Curiosity Killers and Finding the Golden Mean of Digital Consumption

YouTheData.com is delighted to feature a guest post by John Gray, the co-founder of MentionMapp Analytics. 

Egyptian cat god Hunefer

Love them or can’t stand them, cats and memes have clawed their way into our cultures. Undoubtedly there’s a hieroglyphic cat meme etched on a wall somewhere in the historical ruins of Egypt. Believing otherwise, is to suggest that ancient peoples were humorless. Amusement, cats and memes aren’t new cultural considerations, just like today’s misinformation problem – popularized as “fake news” – isn’t either.

As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We can’t escape the history of information and communication technologies, but we can choose to blithely ignore it’s evolution and the subsequent cultural, social, and political impact. 

Material artifacts are distinctly human creations and productions. The difference between creation and production then (be it ten or ten thousand years) versus now is connected to the evolution of talents and tools, the access to resources and distribution, along with the relationship between scarcity and abundance. The same formula applies to the creation and production of information.

There’s no Golden-Age of media, information and technology to reflect upon. Neither is there an era of public enlightenment that offers us a model out of this current mess of alternative facts, information warfare, and erosion of trust in the pillars of democratic society (government, business, academia, and media). John Naughton’s article, How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into chaos, is insightful. Rest assured more algorithmic fine-tuning won’t deliver a news feed utopia.

Information flows through an increasingly complex ecosystem. Yet by seeing the information environment more like those we naturally live in – from rainforests, to deserts to urban landscapes – we can rethink our relationship with it. Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari’s rhizomatic theory of language frames online information as something more like : “…a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic, but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive: there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages.”

It’s not unfair to suggest that the brain hasn’t evolved to properly survive the complexities of this information environment. Human attention is finite, and the brain is wired to follow paths of least resistance. It’s like navigating a linear existence with a sextant, but actually living in a GPS guided exponentially changing world. With cultural artifacts being produced and distributed at internet scale and speed, the balance of the power is now firmly tilted in favor of amusement over information. It’s arguably never been easier to be amused, while at the same time harder to be informed.

“Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?” ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

It’s healthy to be amused, we need humor because laughter is “the best medicine.” We need satire and parody, as these are forms with a long history of creating safe space for dissent. From the Middle-Ages brilliance of Geoffrey Chaucer and François Rabelais, to the like today of Charlie Hebdo, the Onion, South Park or Saturday Night Live highlights that amusement and social critique can inseparable.

These examples also make a direct connection between the audience and the authors. There’s a close proximity to the attributable creative source. Whereas the Facebook distributed click for cash content strips away any sense of authorship. According to recent Pew Research two-thirds (67%) of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media which highlights why “political news” created by enterprising Macedonian teenagers offers a clear example of how the spread of unsourced information lacking verified credible authorship is polluting the information ecosystem.

Like believing in Unicorns, believing we can chart a course to the land of fully enlightened and informed citizenry is quixotic. Yet, the growing risk of living in a world of misinformed citizens pours out from every screen that is stared at. Start with acknowledging a unified theory of “the informed citizen” doesn’t exist. Yet, the relationship between making an informed political decision and political results come with very real consequences.

Of course, there are also no unified political outcomes connected with how informed or misinformed global citizens are. When someone doesn’t have the right to vote for something remotely close to a representative government, being an informed citizen is less meaningful. Voting in Canada, Britain or the US means something completely different than voting in Russia, Turkey or Venezuela. There’s choice versus an illusion of choice for parties, candidates and sources of information.

“Appearance tyrannizes over truth.”
― Plato, The Republic

Yet with having the franchise to choose, and taking steps to understand the issues, as well as a political candidate’s reputed stance on them, takes some effort. An informed public needs more than snacking on clickable headlines, they need the time to digest meaningful investigative journalism. Citizens gathering in open accessible public spaces that welcome those who are informed, and those who care about facilitating healthy public debate and exchange of ideas will serve us better than believing a government can legislate away misinformation. More unpixelated discourse may help create a less distorted reality.

“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
― Marshall McLuhan

It’s like being on a quest to find the Aristotelian Golden Mean of digital media engagement. Where’s the balance between being amused and being informed? The government can’t answer this question and there’s no technological easy button to press. It start with each making the hard choices like having a balanced ratio between digital versus non-digital information sources. It’s all on you to make choices about diversifying and broadening perspective in relation to what you’re reading, watching and listening to. Try getting beyond confirming your own bias with broader perspectives and points of view that make you uncomfortable. The odds are good that Aristotle wouldn’t see a life of moderation as one of feasting on a steady diet of comfortable confirmation dogma or passively letting autoplay serve up one more cat meme.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
― Richard Feynman

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