The Fickle Fate of Memes

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Attributed to Andy Warhol

If your name is Karen, I’m sorry. The internet has not been kind to you over the past 2 years. You’re probably to the point where you hesitate before you tell people your name. And it’s not your fault that your name has meme-famous for being synonymous with bitchy white privilege.

The odds are that you’re a nice person. I know several Karens and not one of them is a “Karen.” On the other hand, I do know a few “Karen”s (as my Facebook adventure from last week makes clear) and not one of them is named Karen.

But that’s the way memes roll. You’re not at the wheel. The trolling masses have claimed your fate and you just have to go along for the ride. That’s true for Karen, where there doesn’t seem to be an actual “Karen” to which the meme can be attributed. But it’s also true when the meme starts with an actual person – like Rebecca Black.

Remember Rebecca Black? No?  I’ll jog your memory –

Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today it is Friday, Friday (partyin’)
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today

Rebecca Black

Yes, that Rebecca Black – star of “Friday”, which for many years was the most hated video in YouTube history (it still ranks at number 15 according to Wikipedia).

Admit it, when you remembered Rebecca Black, you did not do so fondly. But you know nothing about Rebecca Black. Memes seldom come bundled with a back story. So here are a few facts about Friday you didn’t know.

  • Black didn’t write the song. It was written by two LA music producers
  • Black was 13 at the time the video was shot
  • She had no input into the production or the heavy use of Autotune on her vocals
  • She didn’t see the video or hear the final version of the song before it was posted to YouTube

Although Black was put front and center into the onslaught of negativity the video produced, she had very little to do with the finished product. She was just a 13-year-old girl who was hoping to become a professional singer. And suddenly, she was one of the most hated and ridiculed people in the world. The trolls came out in force. And, unsurprisingly, they were merciless. But then mainstream media jumped on the bandwagon. Billboard and Time magazines, CNN, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and more all heaped ridicule on Black.

That’s a lot for any 13-year-old to handle.  To understand the impact a meme can have, take 11 minutes to watch the video above about Black from Vice. Black seems to have emerged from the experience as a pretty well-adjusted 22-year-old who is still hoping to turn the fame she got into a positive. She is – more than anything – just trying to regain control of her own story.

The fame Rebecca Black found may have turned out to be of the caustic kind when she found it, but at least she was looking for it. Ghyslain Raza never asked for it and never wanted it. He became a meme by accident.

Ghyslain who? Allow your memory to be jogged once again. You probably know Raza better as the Star Wars Kid.

In 2002, Ghyslain Raza was a shy 14-year-old from Quebec who liked to make videos. One of those videos was shot in the school AV room while Raza was “goofing around,” wielding a makeshift light saber he made from a golf ball retriever. That video fell into the hands of a classmate, who – with all the restraint middle schoolers are known for – promptly posted it online. Soon, a torrent of cyber bullying was unleashed on Raza as views climbed into the tens of millions.

The online comments were hurtful enough. More than a few commenters suggested that Raza commit suicide. Some offered to help. But it was no better for Razain in his real life. He had to change schools when what few friends he had evaporated. At the new school, it got worse, “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me.”

Imagine for a moment yourself being 14 and dealing with this. Hell, imagine it at the age you are now. Life would be hell. It certainly was for Raza. In an interview with a Canadian news magazine, he said, “No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living.”

Both Black and Raza survived their ordeals. Aleksey Varner wasn’t so lucky. The over-the-top video resume he made in 2006, Impossible is Nothing, also became a meme when it was posted online without his permission. Actor Michael Cera was one of the many who did a parody. Like Black and Raza, Vayner battled to get his life back. He lost that battle in 2013. He died from a heart attack that a relative has said was brought on by an overdose of medication.

In our culture, online seems to equal open season. Everyone –  even celebrities that should know better – seem to think it’s okay to parody, ridicule, bully or even threaten death. What we conveniently forget is that there is a very real person with very real feelings on the other side of the meme. No one deserves that kind of fame.

Even if their name is Karen.

Our Brain And Its Junk News Habit

Today, I’m going to return to the Reuter’s Digital News Report and look at the relationship between us, news and social media. But what I’m going to talk about is probably not what you think I’m going to talk about.

Forget all the many, many problems that come with relying on social media to be informed. Forget about filter bubbles and echo chambers. Forget about misleading or outright false stories. Forget about algorithmic targeting. Forget about the gaping vulnerabilities that leave social media open to nefarious manipulation. Forget all that (but just for the moment, because those are all horrible and very real problems that we need to focus on).

Today, I want to talk about one specific problem that comes when we get our news through social media. When we do that, our brains don’t work the way they should if we want to be well informed.

First, let’s talk about the scope of the issue here. According to the Reuter’s study, in the U.S. more people — 72% — turn online for news than any other source. Television comes in second at 59%. If we single out social media, it comes in third at 48%. Trailing the pack is print media at just 20%.

Reuters Digital News Study 2020 – Sources of News in US

If we plot this on a chart over the last seven years, print and social media basically swapped spots, with their respective lines crossing each other in 2014; one trending up and one trending down. In 2013, 47% of us turned to print as a primary news source and just 27% of us went to social media.

