Memories Made by Media

If you said the year 1967 to me, the memory that would pop into my head would be of Haight-Ashbury (ground zero for the counterculture movement), hippies and the summer of love. In fact, that same memory would effectively stand in for the period 1967 to 1969. In my mind, those three years were variations on the theme of Woodstock, the iconic music festival of 1969.

But none of those are my memories. I was alive, but my own memories of that time are indistinct and fuzzy. I was only 6 that year and lived in Alberta, some 1300 miles from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, so I have discarded my own personal representative memories. The ones I have were all created by images that came via media.

The Swapping of Memories

This is an example of the two types of memories we have – personal or “lived” memories and collective memories. Collective memories are the memories we get from outside, either for other people or, in my example, from media. As we age, there tends to be a flow back and forth between these two types or memories, with one type coloring the other.

One group of academics proposed an hourglass model as a working metaphor to understand this continuous exchange of memories – with some flowing one way and others flowing the other.  Often, we’re not even aware of which type of memory we’re recalling, personal or collective. Our memories are notoriously bad at reflecting reality.

What is true, however, is that our personal memories and our collective memories tend to get all mixed up. The lower our confidence in our personal memories, the more we tend to rely on collective memories. For periods before we were born, we rely solely on images we borrow.

Iconic Memories

What is true for all memories, ours or the ones we borrow from others, is we put them through a process called “leveling and sharpening.” This is a type of memory consolidation where we throw out some of the detail that is not important to us – this is leveling – and exaggerate other details to make it more interesting – i.e. sharpening.

Take my borrowed memories of 1967, for example. There was a lot more happening in the world than whatever was happening in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, but I haven’t retained any of it in my representative memory of that year. For example, there was a military coup in Greece, the first successful human heart transplant, the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a series of deadly tornadoes in Chicago and Typhoon Emma left 140,000 people homeless in the Philippines. But none of that made it into my memory of 1967.

We could call the memories we do keep as “iconic” – which simply means we chose symbols to represent a much bigger and more complex reality – like everything that happened in a 365 day stretch 5 and a half decades ago.

Mass Manufactured Memories

Something else happens when we swap our own personal memories for collective memories – we find much more commonality in our memories. The more removed we become from our own lived experiences, the more our memories become common property.

If I asked you to say the first thing that comes to mind about 2002, you would probably look back through your own personal memory store to see if there was anything there. Chances are it would be a significant event from your own life, and this would make it unique to you. If we had a group of 50 people in a room and I asked that question, I would probably end up with 50 different answers.

But if I asked that same group what the first thing is that comes to mind when I say the year 1967, we would find much more common ground. And that ground would probably be defined by how each of us identify ourselves. For some you might have the same iconic memory that I do – that of the Haight Ashbury and the Summer of Love. Others may have picked the Vietnam War as the iconic memory from that year. But I would venture to guess that in our group of 50, we would end up with only a handful of answers.

When Memories are Made of Media

I am taking this walk down Memory Lane because I want to highlight how much we rely on the media to supply our collective memories. This dependency is critical, because once media images are processed by us and become part of our collective memories, they hold tremendous sway over our beliefs. These memories become the foundation for how we make sense of the world.

This is true for all media, including social media. A study in 2018 (Birkner & Donk) found that “alternative realities” can be formed through social media to run counter to collective memories formed from mainstream media. Often, these collective memories formed through social media are polarized by nature and are adopted by outlier fringes to justify extreme beliefs and viewpoints. This shows that collective memories are not frozen in time but are malleable – continually being rewritten by different media platforms.

Like most things mediated by technology, collective memories are splintering into smaller and smaller groupings, just like the media that are instrumental in their formation.

Sensationalizing Scam Culture

We seem to be fascinated by bad behavior. Our popular culture is all agog with grifters and assholes. As TV Blog’s Adam Buckman wrote in March: “Two brand-new limited series premiering this week appear to be part of a growing trend in which some of recent history’s most notorious innovators and disruptors are getting the scripted-TV treatment.”

The two series Buckman was talking about were “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and “The Dropout,” about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

But those are just two examples from a bumper crop of shows about bad behavior. My streaming services are stuffed with stories of scammers. In addition to the two series Buckman mentioned, I just finished Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix series “Inventing Anna,” about Anna Sorokin, who posed as an heiress named Anna Delvey.

All these treatments tread a tight wire of moral judgement, where the examples are presented as antisocial, but in a wink-and-a-nod kind of way, where we not so secretly admire these behaviors. Much as the actions are harmful to well-being of the collective “we,” they do appeal to the selfishness and ambition of “me.”

