The transcript from this week’s MIB: Rex Sorgatz and the Encyclopedia of Misinformation is below.
You can stream/download the full conversation, including the podcast extras on iTunes, Bloomberg, Overcast, and Stitcher. Our earlier podcasts can all be found at iTunes, Stitcher, Overcast, and Bloomberg.
This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST MASTERS IN BUSINESS: This week on the podcast, I have a special guest his name is Rex Sorgatz, and I have to just share a little background. I began my blog in the late ’90s on Yahoo Geocities, a now defunct property of Yahoo, which in it of itself is who knows what the hell is happening with that. And early in my blogging career, I came across a blog called Fimoculous and I always found it filled with unique and interesting tidbits there were — one of the things I was looking at back then, Kottke (ph) Fimoculous, just a handful of — Colossal, Boing Boing, there was just a run off of different sites that were just collecting interesting eclectic unusual things back when the Internet was small enough that one person or a small group of people could do that and find some really, really fascinating things.
As it turns out Rex not only was a blogger, but he was a television producer, digital media consultant, and a writer and I followed his career over the years and have always enjoyed his work. We talk about the genesis of the book “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation” which is really quite fascinating and if you are at all interested in web history and how and why memes catch on on the Internet whether they are true or false and how they spread, I think you’ll find this to be a fascinating conversation.
So with no further ado, my interview of Rex Sorgatz.
My special guest today is Rex Sorgatz, he is somebody I have been reading for several centuries now. He Is the Author of “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation” see what I did there, slipped a little misinformation, and he has quite a bio. In addition to being a product designer, a creative technologist, he is the founder of the New York media consultancy Kinda Sorta Media, and he is the author of a book which may have the longest subtitle ever seen the book is “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation, A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Imposters, Illusions, Confabulation, Skulduggery, Fraud, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flimflam, Pranks, Hornswaggle. Conspiracy, and Miscellaneous Fakery” Rex Sorgatz, welcome to Bloomberg.
REX SORGATZ, FOUNDER, KINDA SORTA MEDIA: It is wonderful to be here.
RITHOLTZ: So I have to start with your bio which begins “Rex Sorgatz is a professional Orson Welles impersonator and a third-generation lycanthrope who is responsible for rebranding contrails as chemtrails”, obviously none of that is true, tell us about your background.
SORGATZ: I wrote that bio for my — it’s on my Amazon page because I started writing a traditional bio and then I was like, well this is a book about misinformation, I should really just make a spoof of the whole idea.
RITHOLTZ: And I have to point out that having read you over the years first at Fimoculous then at Wired, you’re very much into recursive fractals and regressions where there is an element of a meta-reflection on the underlying subject, for example, you — many people do year-end lists, that doesn’t work for you, you do a list of lists…
RITHOLTZ: And we will talk about that later. But the — your self-description as a hoax is perfectly consistent with not just the book but your own brand of recursive writing.
RITHOLTZ: Fair statement?
SORGATZ: Yes, for sure, there’s is even an element in the book where I do — I return to this trope a lot where I state of fact and throw a footnote in there and then and undermine the fact itself, like I have this tendency to kind of not — my writing and I don’t — I don’t trust writing that asserts itself in some sort of like overly unbiased intellectual way that is just so firm it has no sense of doubt about itself.
SORGATZ: So I think that I’m always — I think everything I write is expressing, is making a point but is like willing to say I’m not really sure about this and I think that that’s — that we live in a media climate when that’s, I think, an especially important trait.
RITHOLTZ: The certitude amongst people who have no basis for certitude seems to be the model on the 24 hour news channels, regardless of political leaning. Is that a fair…
SORGATZ: Yeah, I mean I don’t know if I — the last time I saw somebody on cable news and will include all networks there say, get asked a question and say “I don’t know” that just never happens and I always start with I don’t know or I’m not sure, let me try to work this problem out, I’ve got a few ideas here, different opposing ways to think about it, and I think that I that whole notion has really disappeared from media climate to be honest.
RITHOLTZ: It gets said very rarely and it’s really hilarious to watch the anchor just suddenly it looks like a fast driving car that suddenly hits a patch of oil, it’s spinning all over the place, it’s all over the ice, they don’t know how to deal with someone who says oh that’s outside of my expertise, I can’t — I really have nothing to add on that, their heads explode.
SORGATZ: Yes, and writing a book about misinformation which is not exactly a topic that like I had known a ton about the — at least the social science part of it, I know the cultural part about it like the part of the current PT Barnum-esque qualities of our society and culture, but I had to do an immense amount of research into all of the research that is going on right now around fake news and what — trusting the media and all of that stuff, so it was all brand-new to me.
RITHOLTZ: We will talk a little bit about fake news and we’ll talk about how the media has kind of painted self into this corner, let’s stay with your background a little bit. You do a lot of different things, you’re a designer and you were part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize assuming that that’s not misinformation.
Tell us — tell us about that.
SORGATZ: This is straight from a long time ago, it’s 21 years ago I think now.
RITHOLTZ: We do our homework here at Bloomberg.
SORGATZ: Yes, so in 1997 I was living in North Dakota, Grand Forks North Dakota and this little town of 50,000 people suffered the greatest disaster of the 20th century for an American city.
SORGATZ: Well, if you quantified in the sense of people evacuated.
SORGATZ: The entire town had to be evacuated.
RITHOLTZ: 100 percent of the town.
SORGATZ: And it was a flood and Clinton was still president and he actually came to town and cried on national television…
SORGATZ: It was like it was kind of Katrina before it’s time, not as severe as Katrina obviously but it was…
RITHOLTZ: So all 50,000 people are out, were there any fatalities or…
SORGATZ: Interestingly zero fatalities but the reason it became such a strange national story is that in the middle of this flood in which like 6 feet of water in downtown is like underwater, in the middle of this flood, a fire starts, and it seems like the ultimate sort of reckoning of hell…
RITHOLTZ: Insult to injury.
SORGATZ: Yes, and it creates this paradox where there’s all this water but there’s a fire, and the fire can’t be put out because the fire hydrants are underwater, and so there — there are pictures out there, a fireman kind of diving into the water to try to connect their hoses to the fire hydrants and then they finally get them connected and there is no water pressure and so none of it works and I reason I kind of became a notable person around the event was I was a person who decided not to leave and I was staying in my apartment because I live next door to the Grand Forks Herald, the newspaper in Grand Forks which back then was owned by Knight Ridder, a company that is no longer around and it was working on the newspaper and trying to still get it out we managed to — eventually that newspaper burned down and I had to be rescued from my apartment in the middle of this flood fire and we won a Pulitzer prize that year.
RITHOLTZ: I hope you took lots of photographs from that vantage point.
SORGATZ: That was pre-iPhone or any kind of thing like that and so none, I have zero photos, I just went back last summer or a weeks ago and the town is recovered, there are now walls over protecting it from the river coming though, and there’s pictures all over town commemorating the event and it was a was a fascinating thing and it was kind of in a weird — to say that I lost everything I ever owned but it was sort of lucky because we won the Pulitzer, I became known for it, I was the internet guide in an era which there…
SORGATZ: Yes, I was the webmaster which was a very valuable title back then, and it allowed me to get out really, I didn’t really have many other, it was hard to see how I was going to get out of North Dakota and this was like a quick, I got talent now.
RITHOLTZ: Tragedy to exodus, I get it.
Let’s talk about this book because I find it to be fascinating, that’s why I wanted to have you on the show to go over this. Hey, we’re in an era of alternative facts, so given that, why do we need an encyclopedia of misinformation?