If we further look at those under 35, accessing news through social media jumps to the number-one spot by a fairly wide margin. And because they’re young, we’re not talking Facebook here. Those aged 18 to 24 are getting their news through Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

The point, if it’s not clear by now, is that many of us get our news through a social media channel — and the younger we are, the more that’s true. The paradox is that the vast majority of us — over 70% — don’t trust the news we see on our social media feeds. If we were to pick an information source we trusted, we would never go to social media.

This brings up an interesting juxtaposition in how we’re being informed about the world: almost all of us are getting our news through social media, but almost none of us are looking for it when we do.

According to the Reuter’s Report, 72% of us (all ages, all markets) get our news through the “side door.” This means we are delivered news — primarily through social media and search — without us intentionally going directly to the source of the information. For those aged 18 to 24, “side door” access jumps to 84% and, of that, access through social media jumps to 38%.

Our loyalty to the brand and quality of an information provider is slipping between our fingers and we don’t seem to care. We say we want objective, non-biased, quality news sources, but in practice we lap up whatever dubious crap is spoon-fed to us by Facebook or Instagram. It’s the difference between telling our doctor what we intend to eat and what we actually eat when we get home to the leftover pizza and the pint of Häagen-Dazs in our fridge.

The difference between looking for and passively receiving information is key to understanding how our brain works. Let’s talk a little bit about “top-down” and “bottom-up” activation and the “priming” of our brain.

When our brain has a goal — like looking for COVID-19 information — it behaves significantly differently than when it is just bored and wanting to be entertained.

The goal sets a “top down” intent. It’s like an executive order to the various bits and pieces of our brain to get their shit together and start working as a team. Suddenly the entire brain focuses on the task at hand and things like reliability of information become much more important to us. If we’re going to go directly to a information source we trust, this is going to be when we do it.

If the brain isn’t actively engaged in a goal, then information has to initiate a “bottom-up” activation. And that is an entirely different animal.

We never go to social media looking for a specific piece of news. That’s not how social media works. We go to our preferred social channels either out of sheer boredom or a need for social affirmation. We hope there’s something in the highly addictive endlessly scrolling format that will catch our attention.

For a news piece to do that, it has to somehow find a “hook” in our brain.  Often, that “hook” is an existing belief. The parts of our brain that act as gatekeepers against unreliable information are bypassed because no one bothered to wake them up.

There is a further brain-related problem with relying on social media, and that’s the “priming” issue. This is where one stimulus sets a subconscious “lens” that will impact subsequent stimuli. Priming sets the brain on a track we’re not aware of, which makes it difficult to control.

Social media is the perfect priming platform. One post sets the stage for the next, even if they’re completely unrelated.

These are just two factors that make social media an inherently dangerous platform to rely on for being informed.

The third is that social media makes information digestion much too easy. Our brain barely needs to work at all. And if it does need to work, we quickly click back and scroll down to the next post. Because we’re looking to be entertained, not informed, the brain is reluctant to do any unnecessary heavy lifting.   

This is a big reason why we may know the news we get through social media channels is probably not good for us, but we gulp it down anyway, destroying our appetite for more trustworthy information sources.

These three things create a perfect cognitive storm for huge portions of the population to be continually and willingly misinformed. That’s not even factoring in all the other problems with social media that I mentioned at the outset of this column. We need to rethink this — soon!

Playing Fast and Loose with the Truth

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with someone and they said something that I was pretty sure was not true. I don’t know if it was a deliberate lie. It may have just been that this particular person was uninformed. But they said it with the full confidence that what they said was true. I pushed back a little and they instantly defended their position.

My first instinct was just to let it go. I typically don’t go out of my way to cause friction in social settings. Besides, it was an inconsequential thing. I didn’t really care about it. But I was feeling a little pissy at the time, so I fact checked her by looking it up on my phone. And I was right. She had stated something that wasn’t true and then doubled down on it.

Like I said, it was inconsequential – a trivial conversation point. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was a lot riding on whether or not what they said was true? What if this person was in a position of power, like – oh, I don’t know – the President of the United States?

The role of truth in our social environment is currently a thing in flux. I cannot remember a time when we have been more suspicious of what we see, read and hear on a daily basis. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, less than 40% of us trust what we hear on the news. And when that news comes through our social media feed, the level of distrust jumps to a staggering 80%

Catching someone in a lie has significant social and cognitive implications. We humans like to start from a default position of trust. If we can do that, it eliminates a lot of social friction and cognitive effort. We only go to not trusting when we have to protect ourselves.

Our proclivity for trust is what has made a global commerce and human advancement possible. But, unfortunately, it does leave us vulnerable. Collectively, we usually play by the same playbook I was initially going to use in my opening example. It’s just easier to go along with what people say, even if we may doubt that it’s true. This is especially so if the untruth is delivered with confidence. We humans love confidence in others because it means we don’t have to work as hard. Confidence is a signal we use to decide to trust and trust is always easier than distrust. The more confident the delivery, the less likely we are to question it.

It’s this natural human tendency that put the “con” in “con artist.” “Con” is short for confidence, and it originates with an individual named William Thompson, who plied the streets of New York in the 1840’s. He would walk up to a total stranger who was obviously well off and greet them like a long-lost friend. After a few minutes of friendly conversation during which the target would be desperately trying to place this individual, Thompson would ask for the loan of something of value. He would then set his hook with this, “Do you have confidence in me to loan me this [item] til tomorrow?”  The success of this scam was totally dependent on an imbalance of confidence; extreme confidence on the part of the con artist and a lack of confidence on the part of the target.

