What Are You Reading?

Michael Onsando
27 August ,2013

Thin slicing, contrary to what the word may sound like, is not a way to come out with a crunchier and more fragile piece of bread.  Coined in 1992 by Nalini Amabady it is the ability to find a pattern based on small bits of information. In Blink, the power of thinking without thinking, Malcolm Gladwell goes on to expand on the concept of thin slicing. In particular he talks about an experiment by Samuel Gosling. Gosling gave a questionnaire to people and, using this questionnaire, they were to answer questions about people who they had never met before. They were to answer these questions using only what they had seen while walking around their rooms.

Gosling’s results were very interesting. When ranked against the people’s friends the strangers who had just been in their rooms were better at finding out 3 out of five major aspects.

My room has lots of books.

And this is where Gladwell would be wrong. To assume that someone who spent time in my room would be making a judgment about me based on a small bit of information would be incorrect. By seeing what I am reading. And that would be a relatively simple observation to make seeing the books that are open, bookmarked and so forth. It will  be very easy for someone to know what kind of space my head is in at the time. And, by going through my bookshelf one would find it easy enough on understand what I am generally inclined towards. This information would, by no standards, be seen as a small bit of information. By being able to see what I am reading these people are able to reside within the same headspace that I reside in. That is more information than you could get by just seeing me for five minutes at a coffee shop. Perhaps even more than you would get from 5 years of irregular meetings and small talk.

And this is not just to be said of books.

The old, largely overused acronym, gigo, rings true to date. The consumption will, for the larger part, decide what the product of any said individual is. That is why, for example, walking around a room where all the books are written by Paulo Coelho and all movies by Tyler Perry may lead one to imagine a very new age, self motivated, in touch with the earth human being. No matter what this person looks like in person, the contents of his(her) bookshelf(movie cupboard?) would give you all the information about the mind space within which  this person resides.

In a recent conversation with a leading individual in out entertainment scene I heard statements like “Kenyans won’t watch that” being thrown about. In retrospect, I have heard that statement being said many times. It has been quoted, as a fact, that Kenyans don’t read and/or watch too “smart” things. Even before the inception of brainstorm we were warned against it. “Kenyans don’t have time to read lengthy pieces of writing,” was a statement I heard more than I heard “how are you?”

This bothers me. It seems that this assumption is an excuse to feed the people within our country with mediocre content within out print, audio and visual media. In this way Kenya finds itself stuck within this self sustaining cycles where we say Kenyans can’t consume a certain type of media. In turn this media isn’t produced and without the production of this media this media isn’t present to be consumed thus confirming the idea that Kenyans won’t consume a certain kind of media.

In the minds of the marketing people it makes perfect sense to keep this particular cycle in force. If a market has been trained to think and react in a certain way it becomes predictable, if a market is predictable it is easier to sell them a certain good. If, say, Kenyans have been trained to think that luhyas should be the brunt of chicken jokes (as, indeed we have) then it becomes easier to sell chicken. Make a joke about chicken and include Wafula – voila, chicken has been sold.

While this is in line with the business and happenings of the media we have to ask ourselves about how this is affecting how we think. With this cycle so firmly in place it is easy to keep tribal stereotypes, homophobia, misogyny (both banal and jarring) among the rest firmly in place.

In The Newsroom one of the characters – I forget, and can’t be bothered to find out which one it is- says that the biggest mistake the (US) government made at the inception of television was not to tell them that they cannot make money off the hour of news that they run.

The profit making nature of the news – and by news I really mean media in general – means that they have a vested interest in keeping people’s minds locked inside a certain box. The box that allows suspected gangsters to be shot down at will. The box that lets, and defends, misogynist articles. The box that carries homophobia to the point of repulsion. This same box of the media we consume that encourages us to violently react when shaken out of them.

I’d like us to imagine Kenya as a university student and run the Gosling experiment on ourselves.

In this particular exercise Kenya, as an individual would be that person who appears to have everything together. We may be a little bit volatile, but everyone is. It would be hidden because of our natural social nature.

This is the Kenya that our ‘friends’ will know. And, indeed, it is.

The question is; what would someone see if they came to the dorm room of Kenya as a university student, apart from a mountain of filth under the carpet?

It is a great thing to think that we, as human beings, are capable of independent thought. However, it would be prudent to realise that independent thought is not our strong point. In fact, we a very much the sum total of our experiences, friends, enemies, idols, environs, societies and anything else we may come into contact with.

Once we become comfortable with that idea it becomes increasingly apparent that, what we need to do, is control what we consume. In Kenya any method of effective control would involve an entire media blackout. The question here is, why must one have to block out the principal sources of information within ones society in order to have a steady flow of reliable, non-biased information?

All schools of thought and, indeed, most people agree that a responsible media is key to growth as a society. However, it seems unfair that a great number of people feel the need to self-police in order to maintain a certain standard of living in this country that is non- oppressive.

I think we need to push back. It is time to challenge the narrative that Kenyans won’t watch/read/listen to something that isn’t oppressive or in perpetuation of a particular stereotype. And, indeed, it has been happening. Already the Business Daily was forced to force Frank Njenga into a half hearted apology, albeit it turned out looking more like a book sale than anything else.

A friend asked me “what happened to our collective conscience? Twitter, for example, should be self regulating, but instead it helps further the insanity.” I thought of answering but he kept going “I think it is because all the good people refuse to engage, and so the bad people take up all the speaking space, making it appear like there is no collective conscience.”

I agree

The media has a responsibility to take themselves and, indeed, their work seriously. If they feel that they don’t have to then it is upon us, as a society, to call them out on their faecal matter. It’s time to change what we have lying on our nightstand, so we can change how we think.

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