SORGATZ: Yeah, I thought it was a good idea to try to compile all of this stuff out there that is not just misleading information, but is about the theories behind it and how it evolves and where it comes from, initially with the book is like, I think sometimes people see the title they think, this is going to be a list of hoaxes or it’s going to be like, here’s a bunch of conspiracies and there is a little bit of that in that…
SORGATZ: But really it’s about the theory, here is a big scary word, the epistemology of conspiracies, hoaxes, in median and ultimately, think of it as a book about trust, like who, what sources of — do you trust today and I don’t say this out right but I think it becomes implicitly clear that that’s eroding, like our institutions are eroding and our faith in knowledge bases is going and I try to deal with that in a playful way.
RITHOLTZ: I would point out that the erosion of trust in institutions is a feature not a bug because if the population doesn’t trust the institutions, they are more likely to trust the grifters and conmen who were trying to get over.
SORGATZ: Fair statement, yes, it’s fascinating and I think that one of the — I didn’t talk about this in the book but it’s — I’m going to write about this at some point, I’m fascinated by the evolution of media literacy because I think I grew up in a time when people were told, always distrust what — the information you are given and root out its source and look where it came from, and it was a this idea that information should be immediately distrusted, and I think that sort of made sense in an era of kind of monolithic information and a kind of a state where we built knowledge bases that no one wanted to contradict.
And now I believe that idea of constantly questioning has become so rampant and spreads wildly on the internet particularly to places like Reddit that now we are left in this place where we don’t trust anything and like the there are people out there who don’t believe that Charlemagne existed, a whole bunch of history are lies.
RITHOLTZ: The rise of the Flat Earth Society…
SORGATZ: Or the Earth is flat.
RITHOLTZ: It’s just amazing these days.
SORGATZ: The flat Earth thing is probably the best example, like I didn’t know how to write about it, I think that was something that I didn’t know how to write about in the book because what am I going to do like debunk the Flat Earthers? That just sounds boring, like or am I going to make fun of them? Are — what am I going to do with it and so what I chose to do with that entry is I thought well what’s interesting about this is that it’s emerging right now but really it’s emerging because people have is idea out there that historically there all these times in history where people thought the Earth was flat and went back and looked at this.
RITHOLTZ: Turns out not to be the case.
SORGATZ: It turns out not to be true at all like you to have go back way back like to Homer to find out people who actually believe the Earth is flat. There was no one during Columbus’ time that think the Earth was flat.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Even the Greeks understood the Earth wasn’t plate.
SORGATZ: Aristotle and Plato knew it was round, like I mean even church figures, I mean the people who persecuted Galileo believe the earth is round they just didn’t believe that the earth was not the center of the universe, likely and Dante thought the earth was round because if you drill a hole into the earth and you got to the inferno you could come out the other side. And so this idea was like a it evolved because it in the 19th century someone came up with the idea that I can use this as a cudgel to like describe a certain kind of part of society that thinks that they are so stupid they think the earth is flat.
And it was kind of an accident of intellectualism that this evolved.
And so like that that was the difficulty of this book is like how do I write about these things that are the kind of interesting but I don’t really want to like be a book of debunking because that is going to be boring.
RITHOLTZ: Right. So that raises the next question, how new is fake news?
SORGATZ: Yeah, when you write a book like this, you end up becoming a little bit weary with history, especially like there is a lot of 19th-century stuff in here and that was just an era of just pure chicanery and manipulation.
RITHOLTZ: The golden age of grifters.
SORGATZ: Yes, it truly was and if you look at someone like PT Barnum or just like all of the people spreading medical hoaxes at the time, you really can’t go maybe today isn’t that bad, maybe the internet isn’t that bad, and so I can’t — I can’t draw exact distinctions, I would say that something is coming up right now on the internet that feels like the change that started to happen in the early 19th century where people found ways to game the system.
And so I feel like we are kind of returning to an era right now.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about the shifting Overton window, explain for listeners exactly what that is.
SORGATZ: The Overton window is a fascinating little idea developed by a researcher who just kind of came up with the term and it’s for essentially it’s what are the topics that we allow into public discourse? What is safe for us to discuss?
And like and public discourse I mean kind of the media I guess I’d say.
RITHOLTZ: But general debate within a society…
RITHOLTZ: That’s acceptable.
SORGATZ: Yes that if you brought up at a party, no one would like, think you’re crazy or whatever, and it is fascinating to watch, right? Like things definitely move in and out of the Overton window.
RITHOLTZ: And just for a little context, the term comes from watching, I believe the phrase, the description used was watching a parade through a window and if you shift your position, you’re seeing a different part of the parade from a different angle, is that…
RITHOLTZ: So the Overton window refers to how at different times and different angles we are tolerating or discussing different topics, is that is a metaphor?
SORGATZ: Yes, and you could just name something like legalize marijuana, that is not something that was like readily discussed by me 10 years ago, for sure not 25 years ago, so there was a contingent of the population who believed in it but wasn’t a mainstream idea, or even just gay marriage, like it was not a real mainstream idea until it accelerated very quickly in recent years.
But the term more now is used to apply to mostly about how the right, the far right, the alt right, whatever we want to call that group has entered as has pushed into public consciousness ideas that otherwise recently would have been considered outsider.
Extreme views on immigration for instance, just open up Reddit now, go to “The Donald” on Reddit and you will see like this rampant conversation about things that we previously just sort of thought were outside of discourse and now are allowed in and we have to take seriously. And so there is a kind of a good-quality to it, right? Because like our mind should always be open-minded to any kind of new ideas, at the same time it’s like we get, we’re starting take things seriously that otherwise were like, that is for the freaks and the outsiders and now we have to deal with debunking like — flat Earth is a good example, like now we have to spend time on that topic.
RITHOLTZ: You mentioned Reddit twice but you’re not referring to things like Twitter or Facebook, are they quantitatively or qualitatively different than the various sub Reddits that really go so far into the weeds?
SORGATZ: I mean I sometimes get asked like which is the most dangerous one really kind of juggle around which social network am I most troubled by? Reddit is where the audience a smaller, still substantial but smaller, but it’s really where ideas get root, you might consider it the base of the of fringe ideas.
RITHOLTZ: People who used to be lone wolves in their town find like-minded individuals who are similarly insane.
RITHOLTZ: And basically allows them to reinforce their that whatever the mania of the moment happens to be.
SORGATZ: They find similar people and then they build propaganda around it, they start memes, the make pictures, they kind of they become self edified by having other people to talk through the ideas of the thing, to go back to Flat Earth like Reddit on Flat earth is fast because will people come in and kind of contradict things, and they will have to like, I know how evolved this theory further, so it’s like a breeding ground for like furthering these thoughts.
And then eventually what happens is that stuff bubbles up to Facebook and that’s when it goes mainstream and then all of a sudden, your grandmas like being presented with images of Pepe the Frog.
RITHOLTZ: And I think within that group, it sort of self legitimizes what should really be a fringe set of ideas.
SORGATZ: Yeah I know — it really should be and it’s that the internet is definitely causing this weird fracturing thing right now where I don’t — I feel like our novel — we used to have like a set of facts that we based…
RITHOLTZ: Everybody is…
SORGATZ: Yes, and now that thing is fracturing all over the place and I’d — I’m not optimistic about how that turns out in the coming…
RITHOLTZ: So I’m going to be a little selfish here and I’m going to say optimistically, if you’re a high functioning idiot, if you believe things that are patently, demonstrably, untrue we’re just seeing the impact of that in things like elections what have you, but over the course of our lifetime, when you believe in things that are patently untrue and then you go out into the world, there will eventually be negative consequences, whether that’s personally, politically, professionally, economically, but if you believe the world is flat or if you believe you can walk through that wall, well act on it and bad stuff is going to happen.
So I’m hoping that eventually Darwin’s revenge sort of filters this out.
SORGATZ: Well you are trusting like the socialization process to adjust these people…
RITHOLTZ: Or mortality, one of those.