It is ironic that in an era where it’s easier than ever to fact check, we are seeing increasing disregard for the truth. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump passed a misinformation milestone on July 9, making 20,000 false or misleading claims since he became President. He surged past that particular post when he lied 62 times on that day alone. I don’t even think I talk 62 times per day.

This habit of playing fast and loose with the truth is not Trump’s alone. Unfortunately, egregious lying has been normalized in today’s world. We have now entered an era where full time fact checking is necessary. On July 7, NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman said we need a Biden-Trump debate, but only on two conditions: First, only if Trump releases his tax returns, and second, only if there is a non-partisan real-time fact-checking team keeping the debaters accountable.

We have accepted this as the new normal. But we shouldn’t. There is an unacceptable cost we’re paying by doing so. And that cost becomes apparent when we think about the consequence of lying on a personal basis.

If we catch an acquaintance in a deliberate lie, we put them in the untrustworthy column. We are forced into a default position of suspicion whenever we deal with them in the future. This puts a huge cognitive load on us. As I said before, it takes much more effort to not trust someone. It makes it exponentially harder to do business with them. It makes it more difficult to enjoy their company. It introduces friction into our relationship with them.

Even if the lie is not deliberate but stated with confidence, we label them as uninformed. Again, we trust them less.

Now multiply this effort by everyone. You quickly see where the model breaks down. Lying may give the liar a temporary advantage, but it’s akin to a self-limiting predator-prey model. If it went unchecked, soon the liars would only have other liars to deal with. It’s just not sustainable.

Truth exists for a reason. It’s the best social strategy for the long term. We should fight harder for it.

How We Forage for the News We Want

Reuters Institute out of the UK just released a comprehensive study looking at how people around the world are finding their news. There is a lot here, so I’ll break it into pieces over a few columns and look at the most interesting aspects. Today, I’ll look at the 50,000-foot view, which can best be summarized as a dysfunctional relationship between our news sources and ourselves. And like most dysfunctional relationships, the culprit here is a lack of trust.

Before we dive in, we should spend some time looking at how the way we access news has changed over the last several years.

Over my lifetime, we have trended in two general directions – less cognitively demanding news channels and less destination specific news sources. The most obvious shift has been away from print. According to Journalism.org and the Pew Research Center, circulation of U.S. Daily newspapers peaked around 1990, at about 62 and a half million. That’s one subscription for every 4 people in the country at that time.

In 2018, it was projected that circulation had dropped more than 50%, to less than 30 million. That would have been one subscription for every 10 people. We were no longer reading our news in a non-digital format. And that may have significant impact on our understanding of the news. I’ll return to this in another column, but for now, let’s just understand that our brain operates in a significantly different way when it’s reading rather than watching or listening.

Up the end of the last century, we generally trusted news destinations. Whether it be a daily newspaper like the New York Times, a news magazine like Time or a nightly newscast such as any of the network news shows, each was a destination that offered one thing above all others – the news. And whether you agreed with them or not, each had an editorial process that governed what news was shared. We had a loyalty to our chosen news destinations that was built on trust.

Over the past two decades, this trust has broken down due to one primary factor – our continuing use of social media. And that has dramatically shifted how we get our news.

In the US, three out of every four people use online sources to get their news. One in two use social media.  Those aged 18 to 24 are more than twice as likely to rely on social media. In the UK, under-35s get more of their news from Social Media than any other source.

Also, influencers have become a source of news, particularly amongst young people. In the US, a quarter of those 18 to 24 used Instagram as a source of news about COVID.

This means that most times, we’re getting our news through a social media lens. Let’s set aside for a moment the filtering and information veracity problems that introduces. Let’s just talk about intent for a moment.

I have talked extensively in the past about information foraging when it comes to search. When information is “patchy” and spread diversely, the brain has to make a quickly calculated guess about which patch it’s most likely to find the information in it’s looking for. With Information Foraging, the intent we have frames everything that comes after.

In today’s digital world, information sources have disaggregated into profoundly patchy environments. We still go to news-first destinations like CNN or Fox News but we also get much of our information about the world through our social media feeds. What was interesting about the Reuters report was that it was started before the COVID pandemic, but the second part of the study was conducted during COVID. And it highlights a fascinating truth about our relationship with the news when it comes to trust.

The study shows that the majority of us don’t trust the news we get through social media but most times, we’re okay with that. Less than 40% of people trust the news in general, and even when we pick a source, less than half of us trust that particular channel. Only 22% indicated they trust the news they see in social media. Yet half of us admit we use social media to get our news. The younger we are, the more reliant we are on social media for news. The fastest growing sources for news amongst all age groups – but especially those under 30 – are Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp.

Here’s another troubling fact that fell out of the study. Social platforms, especially Instagram and SnapChat, are dominated by influencers. That means that much of our news comes to us by way of a celebrity influencer reposting it on their feed. This is a far cry from the editorial review process that used to act as a gate keeper on our trusted news sources.

