I didn’t really mean for this to be a serialized thing, this podcast, but it’s turned into a running document of trying to make sense of “these trying times.” The first episode in this series was released in mid-June and already it’s incredible how much life seems different, but the same. The bulk of that piece focused on a speech considering our individual templates for living, and throughout the summer I was intent on trying to identify the unseen, unrecognized elements around me relating to race—if we are all fish unaware of the water that engulfs us as we swim through life, what shape does that water take in my own life? This episode is the first of several I have planned that will each morph into the next, but I don’t quite have a grasp on what’s to be made of the points made along the way just yet. Maybe I’m just thinking aloud here, trying to convince myself there’s sense to be made of any of this.
About two months back in August I finished reading the book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday. It influenced both my curiosity and confusion around the ongoing “water” idea, as it focuses intently on illuminating how digital media in our culture got to be the way it is. One of the key takeaways for me from the book was a rebuff of a picture that I’d painted for myself in my mind, that in generations gone by we had lost something pure about the news, back in a day when the whole of journalism could be recognized as intrepid objective reporting calling for truth in the face of tyranny. I can’t place where this vision of the media came from in my mind other than wishful thinking, an image of what once was that could counterbalance today’s manipulated landscape of algorithmically driven news feeds. Maybe it’s my own way of wanting to make America great again, though when looking back, there wasn’t much great about it in the first place. Take, for example, the concept of “yellow journalism,” defined as “journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales.” These papers weren’t genesis of our modern news cycle, but they did help kick off a century of tabloid journalism, popularizing the idea that every day there is specific set of news we need to consume, and every day that news going to be “newsworthy” despite how little of it bears any practical context to how we actually live our lives.
I’m certain I’ve heard about the concept before, but as I read the book and pursued subsequent rabbit holes online and off I learned a lot more about how the consumer product of “the news” has long since been at odds with the idea of “objectivity.” Holiday’s book led me to another titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and in it author Neil Postman writes,
“This idea—that there is a content called ‘the news of the day’—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all of the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversations.”
The fact that media has since corralled the scope of daily news into digital silos—whether they’re limited to social media, email newsletters, or websites themselves—is only an extension of that process. It’s no wonder such funnels of information are referred to as “feeds”—whether “objective” well-reported news, or not, to be a news consumer of any type in the modern age isn’t unlike a goose being fattened for foie gras harvesting. The news business is, after all, a business, and how that business serves to inform a populace is always going to be subject to its bottom line. And to ensure that bottom line continues to be met, there is a necessity to create stories. This is what Postman’s writing about here: Open access to a global media landscape means no end to information that is “newsworthy,” which also has incredibly little actual impact on our lives.
Holiday’s book focuses more on the transition of news media from print to digital and how the commercialization of blogging impacted and accelerated a reduction in baseline reporting standards of “the news.” Enmeshed within this conversation is an underlying issue of what even constitutes news, how that news is vetted, whether it’s contextualized or not, and how events are interpreted by those reporting them. I think about how much our news silos were made an issue with the last election, with everyone (news outlets included) pointing to tech giants as the scourge of the Earth for dividing nations via programmable culture wars. I don’t think media is faultless here, but the process reveals layers of influence beyond mere tech or media feeding people what they want to hear—red news versus blue.
It’s almost universally understood that we live separate realities based on the news feeds we’re fed, but looking at that further, how much of that “news” is just pseudo-events in the first place, items that truly matter little outside the context of a news cycle that must always be filled. At one point Postman issues a challenge in his writing to assess how much of the media that’s consumed in the morning truly impacts the direction of the day. The weather report might lend itself to dressing more appropriately, or if you work in finance yesterday’s market report is of value, but what is there that we read, watch, or listen to that really moves the needle inspiring a change in action on a hyper-local personalized level? A number of questions flow from that, such as what it means to be “informed,” particularly when recognizing the historically tenuous relationship between media and truth?
You might be asking yourself why I’m ranting on and on about the news and media. Since making the last of these recordings my free time has been consumed by school work, and with that, I’ve started to look at media, politics, and what all of this might mean for us as a culture through the lens of what I’m learning there. Because of my classwork I’ve started to pick up on some of the subconscious biases that affect my own life and how they provide an entry point that leads to interpretation of what’s going on all around me. And without adjusting for certain biases it’s impossible to recognize the broader implications of the question from episode one of “what is the water we’re all swimming in?” To ask such a question as that isn’t to just look at the news I watch or the websites I frequent, but it’s to dig deeper into figuring out where my templates for living came from and how I’ve become accustomed to defining meaning from individual experiences. How much of my day to day experience is impacted by processes which subconsciously filter what I look for, what I recall, and what I believe?
The first I’ve been trying to recognize as it impacts day to day life are attention biases, something we wield both consciously and subconsciously, which essentially just filter the incoming information from the world around us. This takes several different forms, but the one I’ve been trying to focus on most deals with how our bodies amplify pre-existing dispositions. What this means is if we have an anxiety disorder, we’re likely to disproportionately allocate attention towards the things that make us anxious, typically without recognizing we’re doing so. The inverse is also true. Think back to a day that you had where you felt incredibly happy: How many memories from that day are of negative things that happened? It’s likely you can’t remember many, if any, because of how the bias swung in the opposite direction, filtering for the things that reinforced the positive mood. Attention bias also plays a role beyond disposition, impacting how we see the world based on our pre-existing beliefs.