RITHOLTZ: Those are the two I’m rooting for.
SORGATZ: And I think that there’s a case to be made that socialization eventually wins that if these people like, I will call it a different group that kind of men’s rights activists on Reddit if eventually those 19-year-old dudes got to go find jobs.
RITHOLTZ: Is that all they are? 19-year-old dudes in the basement?
SORGATZ: There’s unfortunately some 45-year-old dudes out there too, but it’s a lot of it was a lot of young men disenchanted with their either cultural or economic situation, and eventually they are going to come to the conclusion that actually maybe it’s better for me economically not to have this really like horrible views about half of the globe and that I need to adapt just to like survive in a society because my views are going to be considered outer if I don’t. I hope that’s true. The problem is at some point to these people like find like-minded people at work, you know…
RITHOLTZ: Well they certainly have found them on the internet and what we noticed with some of the neo-Nazi marches and other stuff, people have been identifying those folks and they have been getting fired, it turns out that being a Nazi and then being public about it is not a great career move.
SORGATZ: Yes, and I think that the there is a corrective quality out there when those things happen, it does make me go, maybe I shouldn’t be in such a panic about this, maybe we actually are more — we have stronger belief systems that are that are being more corrective to these kind of ideas and that it is just like a weird spurt in time and that this always happens every once in a while…
RITHOLTZ: Transitional, it’s a messy transition until we sort of get to whatever’s on the other side.
SORGATZ: Yes, and I mean like this goes back to the very first thing I said, is people seldom say I don’t know, this is a case for I don’t know, I really I really don’t know if I should be panicking about this moment in time in history or if it’s kind of a rhyming thing that happens every once in a while and on any given day, I could change my view on this.
But some days, I just feel like, oh we’ve lost it.
Like no one — there is no truth, everything — the world’s asunder, t no one trust anyone.
RITHOLTZ: If only there was an encyclopedia of misinformation that could help us through these challenging times.
SORGATZ: That’s a good selling point for book. Thank you.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk a little bit about your early days as what you’ve described as a proto-blogger and I first came to know you a long time ago as the author of Fimoculous, a thing that eats itself, explain what Fimoculous is and was and why you decided to launch it?
SORGATZ: It’s really easy to say that it was a blog before blogs, there is a — right before I guess the year 2000 there are a handful of people who were making personal weblogs which was the term at the time. There is not even 100 people who were either writing short entries about things that had happened in their life, more like a diary or they would blogs that were just linking to stuff, and I was in the latter category, I was fascinated by this emerging culture online, it was coming about this is long before, long, long before Facebook but even before Reddit and things like that.
So but we there was a community of 100 — a couple hundred people who were just on the internet all day and finding stuff and wanting to share with other people and add comments below and who knew that that would actually become what the internet is today which is particularly, here’s a link and here’s a comment below but I think that’s what blogging start off as is like there’s something that is interesting and it could be an article, it can be a painting, it can be whatever and people talk below it and that was that there’s a discussion that happened.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about the list of lists.
And again I referenced earlier you have this sort of recursive meta-which makes sense for something that eats itself, something that consumes itself as a source of sustenance, so everybody does these end of year list, these of the best books, these are the best movies, here’s the best whatever and you are so tickled by it you started a thing and I want to say it really began right after Thanksgiving each year…
RITHOLTZ: More or less, the list of lists, one list to rule them all.
SORGATZ: Yes it was — when I started, it was relatively easily basically, I had a Google search alert for best of year or best of 2006 or whatever there was also submission from the site so people can send me stuff or just I looked around a lot and all I do is accumulate them, list them and at even annotate them, I just said, here is the list, put them in the category and I then I took…
RITHOLTZ: Music, film, books…
RITHOLTZ: Whatever it was.
SORGATZ: And then it somehow took off.
But when I started it, there’s part — it was easy to do what I started it, it was probably 200 lists, it’s funny now like now there’s easily 200 lists that are best cars of the year, you know what I mean?
SORGATZ: Now would be thousands of lists.
RITHOLTZ: Well, there is also, there are all these, I don’t want to say scam because I’m not just outright scams but through all these affiliate marketing sites…
RITHOLTZ: Where it’s like dishwasher reviews.com or I’m just making that up but it’s these really narrow niche things and all they wanted to do is to send you to Amazon and earn an affiliate fee or wherever else earning an affiliate fee and so when you go search for best anything these things just populate Google on a pretty…
RITHOLTZ: And I played with what is it, DuckDuckGo and Bing and some of the other search engines and you still end up seeing these things, there is no avoiding them.
SORGATZ: Yeah and the list itself is fascinating in how it became an industry, I think the first place you started to see it become really popular was Buzzfeed right? They were ridiculed early on for making Listicles.
RITHOLTZ: Listicles, right.
SORGATZ: These were very popular though but people — but the media community didn’t like them but they were wildly popular.
RITHOLTZ: Because it’s not pros, oh you are interested in X, here’s 80 Xes and have fun with it.
SORGATZ: And there was something — there’s a perception that there was an inelegance to it and when in fact it’s like that’s actually just what people wanted, right?
And then the next evolution of that are the creation of sites like Wirecutter and those sites that are like “Here are the best refrigerators” here are the best whatever and they are using affiliate links on top of it.
RITHOLTZ: That was back in the day that was things like Cnet and I’m trying remember the other Ziff-Davis property whose name is escaping me, but it was a run of tech focused sites and it was the best computers, the best laptops, the best monitors, but there was some journalistic credibility behind that, I don’t know if you get that anymore.
SORGATZ: Yeah I think there’s a handful of honest attempts at it on the Wirecutters owned by the New York Times, that’s an honest application. If you’re — there is something weird about the wire cutter though if you are like I want the best drip coffee maker, it you type that best drip coffee maker into Google, you’re going to get Wirecutter, almost everything now, you are going to get Wirecutter.
SORGATZ: And now it’s like do I trust this thing that’s like always the answer now like that is like always the answer now? Like it’s inevitably always 100 percent going to be this one site. And there is like no competition.
RITHOLTZ: So I’m using Bing instead of Google just for test purposes, the first thing that comes up his coffeemakerpics.com a while and they give you and then coffee maker pics is the next one, so these of these BestDigs,com, these are the sort of can finally halfway down the page is Consumer Reports, Epicurious, Comparaboo, Amazon, Pete’s which is kind of interesting, one of the things that Google — by way I could tell you what the best drip coffeemaker is without this, but one of the things that Google does is it sort of personalizes your search based on site you’ve gone to before and things you like and so he every now and then it helps to open up on — I don’t know what your browser of choice is, but if you open up, so I use Chrome but if I open up Safari or Firefox where I’m not logged in and I don’t normally Google over there and I’ll get a very different run of things than what I get on Chrome where I live.
RITHOLTZ: Which is which is kind of fascinating that even search has become biased and skewed in some ways.
SORGATZ: Yet and I mean the entry in the book that covers that topic is the filter bubble which is like you proposed an interesting scenario where you could type for best coffee maker and I could type I could search for it and we maybe have different results based upon the — based upon Google having knowledge about us in presenting what we — it thinks would be better, sort of a fascinating little conundrum, right? Maybe that is true, maybe there is — a there is no best coffee maker…
RITHOLTZ: Oh there is.
SORGATZ: There is only like a best for you.
RITHOLTZ: Well that is sort of true about everything in life, the best for me is the Brevel Grind and Brew, its beans over here, a thermos down here, with a timer so you could set it to go off at 4:30.
SORGATZ: You know, radio has no affiliate fees.
RITHOLTZ: That’s correct.
SORGATZ: You are not getting any kickback at all.