So why do we continue to use news sources we admit we don’t trust? I suspect it may have to do with something called the Meaning Maintenance Model. Proposed in 2006 by Heine, Proulx and Vohs, the model speculates that a primary driver for us is to maintain our beliefs in how the world works. This is related to the sense making loop (Klein, Moon and Hoffman) I’ve also talked about in the past. We make sense of the world by first starting with the existing frame of what we believe to be true. If what we’re experiencing is significantly different from what we believe, we will update our frame to align with the new evidence.

What the Meaning Maintenance Model suggests is that we will go to great lengths to avoid updating our frame. It’s much easier just to find supposed evidence that supports our current beliefs. So, if our intent is to get news that supports our existing world view, social media is the perfect source. It’s algorithmically filtered to match our current frame. Even if we believe the information is suspect, it still comforts us to have our beliefs confirmed. This works well for news about politics, societal concerns and other ideologically polarized topics.

We don’t like to admit this is the case. According to the Reuter’s study, 60% of us indicate we want news sources that are objective and not biased to any particular point of view. But this doesn’t jive with reality at all. As I wrote about in a previous column, almost all mainstream news sources in the US appear to have a significant bias to the right or left. If we’re talking about news that comes through social media channels, that bias is doubled down on. In practice, we are quite happy foraging from news sources that are biased, as long as that bias matches our own.

But then something like COVID comes along. Suddenly, we all have skin in the game in a very real and immediate way. Our information foraging intent changes and our minimum threshold for the reliability of our news sources goes way up. The Reuters study found that when it comes to sourcing COVID information, the most trusted sources are official sites of health and scientific organizations. The least trusted sources are random strangers, social media and messaging apps.

It requires some reading between the lines, but the Reuters study paints a troubling picture of the state of journalism and our relationship with it. Where we get our information directly impacts what we believe. And what we believe determines what we do.

These are high stakes in an all-in game of survival.

Hope’s Not Dead, It’s Just been Handed Down

It’s been interesting writing this column in the last 4 months. In fact, it’s been interesting writing it for the last 4 years. And I use the word “interesting” as a euphemism. It’s been many things: gut-wrenching, frustrating, maddening and head-scratching. Many times – most times – the writing of this has made me profoundly sad and despairing of our future. It has made me question my own beliefs. But yes, in a macabre sense, it has been interesting.

I call myself a humanist. I believe in the essential goodness of humans, collectively and on the average. I believe we are the agents of our own fate. I believe there are ups and downs in our stewardship of our future, but over the longer term, we will trend in the right direction.

I still am trying to believe in these things. But I have to tell you, it’s getting really hard.

I’m sure it’s not just me. Over the years, this column – Media Insider – has morphed into the most freeform of Mediapost’s columns. The rotating stable of writers, including myself, really has a carte blanche to write about whatever happens to be on our mind. That’s why I was drawn to it. I’m not actively involved in any aspect of the industry anymore, so I really can’t provide any relevant commentary on things like Search, Mobile, TV or the agency world. But I do have many opinions about many things. And this column seemed to be the best place to talk about them.

What really fascinates me is the intersection between human behavior and technology. And so, most of my columns unpack some aspect of that intersection. In the beginning, it seemed that technology was dovetailing nicely with my belief in human goodness. Then things started to go off the track. In the past four years, this derailment has accelerated. In the past four months, it’s been like watching a train wreck.

The writers of Media Insider have all done our best to chronicle what the f*ck is going on. Today I looked back at our collective work over the past 4 months. I couldn’t help thinking that it was like trying to write at the micro level about what happens when a table is upended in the middle of dinner. Yes, I can report that the pepper shaker is still next to the salt shaker. But the bigger story is that everything is skidding down the table to the abyss beyond the edge.

I suspect that where we are now can be directly traced back to the source of my naïve optimism some years ago. We were giddy about what technology could do, not just for marketing, but for everything about our world. But to use the language of COVID, we had been infected but were still asymptomatic. Inside our culture, the virus of unintended consequences was already at work, replicating itself.

My vague and clung-to hope is that this is just another downswing. And my hope comes from my kids. They are better people than I was at their age: more compassionate, more empathetic and more committed to their beliefs. They have rejected much of the cultural baggage of systemic inequality that I took for granted in my twenties. They are both determined to make a difference, each in their own way. In them, I again have hope for the future.

We love to lump people together into categories and slap labels on them. That is also true for my daughters’ generation. They are often called Generation Z.

Every generation has their angels and assholes. That is also true for Generation Z. But here’s the interesting thing about them. They’re really tough to label. Here’s an excerpt from a recent report on Generation Z from Mckinsey:

“Our study based on the survey reveals four core Gen Z behaviors, all anchored in one element: this generation’s search for truth. Gen Zers value individual expression and avoid labels. They mobilize themselves for a variety of causes. They believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. Finally, they make decisions and relate to institutions in a highly analytical and pragmatic way.”

The other interesting thing about this generation is that they grew up with the technology that seems to be upending the world of every previous generation. They seem – somehow – to have developed a natural immunity to the most harmful effects of social media. Maybe my hope that technology will ultimately make us better people wasn’t wrong, it just had to skip a couple of generations.