Most of the examples given are rags to riches to retribution stores (Holmes was an exception with her upper-middle-class background). The sky-high ambitions of Kalanick Holmes and Sorokin were all eventually brought back down to earth. Sorokin and Holmes both ended up in prison, and Kalanick was ousted from the company he founded.

But with the subtlest of twists, they didn’t have to end this way. They could have been the story of almost any corporate America hustler who triumphed. With a little more substance and a little less scam, you could swap Elizabeth Holmes for Steve Jobs. They even dressed the same.

Obviously, scamming seems to sell. These people fascinate us. Part of the appeal is no doubt due a class conflict narrative: the scrappy hustler climbing the social ranks by whatever means possible. We love to watch “one of us” pull the wool over the eyes of the social elite.

In the case of Anna Sorokin, Laura Craik dissects our fascination in a piece published in the UK’s Evening Standard:

“The reason people are so obsessed with Sorokin is simple: she had the balls to pull off on a grand scale what so many people try and fail to pull off on a small one. To use a phrase popular on social media, Sorokin succeeded in living her best life — right down to the clothes she wore in court, chosen by a stylist. Like Jay Gatsby, she was a deeply flawed embodiment of The American Dream: a person from humble beginnings who rose to achieve wealth and social status. Only her wealth was borrowed and her social status was conferred via a chimera of untruths.”

Laura Craik – UK Evening Standard

This type of behavior is nothing new. It’s always been a part of us. In 1513, a Florentine bureaucrat named Niccolo Machiavelli gave it a name — actually, his name. In writing “The Prince,” he condoned bad behavior as long as the end goal was to elevate oneself. In a Machiavellian world, it’s always open season on suckers: “One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”

For the past five centuries, Machiavellianism was always synonymous with evil. It was a recognized character flaw, described as “a personality trait that denotes cunningness, the ability to be manipulative, and a drive to use whatever means necessary to gain power. Machiavellianism is one of the traits that forms the Dark Triad, along with narcissism and psychopathy.”

Now, however, that stigma seems to be disappearing. In a culture obsessed with success, Machiavellianism becomes a justifiable means to an end, so much so that we’ve given this culture its own hashtag: #scamculture: “A scam culture is one in which scamming has not only lost its stigma but is also valorized. We rebrand scamming as ‘hustle,’ or the willingness to commodify all social ties, and this is because the ‘legitimate’ economy and the political system simply do not work for millions of Americans.”

It’s a culture that’s very much at home in Silicon Valley. The tech world is steeped in Machiavellianism. Its tenets are accepted — even encouraged — business practices in the Valley. “Fake it til you make it” is tech’s modus operandi. The example of Niccolo Machiavelli has gone from being a cautionary tale to a how-to manual.

But these predatory practices come at a price. Doing business this way destroys trust. And trust is still, by far, the best strategy for our mutual benefit. In behavioral economics, there’s something called “tit for tat,” which according to Wikipedia “posits that a person is more successful if they cooperate with another person. Implementing a tit-for-tat strategy occurs when one agent cooperates with another agent in the very first interaction and then mimics their subsequent moves. This strategy is based on the concepts of retaliation and altruism.”

In countless game theory simulations, tit for tat has proven to be the most successful strategy for long-term success. It assumes a default position of trust, only moving to retaliation if required.

Our society needs trust to function properly. In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Why We Need to Address Scam Culture,” Tressie McMillan Cottom writes,  

“Scams weaken our trust in social institutions, but their going mainstream — divorced from empathy for the victims or stigma for the perpetrators — means that we have accepted scams as institutions themselves.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom – NY Times

The reason that trust is more effective than scamming is that predatory practices are self-limiting. You can only be a predator if you have enough prey. In a purely Machiavellian world, trust disappears — and there are no easy marks to prey upon.

Making Time for Quadrant Two

Several years ago, I read Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It had a lasting impact on me. Through my life, I have found myself relearning those lessons over and over again.

One of them was the four quadrants of time management. How we spend our time in these quadrants determines how effective we are.

 Imagine a box split into four quarters. On the upper left box, we’ll put a label: “Important and Urgent.” Next to it, in the upper right, we’ll put a label saying “Important But Not Urgent.” The label for the lower left is “Urgent but Not Important.” And the last quadrant — in the lower right — is labeled “Not Important nor Urgent.”

The upper left quadrant — “Important and Urgent” — is our firefighting quadrant. It’s the stuff that is critical and can’t be put off, the emergencies in our life.

