Any person.
Any study.
Any Cornelliana.

An alumni
blog about Ezra's
University. (more)


Suggestions? Tips?




[+] Cornell News

[+] Higher Ed News

[+] Campus Pubs

[+] Alumni Interest

[+] Diversions

[+] Blogs

[+] Sports

[+] Other Places


[+] By Month

[+] By Author

A Chat With Farhad Manjoo

Everybody knows Cornell has the highest suicide rate in the country. This and other "facts" thrive on the Internet and in other media that traffic in bite-size (and oft-repeated) snippets. Farhad Manjoo '00, a former editor in chief of The Sun, thinks this is a symptom of a "post-fact" society -- one where central disputes are between people wielding different and conflicting "facts," rather than clashing opinions.

Manjoo has been a staff writer at Salon.com for years, and more recently he's set up Machinist, a blog at the online magazine devoted to trends and observations about technology. His new book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, is already getting lots of press. MetaEzra chatted with him (over e-mail, of course, in short bursts) about technology, the truth, the Hill, and what was up with the McGraw pumpkin, anyway.

What's your favorite gadget, and do you actually use it in your life?

Hmm. Kind of depends how you define a "gadget," I suppose. There are a lot of kitchen tools I'm in love with, but if you mean things with buttons and lights, I'd say it's my Nintendo Wii. I "use" it often, but with some guilt.

What did you major in at Cornell, and did that help you develop your interest in technology?

I majored in economics, but I don't think that had anything to do with my interest in technology. I like following technological trends for the same reason I like following all news, I think, which is my interest in the future. I like what's around the bend -- or at least trying to predict it. Technology is more future-focused than most other subjects, but of course all the news -- think about politics, for instance -- is really about what's going to happen. That's the part of the story I'm always interested in.

If you compare where you are now with your goals as a college senior, how do you stack up?

Oh, probably not too well.

What did being a Sun editor teach you about the media world you're in now?

To work hard. The Internet rewards diligence.

When did you start to believe we live in a "post-fact" society? Did any particular experiences in college or at The Sun inspire your thesis?

No, not much of my experience at the Sun inspired my thesis; at the Sun, people cared about facts. The idea I explore in my book -- that human psychology and technology are conspiring to loosen our grip on objective truth -- really came about in the last four years or so, as I was reporting on the 2004 election and conspiracy theories that swirled out of 9/11. Once I saw it there I began to notice the same thing everywhere: More and more, these days, we fight about facts, not opinions (i.e., what's really happening in Iraq, the real facts surrounding climate change, etc.).

More after the jump....

If Internet fragmentation and other forces are diluting the value of truth, what is the role of Machinist in that online world?

Machinist is a small piece among many other small pieces. I write it that way: It's more commentary and second-day reporting than breaking news, covering technology, politics and Internet culture, plus whatever else I find interesting. Of course I try to stand up as a bulwark against the forces I describe in my book -- many journalists do -- but the battle often seems a losing one. Still, it's a good gig.

So, do you think it's possible in the abstract for two people to fundamentally disagree on an issue even if they agree on all the facts? Or is it just that those kinds of disputes are less common today?

Right, I think those kinds of disputes are less common today. In my book I argue that more often our disputes involve competing "versions" of facts rather than opinions. Think of the global warming debate, say, or the debate over the war in Iraq. One side says the facts support Position X, while the other side says the facts support Position Y. When you look at the "facts" in question, though, you find each side believes different things. People who support the war these days do so because -- according to facts they're receiving about it online, on cable, and the radio -- it's going well. People who oppose it, meanwhile, know that their opposition is justified because the facts support their side.

And speaking of facts -- really, who was behind the McGraw pumpkin?

Good question. The pumpkin appeared on the tower during my sophomore year, and three years later, during my senior year, we ran a piece noting that it was still a mystery how it got up there. A Cornell employee read the article and contacted me, saying he knew how it was done. I spoke to him at length one late night at the Sun. He wouldn't give me any names, but said that a former neighbor of his had done it, with the help of three friends. I still consider the thing unsolved: I didn't get any real proof, but this fellow's story made for quite a piece in our senior issue.

So, advice to aspiring journalists in college or recently graduated: Should they be striving for newish online publications? Is newsprint dead?

Yes, newsprint is dead, but I don't think that means all newspapers are. So my advice: Consider the future of the outlet you're joining, which I suppose is what you do for any potential job -- I'm simply urging greater-than-normal scrutiny. Understand that the field you're entering is unbelievably unstable. It's one of those great once-in-a-millennia shake-ups, on the order, some would have you believe, of what happened in Gutenberg's day. Be wary.

If you could liveblog any event, future or past, what would it be?

Oh, I don't liveblog -- I don't see much point in it, really, especially since any event worth live-blogging has others there doing it too, so why not let them? But if I had to choose I'd pick the Gettysburg Address. It was quite short, you know. And you'd be fine limiting your commentary to, "OMG, I'm speechless."

Andy Guess | Posted on April 02, 2008 (#)

blog comments powered by Disqus

Other Recent Posts

-- WSJ: Cornell Wins NYC Tech Campus Bid (EBilmes)

-- Barrier Update: City Approves Nets (DJost)

-- Big Red Cymbal Guy (Nagowski)

-- New York Times Survey on Campus Recruiting is Flawed (KScott)

-- Barrier Update: Legal precedent suggests City of Ithaca will not be held liable for gorge suicide (DJost)

-- Despite MSG Loss, Big Potential for Big Red Hockey (EBilmes)

-- City Council Will Vote on Suicide Nets (DJost)

-- An Encounter on the Upper East Side (Nagowski)

-- Showing Off Your School Spirit (Nagowski)

-- Chipotle Ithaca? (KScott)

-- Cornell at the ING NYC Marathon (KScott)

-- Crossing Over a Fine Line: Commercial Activity on Campus (KScott)

-- Milstein's Downfall (Nagowski)

-- Can any Cornell-associated organization really be independent of the University? (Nagowski)

-- Slope Media Revisited (EBilmes)

-- Slope Media Group Approved for Byline Funding (KScott)

-- Occupy AEM? (KScott)

-- New campus pub to be good for both Greeks and non-Greeks (Nagowski)

-- Gagging the Election (Nagowski)

-- The Changing Structure of Rush Week (Nagowski)

-- Ivy League Humility in the Midwest (EBilmes)

-- Of Median Grades and Economics Minors (Nagowski)

-- Homecoming Recap (Nagowski)

-- My Cornell Bookshelf (Nagowski)

-- The Sun's Opinion Section Has Suddenly Gotten Good (Nagowski)

-- Remembering the 11th (Nagowski)

-- Cornellian Tapped as Top Economic Advisor (Nagowski)

-- Cutting Pledging, and the Good Which Comes With It (EBilmes)

-- Why Cornell Should Not Close Fall Creek Gorge (Nagowski)

-- Welcome to the Class of 2015 (Nagowski)