I know it’s dangerous to lionize or demonize any group – generational or otherwise – en masse. But after watching the world go to a hell in a handbasket in the hands of those in charge for the last few years, I have no qualms about handing things over to my kids and others of their age.

And we should do it soon, while there is a still a world to hand over.

Are We Killing Politeness?

One of the many casualties of our changing culture seems to be politeness. When the President of the United States is the poster child for rude behavior, it’s tough for politeness to survive. This is especially true in the no-holds-barred, digitally distanced world of social media.

I consider myself to be reasonably polite. Being so, I also expect this in others. Mild rudeness makes me anxious. Excessive rudeness makes me angry. This being the case, I am troubled by the apparent decline of civility. So today I wanted to take a look at politeness and why it might be slipping away from us.

First of all, we have to understand the politeness is not universal. What is considered polite in one culture is not in another.

Secondly, being polite is not the same as being friendly. Or empathetic. Or being respectful of others. Or being compassionate, according to this post  from The Conversation. There is a question of degree and intent here. Being polite is a rather unique behavior that encompasses both desirable and less desirable qualities. And that begs the question: What is the purpose of politeness? Is a less-polite world a good or a bad thing?

First, let’s look at the origin of the world. It comes from the Latin “politus,” meaning “polished — made smooth.” Just in case you’re wondering, “politics” does not come from the same root. That comes from the Greek word for “citizen” — “polites.”

One last etymological nugget. The closest comparison to polite may be “nice,” which originates from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant”. Take that for what it’s worth.

This idea of politeness as a type of social “polish” really comes from Europe — and especially Britain. There, politeness was linked with class hierarchies. Being polite was a sign of good breeding — a dividing line between the high-born and the riffraff. This class-bound definition came along with the transference of the concept to North America.

Canada is typically considered one of the most polite nations in the world. As a Canadian who has traveled a fair amount, I would say that’s probably true.

But again, there are variations in the concept of politeness and how it applies to both Canadians and Americans.

When we consider the British definition of politeness, you begin to see how Americans and Canadians might respond differently to it. To understand that is to understand much of what makes up our respective characters.

As a Canadian doing much of my business in the U.S. for many years, I was always struck by the difference in approaches I found north and south of the 49th parallel. Canadians businesses we met with were unfailingly polite, but seldom bought anything. Negotiating the prospect path in Canada was a long and often frustrating journey.

American businesses were much more likely to sign a contract. On the whole, I would also say they were friendlier in a more open and less-guarded way. I have to admit that in a business setting, I preferred the American approach.

According to anthropologists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, who have extensively researched politeness, there is negative and positive politeness. Negative politeness is concern with adhering to social norms, often by deferring to someone or something else.

This is Canadian politeness personified. Our entire history is one of deference to greater powers, first to our colonial masters — the British and French — and, more recently, from our proximity to the cultural and economic master that is the U.S.

For Canadians, deferral is survival. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said about the U.S., “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Negative politeness is a way to smooth out social friction, but there is good and bad here. Ideally it should establish a baseline of trust, respect and social capital. But ultimately, politeness is a consensus of compromise.  And that’s why Canadians are so good at it.  Negative politeness wants everything to be fair.

But then there is positive politeness, which is more American in tone and nature. This is a desire to help others, making it more closely linked to compassion. But in this noble motive there is also a unilateral defining of what is right and wrong. Positive politeness tries to make everything right, based on the protagonist’s definition of what that is.

The two sides of politeness actually come from different parts of the brain. Negative politeness comes from the part of the brain that governs aggression. It is all about applying brakes to our natural instincts. But positive politeness comes from the part of the brain that regulates social bonding and affiliation.

When you understand this, you understand the difference between Canadians and Americans in what we consider polite. For the former, our definition comes handed down from the British class-linked origins, and has morphed into a culture of compromise and deferral.

The American definition comes from many generations of being the de facto moral leaders of the free world.

We (Canadians) want to be nice. You (Americans) want to be right. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

What Trump has done (with a certain kind of perverse genius) has played on this national baseline of compassion. He has wantonly discarded any vestiges of politeness and split the nation on what it means to be right.

But by eliminating politeness, you have also eliminated that governor of our behavior. Reactions about what is right and wrong are now immediate, rough and unfiltered.

The polish that politeness brings — that deferral of spoken judgement for even a brief moment in order to foster cooperation — is gone. We have no opportunity to consider other perspectives. We have no motive to cooperate. This is abundantly apparent on every social media platform.

In game theory, politeness is a highly successful strategy commonly called “tit for tat.” It starts from assuming a default position of fairness from the other party, continuing to cooperate if this proves to be true, and escalating to retaliation if it’s not. But this tactic evolved in a world of face-to-face encounters. Somehow, it seems less needed in a divided world where rudeness and immediate judgement are the norm.

Still, I will cling to my notions of politeness. Yes, sometimes it seems to get in the way of definitive action. But on the whole, I would rather live in a world that’s a little nicer and a little more polite, even if that seems foolish to some of you.

TV and My Generation

My Generation has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. I am a baby boomer, born in 1961, at the tail end of the boom. And, according to Time magazine, we broke America.  We probably destroyed the planet. And, oh yeah, we’ve also screwed up the economy. I’d like to say it isn’t true, but I’m pretty sure it is. As a generation, we have an extensive rap sheet.