One of this semester’s textbooks, called Doing CBT, outlines a common scenario of how this sort of thing plays out in everyday life. Author David Tolin writes,
“I live in Connecticut. In our small state, there is a pervasive belief that people from Massachusetts are bad drivers […] Everyone knows that ‘Massholes,’ as they are sometimes called, tailgate, drive too fast, change lanes without signaling, and are generally obnoxious in every possible way on the road. And, sure enough, my experience seems to bear that out. I see rotten drivers with Massachusetts license plates all over the place, terrorizing the gentle and respectful Connecticut drivers like myself. So the stereotype must be true, right?
Or… is there an information-processing bias at work here? When I see a rotten driver, I’m now in the habit of looking at the license plate. When it’s from Massachusetts, I think to myself, ‘Yup, I knew it.’ But what happens when that license plate is not from Massachusetts? I’ll tell you what I don’t do; I don’t think to myself, ‘Goodness, I must have been inaccurate in my beliefs about Massachusetts drivers. Perhaps there are good and bad drivers all over the country. I will be sure to take a more balanced perspective from now on.’ Nope, not me. Instead, I quickly forget about it and go looking for the next Masshole.
And on the flipside, notice that I only check the license plate once I’ve identified the driver as being rotten. I don’t check the license plates of people who seem to be driving just fine. So, on any given day on the highway, I might see 1000 cars. And if one of them is driving badly, I check that one’s license plate and ignore the other 999.”
I love this, because it brings in memory and confirmation biases to the fold, showing how attention biases don’t just filter incoming information, but also reinforce what we believe to be true. Whether I’m in a depressed state or I think people from Massachusetts are rotten drivers, without any extra effort on my side, the incoming information in my life is going to be distorted to conform to my perspective unless I make the choice to challenge my own beliefs. In his documentary, This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson fills in an important gap by referencing another cognitive holdout from our primitive days,
“Our prehistoric ancestors had to survive in highly unpredictable and uncertain circumstances and they had no clue why anything happened. And a peculiar thing happens when you subject the human mind to scary and unpredictable events it can’t explain: It explains them anyway. The mind uses its built in programming to come up with answers, and these answers make you feel better and they give you the illusion of control. We conjure up imaginary forces and invisible entities, and we can channel and influence. We conjure up magic. Magic only truly exists in one place: The human mind. None of this stuff is real and none of it works, but it doesn’t hurt us (mostly), and even more importantly it eases our anxieties. Magical thinking happens when people are afraid or uncertain and we use instinctive reasoning to make sense of it all. And the goal isn’t ‘the truth,’ it’s to make us feel better so we can go chase that boar or have that boar chase us.”
As Ryan Holiday adds,
“Once the mind has accepted a plausible explanation for something, it becomes a framework for all the information that is perceived after it. We’re drawn, subconsciously, to fit and contort all the subsequent knowledge we receive into our framework, whether it fits or not. Psychologists call this ‘cognitive rigidity.’ The facts that built an original premise are gone, but the conclusion remains—the general feeling of our opinion floats over the collapsed foundation that established it.”
The through-line with all of this has to deal with illuminating our own individualized interpretation of reality, found at an intersection of our internal subconscious biases, our primitive drive to explain the unknown and reinforce pre-existing beliefs, and the incoming news of the world, presented to us as truth by news, media, and tech. Just sit and let that breathe for a minute… It’s a wonder we’ve made it as far as we have.
I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to preaching from a pulpit of authority here—I just started learning about most of this stuff in the last couple months and still don’t understand most of it, or how it all comes together. But I will say, it’s been interesting to notice where this stuff starts popping up in life once you start looking for it. In August I had a Hunter Thompson documentary playing in the background while I was working, and I’ve probably watched this thing two or three times over the years, but my ears perked up as I heard something new this time. While covering the 1972 Presidential race, Thompson reported that there was a rumor that Democratic frontrunner Ed Muskie had been treated with—and perhaps become addicted to—the psychoactive drug called Ibogaine. And Thompson’s report was true, that rumor had been circulating. The thing about it was that he, himself, had started the rumor, and was intentionally using his platform to sway support for a different candidate in that race, George McGovern.
I like that Hunter Thompson example because if that happened today the outrage would be incredible (though not necessarily uncalled for). Fans and readers of a certain political persuasion would celebrate his troll-ish approach to tinkering with the subject of his reporting, while those of opposing political views might use the situation to further reinforce their beliefs that he’s a hack puppet of a classless regime. The more Thompson’s readers relied on him as a trusted source, the deeper that bias became, selectively remembering the good he was doing while conveniently forgetting the detrimental to a point where anything suspect was generally filtered out as automatic processing reinforced a pre-existing belief. The levels of influence at play are really incredible, and they impact us all.
I’m thinking back to this summer, where protests sprung up around the country in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. How different and distinct sides took form, one which communicated a message advocating that until we all matter, none of us matter, challenging institutions and society to examine and reform a broken system, while on the other Black Lives Matter supporters were viewed as ‘Massholes,’ blindly accusing everyone who doesn’t subscribe to their PC viewpoint a racist, all the while championing chaos in the streets, destruction of personal property, and lawlessness in our cities—in other words, it was automatic to assume they were terrorizing the gentle and respectful Connecticut drivers of the world.
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”
- This episode features the song “Self Driving” by Smo, used under a Creative Commons license from the Free Music Archive.
- Kirby Ferguson’s full-length feature documentary This is Not a Conspiracy Theory is available here, and without hesitation I would recommend watching the truncated version of Ferguson’s thesis in the video, “Trump, QAnon and The Return of Magic.”
- Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was directed by Alex Gibney and is available to view via Tubi.
- David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address can be heard in its entirety here.
the slowdown, Part 1: Is This Water?
the slowdown, Part 2: The “Good” White People
the slowdown, Part 3: To the Benefit of Whom?
the slowdown, Part 4: Separate Realities(you are here)
the slowdown, Part 5: Amusing Myself to Death