RITHOLTZ: So back in the day when my blog was on Typepad before even knew what affiliate fees were, I did a post called “Your Coffee Sucks” and basically it explained why everybody’s coffee is bad, first of all, you are buying ground beans and then sticking them in the shelf in the cabinet for six months so they stink, you give me your rotten crappy mineral infested water, and use in a really mediocre coffeemaker that doesn’t brew for long enough and then burns the coffee, on the — so some of us are very particular about our drugs.
SORGATZ: So was that — did your post do well in search…
RITHOLTZ: Oh my god, it went crazy.
SORGATZ: Yes, and I have this thing still, I’ve — you mentioned Fimoculous, my old blog, I haven’t updated it in eight or nine years probably, but I still get emails from people because it still does pretty well in search and I will get emails from…
RITHOLTZ: Wait, you haven’t posted on that in eight years?
SORGATZ: No, other than to — like say…
RITHOLTZ: Your book is on there.
SORGATZ: Other than to say, I wrote a book, here’s a link to it. I haven’t — I haven’t been.
RITHOLTZ: And you are not updating the list of lists, I’m trying to remember?
SORGATZ: I stopped doing that about five years ago.
SORGATZ: It just got too much.
RITHOLTZ: That is a lot of work.
SORGATZ: As I told someone on Twitter, I chose life.
SORGATZ: I would’ve had…
RITHOLTZ: That’s a fair answer.
SORGATZ: I would’ve had to hire someone, it got so all-consuming. And even back in 2005, it was still like a pretty hard thing to do.
RITHOLTZ: And now it’s impossible for one person to do it.
SORGATZ: It was like — the internet was like somebody needed to index the internet back then, there was kind of like a Yahoo Ask, kind of quality of the internet back then that somebody could compile everything into a place that you could — you could consume all of — you could you could look at every ones, you look at every list of the best albums of 2006 at one point, that was an actual thing one could do then.
RITHOLTZ: Right, you can hunt down the 62 of them, now it’s millions.
SORGATZ: That’s right, you could just simply couldn’t do it now.
RITHOLTZ: That’s why we have Google, you don’t have to do it anymore, Google will provide.
SORGATZ: It will just tell you what…
RITHOLTZ: All hail our overlords, Serge and Larry. I for one welcome our new technology overlords, I’m looking forward to living in the future whenever it chooses to arrive.
I want to talk about your writing and your focus on technology and culture and media, because you’ve written some stuff that I found really, really amusing including some things that have mocked what I’ve done either unwillingly or unwittingly but I’m always amused by that. And one — and this goes back to the recursive nature of your work where you’re always looking for these meta-themes that show up in media and you start to see the same ideas over and over again, and what at one point in time might’ve sounded like a clever idea, when you see a hundred of them it’s like, this is just a nonsense formula or is it.
RITHOLTZ: So the one that struck me the other day because I’m guilty of it, X should buy Y.
SORGATZ: I thought you were going to put that one out.
RITHOLTZ: Well, first because years ago I wrote a terrible column for the Washington Post that Apple should buy Twitter, in hindsight, what an awful idea, but last year I wrote a column Apple should buy Netflix and then turned out to be a great idea because at the time Netflix was like 60 or 70 million billion dollar market cap, it’s now coming up on 180 or something insane, and then I did a follow-up which is, all right, you missed Apple, you missed Twitter, now go by Disney.
I usually don’t like those sort of columns but every now and then, something happens, it’s like, you know the Apple video store is not great and twitter or the Netflix version is, so it would make my life easy.
By the way, everything I write, I don’t know if you have this experience, everything I write is for me, and when I say Apple should buy Netflix, it’s not because I have a grand vision of the future of technology that would simply make my life more convenient.
RITHOLTZ: So I don’t I don’t know how many people write like that or write for themselves but so that cracked me up what motivated X should buy Y.
SORGATZ: So yes, it was merely noticing a trope out there which is a lot of technology business writers sometimes feel like they run out of like tricks that I think they have some to get three columns in this week and they have to come up with one and so they go Apple should buy Netflix and they write that thing and so I called that X should buy Y, and I just listed a whole bunch of them.
RITHOLTZ: Dozens, dozens.
SORGATZ: And it’s — you realize quickly that this is like it so you know it’s a trope or you know, if you want to be more negative..
RITHOLTZ: A gimmick, it’s a gimmick.
RITHOLTZ: So when I read media criticism, I often say this person doesn’t understand the nuance, they don’t get this, they don’t get — when I read that, I immediately said guilty.
I like just — I’m nailed.
SORGATZ: And the thing about it is like I could have been very negative toward the trope at the — but I end to it by saying I’ve — I do this on Twitter all the time and the reason that even though I think it is a bit little bit of a lazy thing, there’s something fastening by the X should buy Y trope, that kind of article is that I think the article I call it business fanfic because what it allows you to do is kind of project a future in your head…
SORGATZ: What would it look like if the Wall Street Journal bought Flipboard? Like that’s what was examples I like people would say five years ago you, there was like a big idea that somebody should buy Flipboard, and it’s like that — no one regrets not having bought Flipboard today, right? Or whatever startup because a lot of the small startups you hear this set about, Twitter should buy Nuzzle or…
RITHOLTZ: Microsoft should buy Github.
SORGATZ: Yes, exactly.
RITHOLTZ: That will never happen.
SORGATZ: And I think it is like, there is kind of a weird value in it because it allows you your mind to kind of wander and speculate about the future and kind of sort of say to yourself, what would it look like if that happened, Microsoft buying Github is like a fascinating one because if you have written it a few years ago, it would have sounded preposterous…
SORGATZ: Just because of Microsoft stance for the open source community but also like it no one would’ve foreseen the change in how Microsoft has been perceived over the past 5 or 10 years.
RITHOLTZ: The new CEO did a lot to change their reputation.
SORGATZ: It did, it did.
RITHOLTZ: And then some of the other companies like Facebook and Google let’s don’t be evil became a little bit evil and I think everybody looked at Microsoft with the little I’ve always been a negative viewer of Microsoft and I’m kind of saying “Oh, they are all bad guys.”
SORGATZ: Yes, well, Microsoft has taken an interesting thing lately where they are picking companies that are have good reputation and so I always kind of thought they would buy Twitter and that was just going to be…
RITHOLTZ: The end of Twitter.
SORGATZ: The worst outcome because it’s the wrong company doing it and it’s mashing up two things that have negative emotions around them and I’m really glad for Microsoft that they didn’t and I mean, think Twitter is valuable and whatever I just think it would have been a horrible matching of those two things. Somebody’s going to start a new social network and it could be one of the big platforms, there will be competition in the next year for Facebook and whether it’s somebody trying to buy something or starting from scratch or just something and emerges from nowhere idea, I think it would be a good time for Google to take a shot at doing a new social network that promises privacy.
It’ll be a hefty marketing effort to convince people that Google will make a social network that promises privacy but I think it would be amazing if they took a shot at it.
RITHOLTZ: The most interesting aspect of that is if there was a way to — if you look at how unsuccessful they’ve been at policing YouTube and coming up with sifting out inappropriate things for kids and whatever.
RITHOLTZ: So I don’t know if I’m confident that they have an ability to do what Facebook clearly has not shown the ability to do which is a separate real from fake, identify what is valuable what’s not, and none of the social networks do that any well the exception being Linked In because it’s people’s professional career, there aren’t a whole lot of hoaxers on Linked In…
RITHOLTZ: Posting fake job, like that stuff gets found out way too quickly.
SORGATZ: Yes, and Zuckerberg is not being reassuring and he says that it should take us three years before we have solved this problem and it’s like three years? I have to deal with this information for three years?
RITHOLTZ: Well you don’t, you don’t have to, I mean you and I are of a not that far apart generationally, how often are you on Facebook?
SORGATZ: I look at it once a day?
