Jack Messenger | Feed the Monkey

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‘May I Ask You a Few Questions?’

MicrophoneA few days ago, I was stopped in the centre of Nottingham by two men, one of whom sported a large phallic microphone beloved of television journalists, the other with a video camera clamped to his head. They were from the BBC no less, and they wished to ask me a few questions. ‘You’re obviously a snappily dressed man,’ I was told, which immediately won me over. They were nice chaps and I didn’t mind helping them out, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that it might be useful to know what exactly it was they were going to ask.

It turned out they wanted to hear my views about shopping in Nottingham. The ‘footfall’, apparently, has been reducing of late in the city centre – news to me, as Nottingham is crowded 24/7. Anyway, I found myself answering their questions with opinions more or less invented there and then. It was as if each question led me down a particular path from which there was no going back – a kind of response bias.  It was only afterwards, as I walked home, that I realized how completely worthless the whole exercise had been.

How it is we have so much information, but know so little? Noam Chomsky

The truth is, I don’t know what I think about shopping in Nottingham. I hate shopping and give it very little thought one way or the other. Whatever I told the BBC, I immediately forgot. I think I was positive and ‘upbeat’ (as politicians unsure of their chances of reelection often describe their states of mind), but that was probably because I didn’t wish to say anything unpleasant. I naturally find myself trying to please people in unexpected circumstances such as this, to be positive and bright with optimism. Reality tends to get distorted in the process.

Twitter Increasingly, we live in a society which expects each of us – young or old, rich or poor, wise or not so clever – to have opinions about everything. It feels as if we are often expected to comment instantaneously on every little thing just as soon as it happens. God bless Twitter, I say, even though much of it is built around instant comment and just as instant forgetfulness. As a recent convert, I was unwise enough to spot a trend and wait 24 hours to formulate a tweet, by which time the subject was no longer trending and I’d missed the boat. Now I formulate my opinions well in advance and apply them to trends on a semi-random basis.

We used to be wary of people who had instant opinions about everything. How on earth do they come by their opinions? What process of ratiocination has led them to the conclusions they express so readily? Do they really know much more about the world than the rest of us?

Thought – careful, deliberate, difficult thought – takes time and patience, and truth is a complicated thing, much more complicated than falsehood. An avalanche of ill-considered comments and snap judgements will merely bury the truth rather than bring it to light.

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum. Noam Chomsky

The next time I am stopped in the street by the BBC I shall reply to all their questions with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’ll have to go away and think about it.’ Let’s be proud of our uncertainties! Can’t make up your mind about the state of retail sales in Nottingham? Good for you! Doubtless it’s a complicated matter, replete with intangibles.

Let’s not comment until all the facts are in. Now there’s an opinion I can tweet.


  1. Jack, I was intrigued by the political insights you drew from your brief interaction with the BBC in a shopping centre. How true that much of what we identify as knowledge is meaningless. It seems to me that the more we think we know about why things are as they are, the less we understand about our world and each other. Your experience shows how true is Chomsky’s observation (which you quote) about having so much information, but knowing so little. Thank you. Liz

    • Thank you, Liz. It’s curious and frequently insidious how information can substitute for knowledge. The expression of my unconsidered opinion has added infinitesimally to the ignorance of the world!

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