We’ll skip over quadrant two — “Important But Not Urgent” — for a moment and come back to it.

In quadrant three — “Urgent But Not Important” — are the interruptions that other people brings to us. These are the times we should say, “That sounds like a you problem, not a me problem.”

Quadrant four is where we unwind and relax, occupying our minds with nothing at all in order to give our brains and body a chance to recharge. Bingeing Netflix, scrolling through Facebook or playing a game on our phones all fall into this quadrant.

And finally, let’s go back to quadrant two: “Important But Not Urgent.” This is the key quadrant. It’s here where long-term planning and strategy live. This is where we can see the big picture.

The secret of effective time management is finding ways to shift time spent from all the other quadrants into quadrant two. It’s managing and delegating emergencies from quadrant one, so we spend less time fire-fighting. It’s prioritizing our time above the emergencies of others, so we minimize interruptions in quadrant three. And it’s keeping just enough time in quadrant four to minimize stress and keep from being overwhelmed.

The lesson of the four quadrants came back to me when I was listening to an interview with Dr. Sandro Galea, epidemiologist and author of “The Contagion Next Time.” Dr. Galea was talking about how our health care system responded to the COVID pandemic. The entire system was suddenly forced into quadrant one. It was in crisis mode, trying desperately to keep from crashing. Galea reminded us that we were forced into this mode, despite there being hundreds of lengthy reports from previous pandemics — notably the SARS crisis–– containing thousands of suggestions that could have helped to partially mitigate the impact of COVID.

Few of those suggestions were ever implemented. Our health care system, Galea noted, tends to continually lurch back and forth within quadrant one, veering from crisis to crisis. When a crisis is over, rather than go to quadrant two and make the changes necessary to avoid similar catastrophes in the future, we put the inevitable reports on a shelf where they’re ignored until it is — once again — too late.

For me, that paralleled a theme I have talked about often in the past — how we tend to avoid grappling with complexity. Quadrant two stuff is, inevitably, complex in nature. The quadrant is jammed with what we call wicked problems. In a previous column, I described these as, “complex, dynamic problems that defy black-and-white solutions. These are questions that can’t be answered by yes or no — the answer always seems to be maybe.  There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to an answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is ‘good enough — for now.’”

That’s quadrant two in a nutshell. Quadrant-one problems must be triaged into a sort of false clarity. You have to deal with the critical stuff first. The nuances and complexity are, by necessity, ignored. That all gets pushed to quadrant two, where we say we will deal with it “someday.”

Of course, someday never comes. We either stay in quadrant one, are hijacked into quadrant three, or collapse through sheer burn-out into quadrant four. The stuff that waits for us in quadrant two is just too daunting to even consider tackling.

This has direct implications for technology and every aspect of the online world. Our industry, because of its hyper-compressed timelines and the huge dollars at stake, seems firmly lodged in the urgency of quadrant one. Everything on our to-do list tends to be a fire we have to put out. And that’s true even if we only consider the things we intentionally plan for. When we factor in the unplanned emergencies, quadrant one is a time-sucking vortex that leaves nothing for any of the other quadrants.

But there is a seemingly infinite number of quadrant two things we should be thinking about. Take social media and privacy, for example. When an online platform has a massive data breach, that is a classic quadrant one catastrophe. It’s all hands on deck to deal with the crisis. But all the complex questions around what our privacy might look like in a data-inundated world falls into quadrant two. As such, they are things we don’t think much about. It’s important, but it’s not urgent.

Quadrant two thinking is systemic thinking, long-term and far-reaching. It allows us to build the foundations that helps to mitigate crisis and minimize unintended consequences.

In a world that seems to rush from fire to fire, it is this type of thinking that could save our asses.

The News Cycle, Our Attention Span and that Oscar Slap

If your social media feed is like mine, it was burning up this Monday with the slap heard around the world. Was Will Smith displaying toxic masculinity? Was “it was a joke” sufficient defence for Chris Rock’s staggering lack of ability to read the room? Was Smith’s acceptance speech legendary or just really, really lame?

More than a few people just sighed and chalked it up as another scandal up for the beleaguered awards show. This was one post I saw from a friend on Facebook, “People smiling and applauding as if an assault never happened is probably Hollywood in a nutshell.”