Statistically, baby boomers are one of the most politically polarized generations alive today. So, the vast chasm that exists between the right and the left may also be our fault. 

As I said, we’re a generational dumpster fire. 

A few columns back I said this: “We create the medium — which then becomes part of the environment we adapt to.”  I was referring to social media and its impact on today’s generations. 

But what about us? What about the generation that has wreaked all this havoc? If I am right and the media we make in turn makes us who we are, what the hell happened to our generation?

Television, that’s what. 

There have been innumerable treatises on how baby boomers got to be in the sorry state we’re in. Most blame the post-war affluence of America and the never-ending consumer orgy it sparked. 

But we were also the first generation to grow up in front of a television screen. Surely that must have had some impact. 

I suspect television was one of the factors that started driving the wedge between the right and left halves of our generation, creating a non-stretchable world in between. Further, I think it may have been the prime suspect.

Let’s plot the trends of what was on TV against my most influential formative years, and — by extension — my generation. 

When I was 5 years old, in 1966, the most popular TV shows fell into two categories: westerns like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke,” or cornfed comedies like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” Social commentary and satire were virtually nonexistent on American prime-time TV. The values of America were tightly censored, wholesome and non-confrontational. The only person of color in the line-up was Bill Cosby on “I Spy.” Thanks to “Hogan’s Heroes,” even the Nazis were lovable doofuses. 

I suspect when certain people of my generation want to Make America Great Again, it is this America they’re talking about. It was a white, wholesome America that was seen through the universally rose-colored glasses given to us by the three networks. 

It was also completely fictional, ignoring inconveniences like the civil rights movement, Vietnam and rampant gender inequality. This America never existed. 

When we talk about the cultural environment my generation literally cut our teeth in, this is what we refer to. There was no moral ambiguity. It was clear who the good guys were, because they all wore white hats. 

This moral baseline was spoon-fed to us right when we were first making sense of our own realities. Unfortunately, it bore little to no resemblance to what was actually real.

The fact was, through the late ’60s, America was already increasingly polarized politically. Left and right were drifting apart. Even Bob Hope felt the earth splitting beneath his feet. In November, 1969, he asked all the elected leaders of the country, no matter their politics, to join him in a week of national unity. One of those leaders called it “a time of crisis, greater today perhaps than since the Civil War.” 

But rather than trying to heal the wounds, politicians capitalized on them, further splitting the country apart by affixing labels like Nixon’s “The Silent Majority.” 

Now, let’s move ahead to my teen years. From our mid-teens to our mid-twenties, we create our social identities. Our values and morals take on some complexity. The foundations for our lifelong belief structures are formed during these years. 

In 1976, when I was 15, the TV line-up had become a lot more controversial. We had many shows regularly tackling social commentary: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “Sanford and Son,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Barney Miller” and “Good Times.” Of course, we still had heaps of wholesome, thanks to “Happy Days,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “The Waltons.

Just when my generation was forming the values that would define us, our prime-time line-up was splitting left and right. You had the social moralizing of left-leaning show runners like Norman Lear (“All in the Family”) and Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”) vs the God and Country values of “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.” 

I don’t know what happened in your hometown, but in mine, we started to be identified by the shows we watched (or, often, what our parents let us watch). You had the “All in the Family” Group and “The Waltons” Group. In the middle, we could generally agree on “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The cracks in the ideologies of my generation were starting to show.

I suspect as time went forward, the two halves of my generation started looking to television with two different intents: either to inform ourselves of the world that is, warts and all — or to escape to a world that never was. As our programming choices expanded, those two halves got further and further apart, and the middle ground disappeared. 

There are other factors, I’m sure. But speaking for myself, I spent an unhealthy amount of time watching TV when I was young. It couldn’t help but partially form the person I am today. And if that is true for me, I suspect it is also true for the rest of my generation.

Crisis? What Crisis?

You would think that a global pandemic would hold our attention for a while.

Nope.

We’re tired of it. We’re moving on.  We’re off to the next thing.

Granted, in this case the next thing deserves to be focused on. It is abysmal that it still exists. So it should be focused on. Probably for the rest of our lives and beyond – going forward until it ceases to be a thing. But it won’t be. Soon we’ll be talking about something else.

And that’s the point of this post – our collective inability to remain focused on anything without being distracted by the next breaking story in our news feed. How did we come to this?

I blame memes.

To a certain extent, our culture is the product of who we are and who we are is a product of our culture. Each is shaped by the other, going forward in a constantly improvised pas de deux. Humans create the medium – which then becomes part of the environment we adapt too.

Books and the printed word changed who we were for over five centuries.  Cinema has been helping to define us for almost 150 years. And radio and television has been moulding us for the past century. Our creations have helped create who we are.

This has never been truer than with social media. Unlike other media which took discrete chunks of our time and attention, social media is ubiquitous and pervasive. According to a recent survey, we spend on average 2 hours and 23 minutes per day on social media. That is about 13% of our waking hours.  Social media has become intertwined with our lives to the point that we had to start qualifying what happens where with labels like “IRL” (In Real Life).