RITHOLTZ: Really? I’m once a week and I think that’s healthier if I could if I can reduce that — like I was never a daily user and when I set up Facebook, I was always astonished at everything they asked, they don’t have anything that’s accurate about me except where I work and where I went to college and grad school everything else, no you are not getting my birthdate, no you are not getting, none of that stuff, and yet everybody voluntarily gives that stuff, who’s your favorite bands? I don’t know, if you are my wife, you would know that but you are a for-profit tech company, I have no interest in — I don’t want to serve me ads on that, I’m ignoring them anyway.
But that’s me.
Let’s talk about some of your other columns that I found fascinating especially in light of the Encyclopedia of Misinformation, tell us about Steve Wynn’s Vermeer?
Headlined, “This is not a Vermeer.”
SORGATZ: Thank you, I was going to ask what was the headline of that story?
So one of the things I’m fascinated with is art forgeries and I wrote a five-part series about all the different times we’ve been manipulated — all the different ways we are manipulated with art and one of them is really easy to point toward which is forgeries.
And that specific column goes through my desire to have a Vermeer and because who wouldn’t want one, there are only depending on who’s counting 26, 27, 28 Vermeers in existence.
RITHOLTZ: Right, right. Well 25 that we know of and theoretically…
SORGATZ: And some — that is the thing, every once in a while, there’ll be a new one added to the canon and it’s not that somebody has discovered a painting, usually it’s that somebody has decided oh this thing that the we’ve been debating for the past 20, 50 years finally gets let into the canon of allowed official Vermeers.
Steve Wynn bought one and I think his is fascinating because it was something that was not perceived to be part of official Vermeerdom until he bought it and then it became so and what — it’s an interesting case because it it’s like saying the verifying fact of art is not its historical veracity or any kind of analysis on it or…
SORGATZ: Yes, it has nothing to do with that, it really has to do is did somebody pay the money to make it worth it?
RITHOLTZ: Right, someone spent — what did he spend? $30 million on a Vermeer of questionable provenance is that a fair description?
SORGATZ: That is right.
RITHOLTZ: And is it now considered a real Vermeer?
SORGATZ: It is because somebody spent so much money on it.
RITHOLTZ: He did with $30 million…
SORGATZ: There was no new historical analysis done on it, there was no new scientific worked on on it, it was that somebody paid that amount and now it has to be.
RITHOLTZ: Did you track the recent Da Vinci with the was at the museum in somewhere Abu Dhabi or, so essentially they figured out something that was of previously uncertain provenance and came to the conclusion it’s legit and then paid an ungodly amount of money for it.
SORGATZ: Yes, and that is a fascinating case, because I think that that Christ painting that was most Da Vinci people did not think was real I bet in 50 years that will be the Mona Lisa, I really believe that history is going to reevaluate it and it’s going to — and because it’s become the most valuable painting of all time, that must mean that it’s not only Da Vinci but it’s important and that it is deserving of investigation and it is suddenly more mysterious, it’s more artful, it’s like it’s full of all kinds of new value just because somebody wrote a big check for it.
And I think that’s a fascinating thing with the art world, and that specific story, what I did was him I decided that I wanted my own Vermeer and there’s this thing in china with many of these in china hundreds of these companies where you can order whatever painting you want off the internet…
RITHOLTZ: And its literally a painted forgery stroke for stroke on the original one.
SORGATZ: Exactly right, by some estimates there’s like 20,000 people that are employed in doing this all day long in two specific regions of china and it’s a lot of westerners saying I have a favorite painting, please make it for hundred bucks and send it to me…
SORGATZ: And it shows up and so…
RITHOLTZ: There is a Rothko I’m very interested and I would pay 100 bucks for a Rothko.
SORGATZ: You could put it up and only a handful of your friends might be able to notice that it’s not real and pop maybe not even them.
RITHOLTZ: Do you remember the story about the Jackson Pollock that supposedly was given to his girlfriend and its provenance has been questioned and it was up for sale some time ago and I think it was — there was a silly number like $50,000, is it worth it to roll the better the dice $50,000 for what could ultimately be worth $50 million?
SORGATZ: Yes, that sounds like a good bet, how did it turn out?
RITHOLTZ: I don’t I don’t think it’s ever been resolved and there was an issue with I think it was her estate as to what to do with this, in the New York Times some time ago, can you stick around a bit? I have so many more questions for you.
RITHOLTZ: We have been speaking with Rex Sorgatz, author of the Encyclopedia of Misinformation.
If you enjoyed this conversation, well be sure and stick around and check out our podcast extras where we keep the tape running and continue to discuss all things misinformation like, we love your comments, feedback, and suggestions, write to us at email@example.com, follow me on twitter @ritholtz, you can check out my daily column at Bloomberg.com.
I’m Barry Ritholtz, you’re listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
Welcome to the podcast. Rex, thanks so much for doing this. During the break, we were talking about some of the ideas in the book and how you want to get them out into the firmament and we were talking about podcasts and radio, tell us what you’re thinking in terms of setting — doing a podcast because you’ve done pretty much everything else in media.
RITHOLTZ: You know what I didn’t say during the broadcast, you were a producer at was it MSNBC?
RITHOLTZ: Yes, how did that work out?
SORGATZ: I was there for a couple of years, this is back when msnbc.com was in Seattle, people forget that the MS in MSNBC…
RITHOLTZ: It’s Microsoft.
SORGATZ: Was originally Microsoft.
RITHOLTZ: Sure. So Michael Kinsley joined originally…
SORGATZ: It was originally, yes, I came in after he had been — had left but…
RITHOLTZ: As was Slate, Slate was a Kinsley Microsoft venture.
And they yes eventually, they packed up, eventually NBC bought it back, the Microsoft part and there is no such thing as a division of MSNBC inside of Seattle, inside of Redmond anymore as it once was, and that’s where I worked.
RITHOLTZ: Out of Seattle.
RITHOLTZ: Which is a real interesting town, I’ve been to that Microsoft campus, it’s astonishing. It’s a giant college campus.
SORGATZ: Yeah, it’s — I think I was too young to enjoy Seattle, I think I’d love it now, but it was like Seattle felt to me like a town of middle managers, like there was a lot of project managers at Amazon and project managers at Starbucks and project managers at Boeing — T-mobile and Boeing, and there was all of these companies, very successful companies, interesting places to work but it was like a town where everyone was a project managers who wanted to be a vice president, that was my attitude about the place at the time, that it was — that didn’t feel like there’s a lot of innovation there, it was just strange to say for a town that is considered a technical hub, right? And I look back on that I think that that’s actually just mostly my youthful arrogance like it was a — it was actually a fine town I and I was I was just not like I was too youthful and party-ish at that time to really enjoy it.
Now I go back and all of the people who I thought of as like middle-management are actually those VPs or EVPs now of those places and they are fascinating, I don’t know what my problem was.
RITHOLTZ: So you know, Seattle and Portland for that matter are places where I visit fairly regularly and wherever I go, I always say to myself could I live in this part of the country you know permanently? Not just for a couple of years? Seattle is really — it’s on fire, it is a hopping — as is Portland I mean you can pretty much work your way down the coast and just about every city is booming but Portland’s another one of those cities where, gee, who knew that this town is just exploding and I find that fascinating.
SORGATZ: Yes, I bought — when I moved to Seattle in 2005, I bought a condo and by 2007, I was leaving and by that time the real estate market was falling apart so I kept it because it was like everything was crumbling…
SORGATZ: And I thought this is is going to be the worst investment I’ve ever made.
RITHOLTZ: So did you double your money or triple your money?
SORGATZ: It’s more than triple now, I still have it and of course now it’s — Amazon has since moved downtown, I bought a place downtown and Amazon has since moved their headquarters…
RITHOLTZ: The new HQ is amazing.
