March 08, 2018

ERIN INSIGHT – 500 weeks of not being a bot

When I sit down to write for the Advocate every week, I gather all of my information into a numbered folder, a system that started with my first column in July 2008.
This week I have the satisfaction of hitting a milestone, with a folder labeled “Week 500”. The series includes one (or sometimes two) columns per week, hundreds of news stories, and a whack of features, photos and editorials.
The first column was called Moonlighting for Gas Money. I’ve enjoyed the freedom of picking my own topics and putting a personal twist on local news. I’ve been like one of those pesky horseflies that just keeps buzzing around.
It has been like writing three or four essays a week, for an English course that never ends. That can be challenging, but it’s way more fun than being the editor – good riddance to that job.
In case you missed an article, or are having a hard time falling asleep, the columns and major news stories are available on my blog, There are no comments from readers.
The blog is useful for checking an older story or reading up on an issue, maybe prior to the October municipal election.
Not only can you search for key words or phrases, but there is a topic index – for example, 57 stories on education, 61 on farming, 105 on history, 11 on suicide, 18 on theatre, and (the grand-daddy) 112 on sewers.
Warning: Do not attempt to read all the sewer articles in one day. The fumes could be hazardous.
I’m not sure if readers are actually any better off as a result of all my scribbling, but I know for sure that anyone who cares about Erin’s public affairs certainly has had the opportunity to be well-informed.
The key bits in the previous sentence are “anyone who cares” and “public affairs”. People are often so overloaded with information from the internet and other media that they are forced to retreat into not caring about pubic business. Jobs and family needs come first, and can consume all of your energy.
For those with some attention to spare, contact with the outside world often includes Facebook, Twitter and a variety of platforms that engage people on topics of their choice. That can be good, but there are dangers.
First of all, you get inundated with crap you don’t want. Second, spammers and programmers are always trying to invade your devices, scooping up private information and ensuring that you receive ads and “news” that match your interests.
If you only engage with people who are almost the same as you, and only receive news that simply entertains you or reinforces your existing attitudes, how will you ever develop an understanding your society or other cultures?
Then there are the bots, computer programs that control a robotic virtual character, imitating human behaviour on the web. I am persistent, but I am not one of those.
Bots can analyze information and carry out tasks much faster than a human brain. They can answer questions, chat with you, teach you, search for information such as on-line bargains and even make comments on news stories.
Bots can be used for cheating at video games, conducting attacks on major networks, or the rapid spreading of news that may be “fake” or slanted to promote a political cause. They could even help steal an election.
Traditional news sources, on the other hand, are good for democracy. Truthful news and diversity of opinion (whether on-paper, on-air or on-line) help bind communities together.
Old-fashioned journalists may not be totally unbiased, but at least they apply a filter to the flow of information that guards against manipulators and upholds the public interest.