There is another difference between social media and what has come before it. Almost every previous entertainment medium that has demanded our attention has been built on the foundation of a long form narrative arc. Interacting with each medium has been a process – a commitment to invest a certain amount of time to go on a journey with the storyteller. The construction of a story depends on patterns that are instantly recognized by us. Once we identify them, we are invested in discovering the outcome. We understand that our part of the bargain is to exchange our time and attention. The payoff is the joy that comes from us making sense of a new world or situation, even if it is imaginary.  

But social media depends on a different exchange. Rather than tapping into our inherent love of the structure of a story it depends on something called variable intermittent rewards. Essentially, it’s the same hook that casinos use to keep people at a slot machine or table. Not only is it highly addictive, it also pushes us to continually scroll to the next thing. It completely bypasses the thinking part of our brains and connects directly to the reward center buried in our limbic system. Rather than ask for our time and attention social media dangles a never-ending array of bright, shiny memes that asks nothing from us: no thinking, almost no attention and a few seconds of our time at most. For a lazy brain, this is the bargain of a lifetime.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the media that are most dependent on advertising are also the media that avoids locking our attention on a single topic for an extended period. This makes social media the perfect match for interruptive ad forms. They are simply slotted into the never-ending scroll of memes.

Social media has only been around for a little over 2 decades. It has been a significant part of our lives for half that time. If even a little bit of what I suspect is happening is indeed taking place, that scares the hell out of me. It would mean that no other medium has changed us so much and so quickly.

That is something worth paying attention to. 

How Social Media is Rewiring our Morality

Just a few short months ago, I never dreamed that one of the many fault lines in our society would be who wore a face mask and who didn’t. But on one day last week, most of the stories on CNN.com were about just that topic.

For reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, the debate has some interesting moral and sociological implications. But before we get to that, let’s address this question: What is morality anyway?

Who’s On First?

In the simplest form possible, there is one foundational evolutionary spectrum to what we consider our own morality, which is: Are we more inclined to worry about ourselves or worry about others? Each of us plots our own morals somewhere on this spectrum.

At one end we have the individualist, the one who continually puts “me first.” Typically, the morals of those focused only on themselves concern individual rights, freedoms and beliefs specific to them. This concern for these rights does not extend to anyone considered outside their own “in” group.

As we move across the spectrum, we next find the familial moralist: Those who worry first about their own kin. Morality is always based on “family first.”

Next comes those who are more altruistic, as long as that altruism is directed at those who share common ground with themselves.  You could call this the “we first” group.

Finally, we have the true altruist, who believes in a type of universal altruism and that a rising tide truly lifts all boats.  

This concept of altruism has always been a bit of a puzzle for early evolutionists. In sociological parlance, it’s called proactive prosociality — doing something nice for someone who is not closely related to you without being asked. It seems at odds with the concept of the Selfish Gene, first introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book of the same name in 1976.

But as Dawkins has clarified over and over again since the publication of the book, selfish genes and prosociality are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, symbiotic.

Moral Collaboration

We have spent about 95% or our entire time as a species as hunter-gatherers. If we have evolved a mechanism of morality,  it would make sense to be most functional in that type of environment.

Hunter-gatherer societies need to collaborate. This is where the seeds of reciprocal altruism can be found. A group of people who work together to ensure continued food supplies will outlive and out-reproduce a group of people who don’t.  From a selfish gene perspective, collaboration will beat stubborn individualism.

But this type of collaboration comes with an important caveat: It only applies to individuals that live together in the same communal group.

Social conformity acts as a manual override on our own moral beliefs. Even in situations where we may initially have a belief of what is right and wrong, most of us will end up going with what the crowd is doing.

It’s an evolutionary version of the wisdom of crowds. But our evolved social conformity safety net comes with an important caveat: it assumes that everyone in the group is  in the same physical location and dealing with the same challenge.  

There is also a threshold effect there that determines how likely we are to conform. How we will act in any given situation will depend on a number of factors: how strong our existing beliefs are, the situation we’re in, and how the crowd is acting. This makes sense. Our conformity is inversely related to our level of perceived knowledge. The more we think we know, the less likely it is that we’ll conform to what the crowd is doing.

We should expect that a reasonably “rugged” evolutionary environment where survival is a continual struggle would tend to produce an optimal moral framework somewhere in the middle of familial and community altruism, where the group benefits from collaboration but does not let its guard down against outside threats.

But something interesting happens when the element of chronic struggle is removed, as it is in our culture. It appears that our morality tends to polarize to opposite ends of the spectrum.

Morality Rewired

What happens when our morality becomes our personal brand, part of who we believe we are? When that happens, our sense of morality migrates from the evolutionary core of our limbic brain to our cortex, the home of our personal brand. And our morals morph into a sort of tribal identity badge.

In this case, social media can short-circuit the evolutionary mechanisms of morality.

For example, there has been a proven correlation  between prosociality and the concept of “watching eye.” We are more likely to be good people when we have an audience.

But social media twists the concept of audience and can nudge our behavior from the prosocial to the more insular and individualistic end of the spectrum.

The successfulness of social conformity and the wisdom of crowds depends on a certain heterogeneity in the ideological makeup of the crowd. The filter bubble of social media strips this from our perceived audience, as I have written. It reinforces our moral beliefs by surrounding us with an audience that also shares those beliefs. The confidence that comes from this tends to push us away from the middle ground of conformed morality toward outlier territory. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing the polarization of morality all too evident today.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there may never have been  a more observable indicator of our own brand of morality than the current face-mask debate.