SORGATZ: Yeah and now it’s like oh this real accident thing that I bought is actually going to turn out to be one of the wisest investments I ever had to had, right?
RITHOLTZ: Never confuse brains with the bull market, be it stocks or real estate is absolutely true.
RITHOLTZ: So are you out there often? Do you visit the place or are you renting it?
SORGATZ: I rent it out to the continual parade of Amazon employees who want to live nearby their new headquarters.
RITHOLTZ: And so you are going to hold on to this for a while.
SORGATZ: Yes, forever.
RITHOLTZ: That’s pretty funny.
So what else didn’t we get to that I wanted to talk about? Some of your columns, we discussed, the Jackson Pollock I mentioned, after I read that story, I show it to my wife who teaches fashion illustration and design, and she goes oh take a class painting like Jackson Pollock, like what? Yes, they offer, go sign up for that if you really want a Jackson Pollock, you don’t have to spend 50 grand, it’s Pollock, you can do-it-yourself.
Okay so we sign up for this class it gets canceled last minute and we never redid it but I would like to in the a big Jackson Pollock — the hard part is his signature, the rest of it isn’t that difficult.
SORGATZ: There was a famous instance of forgery out there of a Pollock that was revealed to have been have been a forgery because they misspelled Jackson Pollock.
RITHOLTZ: That’s always a clue when you get the artist name wrong that that’s never a — never a good sign. So I want to talk more about the book little bit, what surprised you most when you doing the research about this, because there are some kind of interesting entries in here.
SORGATZ: Yeah, I guess, I think — it isn’t even actually what surprised me the most — but there’s all kinds of interesting ideas of it, the biggest surprise is actually what happened outside of the book, I was halfway done with the book — writing the book when we had an election and Trump got elected.
RITHOLTZ: So this was — you started this book so my assumption in a book where Trump really is not mentioned by name I think you said in one…
SORGATZ: Was in a footnote…
RITHOLTZ: That my assumption was that this was pushed back to his presidency not that you specifically referenced him in any way shape or form but it’s just sort of like this is what grifters have done since the beginning of time and here’s 1 million examples of it.
SORGATZ: Yes so the quick story is that it was originally titled it was sold to the publisher as “The Encyclopedia of Fakery” and that’s a little bit more playful title not and that the subject matter was a little bit more to aesthetics, culture, society, and it wasn’t so — it wasn’t a very serious book and I would say that the book you’re holding now is also not a super serious book, but it took on a graver tone when halfway to writing it, we had a brand new president and all the sudden it was like the entire idea that knowledge is socially constructed or that it’s that what we know is up for grabs, the kind of like, that which is up a kind of a glib reaction to living in a society that’s like over mediated, what do we know? We don’t know anything. That kind of attitude suddenly became grave.
And I realize like I have to make this thing more serious and so that was the biggest changes that all of a sudden I had to introduce a lot more social science into, so this things like him the backfire effect of the filter bubble and these topics that are much more from psychology and sociology that tried to try more to get to the underlying concepts of misinformation.
RITHOLTZ: My favorite word of the past decade has to be the agnotology which is culturally constructed ignorance, go back to people, the tobacco executives, more recently climate change deniers, anybody was an interest in the truth not getting out there, if you have enough resources, if you have enough time, energy, money, we learned recently in the book “Bad Blood and Theranos” they were kind of trying to do the same thing.
If you’ve enough money and enough willingness to gaslight a nation, you could create an alternative set of facts and there are people who will unfortunately believe things are true to someone else’s advantage, it’s astonishing.
SORGATZ: I like the my definition for agnotology in the book, it’s the science of creating stupidity and what is interesting about it is that it’s not, when you think of propaganda you tend to think that it’s like an attempt to convince someone of an argument, right? And it’s through various means that you’re trying to argue a point of view and eventually they will adopt it, and what is interesting about the agnotology stuff that is especially around the tobacco companies, some big oil, especially of what we learned around tobacco is that the it wasn’t that the tobacco companies made an attempt to fill the information space with like corrective analysis, like it wasn’t trying and there is no like scientific studies done.
It was actually just like continually bombarding it over and over and over and over again with more and more and more and more information. And so it became like this endless thing where anything that you believed you could find a resource for with saying that thing and there’s a lesson there that we’re going through right now which is any belief that you have, you can Google it and you will find someone on the internet who has the similar belief and I if you don’t want to find contradictory evidence for it, you don’t have to, that’s a big problem like the right now and I think that in some ways that tobacco — those tobacco lawsuits, they — the science of creating stupidity that those researchers developed, some of which are real powerful well-known sociologist of the day is coming back to haunt us.
RITHOLTZ: My favorite line and I’m trying to remember where I pulled this from, tobacco companies sell two things, cigarettes and doubt…
RITHOLTZ: And that’s really quite fascinating. Let me jump to my favorite questions, this is what we ask all of our guests, tell us the most important thing people don’t know about your background.
SORGATZ: I was having dinner with my wife last night and I casually mentioned that I was once a flash developer and…
RITHOLTZ: Flash the software.
SORGATZ: Flash the software as in like those like flash games, interactives and eventually video is what it became known for which is hard to — it is almost gone from the internet now, it’s being expunged.
RITHOLTZ: Once Apple killed support for it, that was the beginning of the end.
SORGATZ: That was the beginning, so it’s funny that my own wife, who I have been married to for two years did not know this about me, I don’t know if that’s important, I think it’s funny that for years I did this job that is now completely defunct.
RITHOLTZ: Going away. Might as well be a steam engine fitter.
Tell us about your early mentors, who helped you along with your career?
SORGATZ: I think, I grew up in very rural North Dakota and when I was growing up I didn’t know anyone who — I didn’t know anyone who went to college…
SORGATZ: I — that’s weird to say.
RITHOLTZ: What is the prime economy in north — I assume some farming?
SORGATZ: All farming.
RITHOLTZ: All farming.
SORGATZ: My graduating class was 27 people, 25 of whom are farmers, and maybe 23 of whom still are farmers. And so I got — growing up, I didn’t — I didn’t have role models really, I mean there are people that I admired, I had a really great English teacher, Mr. Oleg I guess that’s what I’d say is my mentor in some ways, just because you know he really encouraged me but I grew up in a place where I didn’t have like — access to a lot about outside information and when I said I didn’t know anyone who went to college, I really like I didn’t know anyone who went to like the University Minnesota which would’ve been like the big school — still is eight hours away but would then maybe the big state school to go to, much less did I know anyone who went to Harvard, that would have like blow my mind.
So when I start to get — decide to go to college I just never would have occurred to me that go to like any of those places ever in my life.
RITHOLTZ: So you applied to the University Minnesota.
SORGATZ: I didn’t because that seemed like impossible, I applied to the University of North Dakota.
RITHOLTZ: North Dakota.
SORGATZ: Which was actually five hours away and it’s the furthest that my mind could imagine going and it’s the furthest that anyone that I ever knew went, it is still in state but it was five hours away and it seemed like — it seemed like I was pushing boundaries by doing that.
RITHOLTZ: Really, that — that’s fascinating. So as a Jewish kid growing up in Long Island, forget college, it was a given I was going to law school, I was five and I was pretty much told, yes you’ll be going to law school and medical school that — there was never any sort of well if you want to go to college you can, if not, here are your other career options, it was pretty much hey we’ll see how smart you are, maybe we’ll get into medical school and if you can’t, well, we can always use another lawyer.
It was never that — that’s fascinating that and yet you go to North Dakota, what was your experience like there?
SORGATZ: UND, the University of North Dakota is pretty typical big state school, you know, 12,000 students, it’s probably bigger than what — when you hear the name that it probably is, it — I don’t think it was any different from going to like you know, University of Michigan or Ann Arbor or what…
RITHOLTZ: Any of the big football powerhouse?
