you often get the sense that for many, believing they are right and putting down those who disagree is more important than actually being right?

Iran, Technology and Truth:  Do You Care If Your Information Is False?

If you're following the demonstrations in Iran, do you actually think this is the first election that was corrupt? Or is it likely they all have been -- just that the government did a better job of controlling the perception and the citizens previously were content to accept the result.

For the open source movement, desktop penetration has been an abysmal failure -- yet supporters will pound on you if you point this out. Using Microsoft as an industry example, how many times did we hear that Zune and Vista were a success even though they clearly were not? Can we handle the truth? Do we even want to?

This week's entire column is a lead-in to my product of the week: a noble offering from Intel's Berkeley Lab that seeks to flesh out both sides of an argument to help people get to the truth, even though I question whether most want it.

Iran and Honest Elections

As you watch what's going on in Iran, how much do you actually trust the results of the elections that are held in your own country, state or locale? In most, the majority of people don't actually vote. Under the two-party system in the U.S., even those who do vote virtually never get the chance to vote on who might be the most qualified, capable or honest candidate. Americans get to vote for whomever survives an incredibly difficult and expensive process that -- due to the contributions needed to win -- almost always compromises the winners to some degree. That's because they owe their major contributors a massive debt, and that money generally comes with strings.

In the Bush vs. Gore election, it was pretty clear that something was very wrong with the process. Yet Americans didn't take to the streets in massive numbers or make a nationwide attempt to have the results overturned. Had that occurred, the country might not be in the financial crisis it's in today and probably wouldn't have the Iraq problem to deal with either.

Who actually knows what could have happened? The question is this: Do we really want the truth, or do we want to be comfortable with the reality we are handed?

Apple Example

Think of Apple, for example. The company is on a roll, with some of the strongest margins and sales numbers in its history, but it is also the least transparent company in its segment. From information on its CEO, to upcoming products, to major moves, Apple either doesn't give any advanced information or it gives misleading information and manipulates perceptions in ways that no other company appears willing to do.

Apple practices security by obscurity; it's not that it doesn't have security issues or that it doesn't deal with them. It simply doesn't talk about them, and users trust Apple to deal with whatever problems that exist. The company controls its image vigorously, and Mac fans defend that image to extremes.

The only truth for a Mac fan is what comes from Apple or from another Mac fan. As a result, Apple enjoys some of the highest customer satisfaction levels in the industry. A Mac fan is not a unique version of human, at least as far as I can tell. Mac fans simply showcase a very clear preference for information that is consistent with their word view. The only difference from most others is that a Mac fan's blinders are tuned for technology, as opposed to politics, religion or sexual orientation.

Remember, in some areas and for a long time, if you were to argue the world was round, then you'd be charged with heresy and punished by death, even though the world was clearly round.

Global Warming and Cigarettes

We saw this play out in spades with global warming. It seemed that every independent study confirmed that there was a problem and that it was becoming a threat to the long-term survival of the human race. Yet governments, particularly the U.S. government, blocked real research into the problem because those in power believed strongly that the results weren't true -- and the public largely let them. Al Gore's movie "The Inconvenient Truth" was on point. Global warming was incredibly inconvenient, and so people in power moved heaven and earth to prevent the formation of a global consensus on the issue, even though doing so was directly contrary to their primary goal of protecting their people.

Cigarettes are probably more blatant. It's been known for decades they are addictive killers taking out large sections of the population. Only recently, however, have cigarettes been placed under the FDA's authority in the U.S., and little has been done that's truly meaningful to correct their lethal nature. Those who were addicted to either the product or the massive amounts of money it generated chose their poison or their profits over saving the lives of people in their own families and neighborhoods. For them, the truth was incredibly inconvenient.

Can We Handle the Truth?

Inconvenient or not, do you really want to know the truth about things you believe in strongly? In Iran, it is clear the election process has been corrupt for a long period of time, but only now, because it was rubbed in Iranians' faces, do they seem to care. Had the Iranian government taken a page from Steve Jobs' book, these demonstrations likely would never have happened. I wonder how many Iranians -- or Americans, in a similar situation -- would think that would actually be a better result? Certainly, those who lost loved ones -- or their own lives, if they could be asked -- might think so.

In my own case, I wonder if I would have been vastly happier if I'd never been made aware of the things that got me worked up and sent me off to battle giants with the end result more like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. As we watch Iran and look out at our own local world, shouldn't we wonder if the only difference is the folks demonstrating in Iran know a truth that we may be avoiding ourselves?

Given Twitter's role in all of this, I also wonder if what were happening in Iran were happening in the U.S., would Americans thank god for Twitter or condemn its creator for its existence?

Product of the Week: Intel Dispute Finder - For Those Who Can Handle the Truth

What makes Dispute Finder interesting is that it has nothing to do with Intel's business but has everything to do with the common practice of focusing on a message you want over one that challenges your belief. What Dispute Finder does is capture both sides of an argument. Whether that argument is on gay marriage or the Iranian election, it collects over time (be aware that it is brand new and very sparsely populated at the moment) both the pro side and the con side of a position, so you can read through both and form your own conclusions.

In my work, it is so important to be able to see both sides and both form and dynamically change positions to accommodate new facts. In my view, it is vastly better to actually be right than effectively eliminate those who disagree with you, and Dispute Finder can help you and me do this. While this is one of the riskiest efforts I've ever seen any vendor undertake, (because folks view those who present alternative views as biased, and both sides may not initially be populated), it is also likely one of the most important. Dispute Finder is therefore a natural for my product of the week.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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