Global Agenda: Nothing happened

The importance of any event is in inverse proportion to the amount of attention it receives.

By PINCHAS LANDAU
May 4, 2006 23:08
3 minute read.
Global Agenda: Nothing happened

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Perhaps the most important single rule in the business of tracking global affairs, whether political, economic or whatever, is that the importance of any particular event or trend is in inverse proportion to the amount of attention it receives. The converse of this rule, therefore, is that the more attention a subject gets, the less important it is. Examples of the negative side of the rule are both numerous and obvious, thanks to the rise of the "celebrity" culture and its media implications. Huge amounts of space, in terms of column inches, minutes of TV and radio time, web pages, podcasts etc., are devoted to brainless clods whose prominence derives from sport or other forms of mass entertainment. Since the catch-all of mass entertainment nowadays includes not just film or pop stars, but also members of royal families (especially the British one), many politicians and even businessmen, the amount of drivel is able to expand infinitely, to fill the infinite capacity of the electronic media to supply this material. Avoiding the drivel - or achieving exposure just to those areas or items that interest you, for whatever reason - is a major challenge. But what is far more difficult is to actively track down information and analysis of those things that are actually important, since they tend to be buried in the flood of babble. Thankfully, the same technology that has unleashed the tsunami of drivel has also provided tools to block most of it and to separate those items and topics that are actually important. But even these mechanisms are of limited use when it comes to what are often the most important events or developments of all -the ones that didn't happen. Staying on top of them is a real problem. What is an event that didn't happen - and why is it so important? This is not as weird as it sounds. Take an extreme example to illustrate the idea: one of the most important events not to have happened in recent years is an additional terrorist attack on the mainland US. That this universally-expected event has not occurred, we know the real question is "Why?" Is it thanks to the efficiency of the various anti-terrorist agencies and their efforts? Have all the terrorists retired and taken up gardening instead? Is it luck? The correct answer/s is/are critical - but since the media are event-driven, a non-event generates no news and little if any analysis. In the economic sphere, the situation is somewhat better, since a question such as "Why have the imbalances in the US (or global) economy not triggered a crisis?" get an airing via an ongoing stream of predictions from gloomy analysts suggesting that the crisis is imminent. These are considered mainstream and hence provided space and air-time. The parallel prediction (as opposed to the mere possibility) - that this year will see a dirty bomb or poison gas in New York or Chicago is never publicly made. Let's now move to another sort of non-event - the one that was scheduled to happen, but didn't. This year was supposed to see the next big global trade liberalization deal, the 'Doha round,' wrapped up or, at least, move near completion. In fact, the Doha round is now dead. No one, however, will say this publicly and there will certainly be no official announcement to that effect. Instead, President Bush reshuffled some of his top staff, moving his senior trade representative, Robert Portman, to head the budget office. This is important; it signals the president's determination to try and get a deal through Congress to tackle the growing US budget deficit. But it also signals something much more negative: The Bush Administration has given up on the effort to get a global trade deal done on its watch. This non-event has massive implications, over the medium- and long-term, for the global economy - almost all of them negative. The absence of headlines and, in many media, even of a story that most people would see, hear or read and understand, is not a measure of how unimportant this non-event was. Au contraire, this is one of the main stories of the year. In line with the dictum posited above, the lack of coverage indicates how important the non-event was. Once again, the big news is that nothing happened, but unless you look for it, you would never know what didn't happen, let alone why. landaup@netvision.net.il

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