In an article on Businessinsider.com, Daniel Ackerman compared it to the crusade against seat belts in the 1970’s. Certainly when it comes to our perceived individual rights and not wanting to be told what to do, there are similarities. But there is one crucial difference. You wear seat belts to save your own life. You wear a face mask to save other lives.

We’ve been told repeatedly that the main purpose of face masks is to stop you spreading the virus to others, not the other way around. That makes the decision of whether you wear a face mask or not the ultimate indicator of your openness to reciprocal altruism.

The cultural crucible in which our morality is formed has changed. Our own belief structure of right and wrong is becoming more inflexible. And I have to believe that social media may be the culprit.

A.I. and Our Current Rugged Landscape

In evolution, there’s something called the adaptive landscape. It’s a complex concept, but in the smallest nutshell possible, it refers to how fit species are for a particular environment. In a relatively static landscape, status quos tend to be maintained. It’s business as usual. 

But a rugged adaptive landscape —-one beset by disruption and adversity — drives evolutionary change through speciation, the introduction of new and distinct species. 

The concept is not unique to evolution. Adapting to adversity is a feature in all complex, dynamic systems. Our economy has its own version. Economist Joseph Schumpeter called them Gales of Creative Destruction.

The same is true for cultural evolution. When shit gets real, the status quo crumbles like a sandcastle at high tide. When it comes to life today and everything we know about it, we are definitely in a rugged landscape. COVID-19 might be driving us to our new future faster than we ever suspected. The question is, what does that future look like?

Homo Deus

In his follow up to his best-seller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” author Yuval Noah Harari takes a shot at predicting just that. “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” looks at what our future might be. Written well before the pandemic (in 2015) the book deals frankly with the impending irrelevance of humanity. 

The issue, according to Harari, is the decoupling of intelligence and consciousness. Once we break the link between the two, the human vessels that have traditionally carried intelligence become superfluous. 

In his book, Harari foresees two possible paths: techno-humanism and Dataism. 

Techno-humanism

In this version of our future, we humans remain essential, but not in our current form. Thanks to technology, we get an upgrade and become “super-human.”

Dataism

Alternatively, why do we need humans at all? Once intelligence becomes decoupled from human consciousness, will it simply decide that our corporeal forms are a charming but antiquated oddity and just start with a clean slate?

Our Current Landscape

Speaking of clean slates, many have been talking about the opportunity COVID-19 has presented to us to start anew. As I was writing this column, I received a press release from MIT promoting a new book “Building the New Economy,” edited by Alex Pentland. I haven’t read it yet, but based on the first two lines in the release, it certainly seems to be following this type of thinking:“With each major crisis, be it war, pandemic, or major new technology, there has been a need to reinvent the relationships between individuals, businesses, and governments. Today’s pandemic, joined with the tsunami of data, crypto and AI technologies, is such a crisis.”

We are intrigued by the idea of using the technologies we have available to us to build a societal framework less susceptible to inevitable Black Swans. But is this just an invitation to pry open Pandora’s Box and allow the future Yuval Noah Harari is warning us about?

The Debate 

Harari isn’t the only one seeing the impending doom of the human race. Elon Musk has been warning us about it for years. As we race to embrace artificial intelligence, Musk sees the biggest threat to human existence we have ever faced. 

“I am really quite close, I am very close, to the cutting edge in AI and it scares the hell out of me,” warns Musk. “It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows and the rate of improvement is exponential.”

There are those that pooh-pooh Musk’s alarmism, calling it much ado about nothing. Noted Harvard cognitive psychologist and author Steven Pinker, whose rose-colored vision of humanity’s future reliably trends up and to the right, dismissed Musk’s warnings with this: “If Elon Musk was really serious about the AI threat, he’d stop building those self-driving cars, which are the first kind of advanced AI that we’re going to see.”

In turn, Musk puts Pinker’s Pollyanna perspective down to human hubris: “This tends to plague smart people. They define themselves by their intelligence and they don’t like the idea that a machine could be way smarter than them, so they discount the idea — which is fundamentally flawed.”

From Today Forward

This brings us back to our current adaptive landscape. It’s rugged. The peaks and valleys of our day-to-day reality are more rugged then they have ever been — at least in our lifetimes. 

We need help. And when you’re dealing with a massive threat that involves probability modeling and statistical inference, more advanced artificial intelligence is a natural place to look. 

Would we trade more invasive monitoring of our own bio-status and aggregation of that data to prevent more deaths? In a heartbeat.

Would we put our trust in algorithms that can instantly crunch vast amounts of data our own brains couldn’t possibly comprehend? We already have.

Will we even adopt connected devices constantly streaming the bits of data that define our existence to some corporate third party or government agency in return for a promise of better odds that we can extend that existence? Sign us up.

We are willingly tossing the keys to our future to the Googles, Apples, Amazons and Facebooks of the world. As much as the present may be frightening, we should consider the steps we’re taking carefully.

If we continue rushing down the path towards Yuval Noah Harari’s Dataism, we should be prepared for what we find there: “This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.”