Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Monday, August 26, 2002

 

Meme Shifts


The power of language to mis-state, to mis-inform, to mis-lead, has reached a high art in the last 40 years.


We are plagued by Orwellian double-thinking terms, like Digital Rights Management (DRM). Richard Stallman lampoons the acronym as Digital Restrictions Management - and he has a good point, DRM is not about your rights at all. DRM is about the "rights" of the entertainment lobby to twist every bit of common sense out of copyright law in favor of perpetuating their profits. But DRM is officially defined as Digital Rights Management, and through repetition, it is what many people will believe it's actually about.



Now, it's not so bad to have a set of words defined by whatever industry or group attempts to put them over on us; I can even admire the sheer audacity and creative thought that went into redefining copying software as piracy. At least the naming game the public, too, can play, and some of us play it pretty well. It's been great fun renaming the otherwise unpronounceable acronym for the despicable CBDTPA bill as "Consume, But Don't Try Programming Anything" , and describing Fritz Hollings as "The Senator from Disney", and so on. The creation of the term"Open Source" was a brilliant stroke.

The events of the last few years have shown to me that he who coins the best phrase, soonest, can shape the public debate. (For good or for ill)

Coining new words and phrases is all well and good, but I pity anyone a century from now that attempts to make sense of todays intellectual debates without a guide of shakespearian size to our language's ever-shifting definitions We have sets of terms and phrases that everyone knows about and thinks they understand, that change, over time, to be subtly biased in one direction or another. I've been calling this sort of thing a Meme Shift. which may not be the right phrase (A learned friend tells me that the natural analog for what I'm trying to describe here is "Lexical drift". Both a "Shift" and a "Drift" are too passive for what I'm actually trying to describe, any suggestions on a better phrase are welcome!) .

Meme Shifting is much subtler than what Orwell's Ministry of Information did while re-writing history; it's the rewrite of the definition of a long established word or phrase without bothering to communicate well that the definition has shifted. The change gets lost in the past. It becomes impossible to take history at face value or even interperet current events. Imagine someone trying to make sense of the "Conservative" and "Liberal" tags without a clear sense for when and how the meanings of those political terms shifted over the last century.

Here's a big Meme Shift you probably haven't heard about.

Inflation


Everybody knows what inflation is, right?

Did you know that in 1983, how we calculate inflation was changed to reflect a different measure of the cost of housing? Housing as well as food and so on are included in both the earlier and current CPI, but the measure of housing changed. As an economist wrote me a few weeks ago:

The new method of calculating inflation has been re-cast into the past, and the original calculation is no longer used to calculate the present... Hmm. How Orwellian. An ostensibly objective measure we all think we understand has vanished down the memory hole.

Lucklily, data going back prior to 1983 still exists for comparison. Think you suffered from 11.4% inflation in 1979? Think again, according to the new measure, you only suffered from 9.6%

Low inflation is GOOD. All kinds of good things result from low inflation, not least of which, expenses and salaries and social security payments that are tied to the inflation number don't inflate as much, in turn, which in turn results in less inflation.

But not calculating the old method forward to see how it compares with the new is profoundly unscientific. Why? Compound interest adds up. Assume, for a minute, that the inflation measure, back in 1983, really was accurate, and real inflation since has been running at official inflation * 1.186 (this is not a very scientific extrapolation. It's just as likely that the basket has changed upwards or downwards and the data prior to 1983 shows much variation). But just assume 1.186 for a second. Here's a site with the data. Here's a little spreadsheet I worked up. The difference, compounded, is that a 2001 dollar, in 1983, would be worth 41 cents the new way. 31 cents the old way.

It seems pathetically obvious to me that my housing costs have far outstripped my personal wage increases, far more than the inflation index shows. But the facts to support this feeling are annoyingly sparse.

A few weeks ago I found a single page (page 79-80) from Orwell's 1984, torn out, stuck between some pages in an old Larry Niven book. How this page got there I haven't a clue. But what George had to say here inspired me to finish this blog entry.



In an age where spreadsheets capable of manipulating 32768 rows of information and home database systems capable of handling gigabytes of information exist, in this supposedly free, open society, why aren't the raw data for the inflation calculation and the algorithms available? I I think I need to take this issue up under the freedom of information act. Or maybe one of my readers can clue me in.

"And so you see/I have come to
doubt/all that I once held as true/the only truth I know is you."
-- Paul Simon

 
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