Whatever your opinion, the world was fascinated by what happened. The slap trended number one on Twitter through Sunday night and Monday morning. On CNN, the top trending stories on Monday morning were all about the “slap.” You would have thought that there was nothing happening in the world that was more important than one person slapping another. Not the world teetering on the edge of a potential world war. Not a global economy that can’t seem to get itself in gear. Not a worldwide pandemic that just won’t go away and has just pushed Shanghai – a city of 30 million – back into a total lock down.

And the spectre of an onrushing climactic disaster? Nary a peep in Monday’s news cycle.

We commonly acknowledge – when we do take the time to stop and think about it – that our news cycles have about the same attention span as a 4-year-old on Christmas morning. No matter what we have in our hands, there’s always something brighter and shinier waiting for us under the tree. We typically attribute this to the declining state of journalism. But we – the consumers of news – are the ones that continually ignore the stories that matter in favour of gossipy tidbits.

This is just the latest example of that. It is nothing more than human nature. But there is a troubling trend here that is being accelerated by the impact of social media. This is definitely something we should pay attention to.

The Confounding Nature of Complexity

Just last week, I talked about something psychologists call a locus of control. Essentially it is defined by the amount of control you feel you have over your life. In times of stress, unpredictability or upheaval, our own perceived span of control tends to narrow to the things we have confidence we can manage. Our ability to cope draws inward, essentially circling the wagons around the last vestiges of our capability to direct our own circumstances. 

I believe the same is true with our ability to focus attention. The more complex the world gets, the more we tend to focus on things that we can easily wrap our minds around. It has been shown repeatedly that anxiety impacts the ability of our brain to focus on things. A study from Finland’s Abo Akademi University showed that anxiety reduces the ability of the brain to focus on tasks. It eats away at our working memory, leaving us with a reduced capacity to integrate concepts and work things out. Complex, unpredictable situations natural raise our level of anxiety, leading us to retreat to things we don’t have to work too hard to understand.

The irony here is the more we are aware of complex and threatening news stories, the more we go right past them to things like the Smith-Rock story. It’s like catnip to a brain that’s trying to retreat from the real news because we can’t cope with it.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of journalism, it’s more a limitation of our own brains. On Monday morning, CNN offered plenty of coverage dealing with the new airstrikes in Ukraine, Biden’s inflammatory remarks about Putin, Trump’s attempts to block Congress from counting votes and the restriction of LGBTQ awareness in the classrooms of Florida. But none of those stories were trending. What was trending were three stories about Rock and Smith, one about the Oscar winners and another about a 1600-pound shark. That’s what we were collectively reading.

False Familiarity

It’s not just that the news is too complex for us to handle that made the Rock/Smith story so compelling. Our built-in social instincts also made it irresistible.

Evolution has equipped us with a highly attuned social antennae. Humans are herders and when you travel in a herd, your ability to survive is highly dependent on picking up signals from your fellow herders. We have highly evolved instincts to help us determine who we can trust and who we should protect ourselves from. We are quick to judge others, and even quicker to gossip about behavior that steps over those invisible boundaries we call social norms.

For generations, these instincts were essential when we had keep tabs on the people closest to us. But with the rise of celebrity culture in the last century, we now apply those same instincts to people we think we know. We pass judgement on the faces we see on TV and in social media. We have a voracious appetite for gossip about the super-rich and the super famous.

Those foibles may be ours and ours alone, but they not helped by the fact that certain celebrities – namely one Mr. Smith – feels compelled to share way too much about himself with the public at large. Witness his long and tear-laden acceptance speech. Even though I have only a passing interest in the comings and goings of Will and Jada, I know more about their sex lives than that of my closest friends. The social norm that restricts bedroom talk amongst our friends and family is not there with the celebrities we follow. We salivate over salacious details.

No Foul, No Harm?

That’s the one-two punch (sorry, I had to go there) that made the little Oscar ruckus such a hot news item. But what’s the harm? It’s just a momentary distraction for the never-ending shit-storm that defines our daily existence, right?

Not quite.

The more we continually take the path of least resistance in our pursuit of information, the harder it becomes for us to process the complex concepts that make up our reality. When that happens, we tend to attribute too much importance and meaning to these easily digestible nuggets of gossip. As we try to understand complex situations (which covers pretty much everything of importance in our world today) we start relying too much on cognitive short cuts like availability bias and representative bias. In the first case, we apply whatever information we have at hand to every situation and in the second we resort to substituting stereotypes and easy labels in place of trying to understand the reality of an individual or group.

Ironically, it’s exactly this tendency towards cognitive laziness that was skewered in one of Sunday night’s nominated features, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up.

Of course, it was ignored. As Will Smith said, sometimes, “art imitates life.”