SORGATZ: Yeah, it was a pretty typical big state school and it was — it was a transformative thing for me because suddenly on just wildly more diversity but the…
RITHOLTZ: Was it all North Dakotans or was it a little more national reach?
SORGATZ: It’s probably about 80 percent North Dakotans, 10 percent Minnesotan something like that but, the big thing was that you know when I was in high school there was no outside media and so I — my high school library was the only thing, there was no library in town, the high school library is the only access to external information, this is obviously pre-internet right and the library have three magazines, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek and one daily newspaper, the Bismark Tribune which had — is basically a couple local stories and some AP articles, other than that, I didn’t know what was going on the world and with the three networks but no cable.
SORGATZ: And so I — I didn’t know any popular music and when I went to college, I suddenly discovered The Cars, and the Pixies, and the Cure, and every band that begins with The that I had never — not only had I never heard before, I never could have heard before because it was not on the radio and I didn’t go to record stores — I would have to travel forever to go to a record store.
RITHOLTZ: No local Tower Records where you grew up.
SORGATZ: No, no.
So college really was like an eye-opening thing to me and I loved it, I ended up staying there for probably too long because I was like this is great, kind of sit around and learn stuff.
RITHOLTZ: So how long were you in college for?
SORGATZ: Like 6 1/2 years…
RITHOLTZ: I was five years, so you’re worse than me.
SORGATZ: I have a few degrees, I started premed you know I studied everything like Latin and first all the sciences and then I got really interested in philosophy and literature by the time, I was done, I remember going to my advisor and him saying that you probably have taken more classes than anyone ever here, and I would like to actually go back and look, I bet that’s probably true, I get three majors and two minors and I would’ve stayed forever if I could.
If you knew me at like 23, you would have guessed that it’s impossible this person is not going to be a college professor because like that’s just like what I loved, and whenever I run into some he says they don’t — they didn’t like college I just go why, it’s the best thing in the world, you just sit around and read books and talk about them, how could you not like that?
RITHOLTZ: Speaking of books, tell us about some of your favorite books.
SORGATZ: I think, I’m going to name a weird book that influenced my book, do you remember this book early 80s called “Godel Esher Bach.”
RITHOLTZ: I swear to god I knew you were going to say that.
RITHOLTZ: I swear to god that that was on the tip my tongue, that book is sitting on the top shelf of my bookshelf in my office at home, and I am due to reread it.
RITHOLTZ: Because it’s all about the recursive nature of music, of mathematics, and of art, and those three, I’m just — I almost was going to volunteer that, but I’m just — Douglas Hofstadter.
SORGATZ: Yes. So he — I think that book is fascinating because for a lot of reasons, one it has no single point like today, if you are going to write a book, you have make a pitch that you can come up with in the two sentence is probably too long, you have to say precisely what this thing does.
RITHOLTZ: The elevator pitch.
SORGATZ: Yes, and it has to be tight. And especially I think the idea in the space of like idea books whether they are marketing or business or whatever, it has to be so kind of like you are going to drill this point home over and over again. “Godel Esher Bach” was this — I guess a book of philosophy but also psychology but also like it had plays and it had all of this like random assemblage of stuff and it never really tried to talk you into anything.
And — I don’t know of books like that, but I think of my book in the same way is that I am more just sitting like playing around with ideas and experimenting in like cut and not trying to talk you into any specific point of view but you still like give you a space to kind of like let your mind wander and it’s a little more atmospheric, I guess. And so I love — that’s why love that book is that it doesn’t ever browbeat you, and it’s also just like it’s so many random things like it’s like there’s an essay about MC Escher’s paintings and then, here’s like a dialogue between a tortoise and Achilles on a hill and, it’s just like a weird collection of stuff.
RITHOLTZ: I had assigned in college and the thing that makes it a coherent whole is that theme that runs through everything of the self replicating, self repeating nature of mathematics and art music and theoretically everything else.
RITHOLTZ: It’s a fascinating book, he had another book out after that.
SORGATZ: “The Mind’s Eye.”
RITHOLTZ: Yes which is another really interesting, more philosophical book, and not quite as esoteric, is that the right word, but he’s a fascinating writer.
Give us more, what other books, not that you really — that one book is enough to keep most people occupied for a long time.
SORGATZ: I will give an off subject one. Something that has nothing to do with my book but it’s always been something I’ve loved, it’s probably more obscure, do you member, I shouldn’t use past tense, this person is living, do you know the architect, Rem Koolhaas?
RITHOLTZ: The name is certainly familiar.
SORGATZ: He fits in that category of star architect like when there is that emergence of people in the 90s that was likely — they became the star architects, we are in the Bloomberg building right now and I would not be surprised if he had some influence on this kind of thing.
SORGATZ: Well, he wrote a book in maybe like 95 called “Delirious New York” and it’s a history of New York City but it’s written in a specific time when you could write a book that allowed you to use really poetic language and I say the word poetic with some hesitation because that it makes it sound like flighty or something, but it was a book about a theory that posited New York exists in this way because of this set of systems, and the specific system he was interested in was the grid.
And once you start to see the city through the lens of how he sets it up which is the innovation of New York is the grid and it’s the innovation of America, you kind of go, oh wow, this is really interesting, and he writes it in a very, I will again, use the same adjective, poetic way that is it’s not making a grand argument, it’s simply like letting you understand a way to think about New York City.
RITHOLTZ: “Delirious New York, a Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan.”
SORGATZ: A great book.
RITHOLTZ: Anything else? Or are we going to leave it with those tow, both of which I think you keep people busy for quite some time.
SORGATZ: I read a lot on Jonathan Swift while writing this book, just because he was the satirist of lore that is so important to our times, I had an entry about “A Modest Proposal” and I went back and read the “Modest Proposal” again for the first time, brilliant stuff because he also did a series of essays on politics that are highly relevant to our time called “The Art of Political Lying” I really recommend them.
RITHOLTZ: “Art of Political Lying” all right, we will l make a note of that. So since you started your blog way back when, what do you think is the most significant thing that changed for better or worse in terms of blogging and media?
SORGATZ: You know, a researcher called me yesterday and asked me a bunch of questions about internet and media technologies and the final question is what are you excited about today.
RITHOLTZ: That is my next question.
SORGATZ: Oh shoot, well, I will merge these two together and it was “what are you excited about?” and I sat there and thought I don’t have an answer, if it had been on radio, there would’ve been dead air.
SORGATZ: I was like, in my head, do I want to say Bitcoin? Do I want to say virtual reality? Do — I was like I don’t have an answer and I think that it’s because I grew up in an era where we were making consumer facing products and more and more the startup world and the media world looks b2b marketplaces, all the things that have value that is way less interesting to me. and so I have a really hard time getting excited about consumer technology at all right now.
RITHOLTZ: That’s interesting.
SORGATZ: The things that get — the things I get excited about are strangely have gone to the other side and is content, Netflix got really effing good like TV got good, podcasts got good, I don’t know where it came from but all the sudden like I wished I’d made a choice a few years ago and moved to LA and entered into the entertainment space, a decision I never would’ve made five years ago but I kind of wish I had because it’s exciting right now to be in that world.
RITHOLTZ: But you don’t have to be in LA, that’s the beauty of the technology you can do podcast from anywhere, we happen to be in a radio studio in a media building but I have one of the guys in my office does a podcast, they Skype, it’s him and somebody who’s in Michigan, the animal spirits, Michael Batnick, they basically do this using really inexpensive technology…
RITHOLTZ: It’s a radio, he ended up getting a of fixed mike because it sounded better and the use either Skype or a direct line so the quality of both sides audio is really good and you end up with — it’s amazing what you could do even with very, very inexpensive technology, so you wouldn’t of had moved to LA.
