The World in Bite Sized Pieces

It’s hard to see the big picture when your perspective is limited to 160 characters.

Or when we keep getting distracted from said big picture by that other picture that always seems to be lurking over there on the right side of our screen – the one of Kate Upton tilting forward wearing a wet bikini.

Two things are at work here obscuring our view of the whole: Our preoccupation with the attention economy and a frantic scrambling for a new revenue model. The net result is that we’re being spoon-fed stuff that’s way too easy to digest. We’re being pandered to in the worst possible way. The world is becoming a staircase of really small steps, each of which has a bright shiny object on it urging us to scale just a little bit higher. And we, like idiots, stumble our way up the stairs.

This cannot be good for us. We become better people when we have to chew through some gristle. Or when we’re forced to eat our broccoli. The world should not be the cognitive equivalent of Captain Crunch cereal.

It’s here where human nature gets the best of us. We’re wired to prefer scintillation to substance. Our intellectual laziness and willingness to follow whatever herd seems to be heading in our direction have conspired to create a world where Donald Trump can be a viable candidate for president of the United States – where our attention span is measured in fractions of a second – where the content we consume is dictated by a popularity contest.

Our news is increasingly coming to us in smaller and smaller chunks. The exploding complexity of our world, which begs to be understood in depth, is increasingly parceled out to us in pre-digested little tidbits, pushed to our smartphone. We spend scant seconds scanning headlines to stay “up to date.” And an algorithm that is trying to understand where our interests lie usually determines the stories we see.

This algorithmic curation creates both “Filter” and “Agreement” Bubbles. The homogeneity of our social network leads to a homogeneity of content. But if we spend our entire time with others that think like us, we end up with an intellectually polarized society in which the factions that sit at opposite ends of any given spectrum are openly hostile to each other. The gaps between our respective ideas of what is right are simply too big and no one has any interest in building a bridge across them. We’re losing our ideological interface areas, those opportunities to encounter ideas that force us to rethink and reframe, broadening our worldview in the process. We sacrifice empathy and we look for news that “sounds right” to us, not matter what “right” might be.

This is a crying shame, because there is more thought provoking, intellectually rich content than ever before being produced. But there is also more sugar coated crap who’s sole purpose is to get us to click.

I’ve often talked about the elimination of friction. Usually, I think this is a good thing. Bob Garfield, in a column a few months ago, called for a whoop-ass can of WD 40 to remove all transactional friction. But if we make things too easy to access, will we also remove those cognitive barriers that force us to slow down and think, giving our rationality a change to catch up with impulse? And it’s not just on the consumption side where a little bit of friction might bring benefits. The upside of production friction was that it did slow down streams of content just long enough to introduce an editorial voice. Someone somewhere had to give some thought as to what might actually be good for us.

In other words, it was someone’s job to make sure we ate our vegetables.

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