SORGATZ: Yes, for podcasting, I would’ve had to move but to be…
RITHOLTZ: Television yes.
SORGATZ: TV, I would have had.
SORGATZ: Podcasting is interesting because it is, I mean New York is sort of the hub but it’s a way more dispersed, it’s all around the country that things are going on.
RITHOLTZ: What you do for fun?
SORGATZ: If I could do anything in the world, they would be like disappear into a cabin somewhere with a guitar and write songs and put them on a four track and have no one ever hear them.
RITHOLTZ: That sounds like fun.
SORGATZ: That’s what I do for fun is I record some songs at home that I have no — it sounds like I’m an aspiring performer, I have no desire to perform or have people hear it, I do it only for myself and so that’s fun.
RITHOLTZ: That does sound like fun.
Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from the experience.
SORGATZ: Well I was in startups for a long time, so those are nothing but failures over and over again, as I could tell lots of stories there.
RITHOLTZ: So you don’t have any early Facebook stock, is that what you say?
SORGATZ: I don’t — I had some successes in so I’m things I’m proud of and products are made but everyone who has done startups sound like more even the successful people have nine stories of failure.
SORGATZ: I think the story I will tell though is that you know I got sued by Garrison Keillor?
So formerly of Lake Wobegon, NPR, and I think he kind of a run into a little trouble…
SORGATZ: He has been in trouble recently, he’s on a list of the men that seem to be involved in nefarious activities.
RITHOLTZ: So why did he sue you?
SORGATZ: This is a while ago, over 10 years ago back in the blogging era, I started — I used to live in Minneapolis and started a website called Minspeak which is basically a — it was kind of a local Reddit I guess like, it was like you posted links and you talk about them and it was a community site, it was a community news site and it was pretty popular and I did a marketing campaign for the site that was a bunch of t-shirts and we made t-shirts that said things like it was like an outline of Minnesota and it said “Land of 10,000 fakes” rather than lakes…
SORGATZ: It was like little pun t-shirts and one of the t-shirts was “Prairie Hoe Companion”
RITHOLTZ: That’s hilarious.
SORGATZ: I thought it was funny too, I had 150 even printed up they sold out within six months and about a year and a half after that, I got a letter from Keillor’s lawyer with a cease-and-desist on it saying please stop selling these, and it actually didn’t say please, but it said stop selling these.
RITHOLTZ: Now, isn’t parody fair use for something, it’s clearly parody.
SORGATZ: It’s really strange that one of America’s leading satirist would be out trying to sue someone for poking fun at him as it’s it seemed absurd right? So here’s the thing I want to give the guy the benefit of the doubt so I called the lawyer, his name that was listed at the bottom right I said “listen your client is making a mistake if you pursue this thing, here is what I’m going to do, I’m going to scan in this two-page cease-and-desist I’m going to put it on the internet and I’m going to write on their about like this conversation I’m having and I’m going to tell everybody how absurd it is that this is happening that — and I’m going to ask for help for like first defense because I’m not going to defend it myself and to get it and I’m going to…
RITHOLTZ: I’m going to win.
SORGATZ: I’m going to make your client look like a fool. And the lawyer was like you threatening me, Mr. Sorgatz? And I was like, no I’m not threatening, I’m just telling you that is what’s going to happen.
RITHOLTZ: Here are my cards on the table, I’m sharing my strategy with you.
SORGATZ: I’m saying, don’t pursue this, no one is going to know, I don’t have any t-shirts left, I don’t know why you are doing this, I’m not selling those t-shirts anymore, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, and he is like, well, I will talk to my client.
And 10 days later he called back and he said my client wishes to pursue this lawsuit.
And I was like oh man, you’re asking for it, and so I did exactly that, I basically put the conversation I had with them on and I scanned the pages that it was the biggest thing on the internet that day.
RITHOLTZ: That is awesome.
SORGATZ: It went viral like crazy because both people from the left and the right like it, it was the top link on Drudge and Andrew Sullivan wrote a column about it, all of like the bloggers of that day were like, it was a big deal for them, like people like Matthew Iglesias like the first generation of internet people were all about it in an uproar, and I got 600 comments and the ACLU called, the Stanford Law School called said they wish to defend me and this is….
RITHOLTZ: Exactly what you predicted.
When did they call back and say, all right, we are willing to let this go.
SORGATZ: That’s what I thought was going to happen, I just let it sit there and let it sit there, and I thought to myself, I could pursue this, I really could, and I have the right to, right, this is a first — clear first amendment thing and I’m going to win and it is a principal here.
RITHOLTZ: You should re-issue that shirt.
SORGATZ: (Inaudible) because they are not suing anyone now, and I didn’t pursue it and I look back on it, I think I made the right choice, but I’m not sure, but here’s why, I thought do I really want to have this thing that I become a person who’s litigated for, even if I’m right, that I’m litigated for using the word hoe, and I was like is that really something I want to defend? On a constitutional basis I for sure do but on a like personal level is that something that I really…
RITHOLTZ: That was a very mature decision.
SORGATZ: So I decided not to do it even though I know I’m in the right.
RITHOLTZ: That’s hilarious, that worked out well. What sort of advice would you give a millennial or recent graduate who was thinking about going into fill in the blank, content production, web design, media writing, what advice would you give someone right out of college?
SORGATZ: I have to give advice that is kind of based on my experience again and that that it is again kind of growing up in the middle of nowhere and if I went back and gave like a graduation speech to kids and where I grew up I would try as hard as I possibly could to convey to them this really simple notion that I think most millennials feel that they probably don’t feel where I grew up and that is you really can do anything, it sounds so simple and kind of almost trite to say you can do anything.
SORGATZ: It’s not a thing I believed, no one — there was no way I thought I could do anything and wasn’t it was until deep in the college that I thought I could do anything and there is also that’s my first thing I’d say is like you really — it doesn’t matter, you can do anything, and the second thing is, whatever your interest is you will find a job or a career or perhaps fortune around the thing.
Like I will give you a quick example would like what I feel are areas of interest in college was linguistics and because it’s a mix of science and art and it was kind of like the perfect thing for me and I can I didn’t pursue it on professionally because that no one really has careers of linguistics, you are going to be speech pathologist, what area you are going to be, today….
RITHOLTZ: Stephen Pinker.
SORGATZ: Yes, Google is so deeply in need of linguists, every tech company is and I think that you wouldn’t have foreseen that then and I think that we can aim almost anything I think that you’ll find that eventually there will be in emerging — you can own that category and that’s like — that sounds like an idealistic early internet person like there is a lot of rhetoric around the early internet that if you care about TiVo’s, you can write a blog about TiVo’s and it will be successful, and it was like for years it was –you — whatever your passion is you will find an audience for it.
I think it’s still true though, it’s like one of the pieces of the utopian internet that I still believe in is that if you’re passionate about something you will find people in the audience for it and you can be known as the expert in that thing.
RITHOLTZ: And a final question, what is it that you know about writing and content production today that you wish you knew 20 years ago when you were first starting?
SORGATZ: I wish I would have bought Apple and I wish I would’ve taken Trump seriously.
RITHOLTZ: All right, that’s a fair enough point.
We have been speaking with Rex Sorgatz, he is the author of “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation” if you enjoyed this conversation be sure to look up an inch or down an inch on Apple ITunes, Bloomberg.com, Stitcher, Overcast, wherever your finer podcasts are sold and you could see any of the other 200 or so such podcasts that we’ve done previously.
We love your comments, feedback, and suggestions, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would be remiss if I did not thank our crack staff who helps put these podcast together each week, Madena Parwana is my producer, Taylor Riggs is our booker, Atika Valbrun is our project manager, Michael Batnick is my head of research.
I’m Barry Ritholtz, you’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.