Why Are Podcasts so Popular?

Everybody I know is listening to podcasts. According to eMarketer, the number of monthly U.S. podcast listeners will increase by over 10% this year, to a total of 117.8 million. And this growth is ruled by younger consumers. Apparently, more than 60% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 will listen to podcasts.

That squares with my anecdotal evidence. Both my daughters are podcast fans. But the popularity of podcasts declines with age. Again, according to eMarketer, less than one-fifth of adults in the U.S. over 65 listen to podcasts.

I must admit, I’m not a regular podcast listener. Nor are most of my friends. I’m not sure why. You’d think we’d be the ideal target. Many of us listen to public radio, so the format of a podcast should be a logical extension of that. But maybe it’s because we’ve already made our choice, and we’re fine with listening to old-fashioned radio.

In theory, I should love podcasts. At the beginning of my career, I was a radio copywriter. I even wrote a few radio plays in my 20s. As a creator, I am very intrigued by the format of a podcast. I’m even considering experimenting in this medium for my own content. I just don’t listen to them that often.

What’s also perplexing about the recent popularity of podcasts is that they’re nothing new. Podcasts have been around forever, at least in Internet terms.

A Brief History of Podcasting

The idea of bite-sized broadcasts goes back to the 1980s and ‘90s, but the advent of the Internet in 2000 opened up the concept of the digital delivery of an audio file to the average listener. This content found a new home in 2001 when Apple introduced the iPod. For the next 10 plus years, podcasts were generally just another delivery option for existing content.

But in 2014, “This American Life” launched season one of its true-crime “Serial” podcast. Suddenly, something gelled in the medium, and the audiences started to grow. The true crime bandwagon gathered speed. Both producers and audiences found their groove; the content became more compelling, and more people started listening.

In 2013, just over 10% of the U.S. population listened to podcasts monthly. This year, podcasting will become a $1 billion industry and over 50% of Americans listen regularly.

So why did podcasting, a medium with relatively few technical bells and whistles, suddenly become so hot?

A Story Well Told

The first clue to the popularity of podcasts is that many of them (certainly the most popular ones) focus on storytelling. And we are innately connected to the power of a good story.

The one genre of podcast that has been the most popular are the true crime series. Humans have a need to resolve mysteries. These podcasts have become very good at creating a curiosity gap that itches to be closed. They hit many of our hard-wired hot buttons.

Still, there are many, many ways to tell a murder mystery. So, beyond a compelling story, what else is it about podcasts that make them so addictive?

The Beauty of Brain Bonding

When you think of how our brain interprets messages, an audio-based one seems to thread the needle between the effort of imagination and the joy of focused relaxation. It opens the door to our theater of the mind, allowing us to fill in the sensory gaps needed to bring the story alive.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the brain works by retrieving and synthesizing memories and experiences when prompted by a stimulus. It’s a process that makes the stories a little more personal for us, a little more intimate; these are stories self-tailored for us by our own experiences and beliefs.

But there are other audio-only formats available. This clue gets us closer to understanding the popularity of podcasts, but still leaves us a bit short. For the final answer, we have to explore one more aspect of them.

An Intimate Invitation

When you google “why are podcasts popular?” you’ll often see that their appeal lies in their convenience. You can listen to them at your own pace, in your own place and on your own timeline. They are not as restrictive as a radio broadcast.

You could take that at face value, but I think there’s more that meets the ear here. There is something about the portability and convenience of a podcast that sets them up for possibly being the most intimate of media.

When we listen to a podcast, we do so in an environment of our own choosing. Perhaps it’s in our vehicle during our daily commute. Maybe it’s just sitting in our favorite recliner by a fireplace.

Whatever the surroundings, we can make sure it’s a safe space that allows us to connect with the content at a very intimate level. We generally listen to them with our earbuds in, so the juicy details don’t leak out to the world at large.

And the best podcast producers have realized this. This is not a broadcast, it’s a one-sided conversation with your smartest friend talking about the most interesting thing they know.

Whatever lies behind their popularity, it’s a safe bet that half the people you know listen to podcasts on a regular basis.

I’ll have to give them another try.

Whatever Happened to the Google of 2001?

Having lived through it, I can say that the decade from 2000 to 2010 was an exceptional time in corporate history. I was reminded of this as I was reading media critic and journalist Ken Auletta’s book, “Googled, The End of the World as We Know It.” Auletta, along with many others, sensed a seismic disruption in the way media worked. A ton of books came out on this topic in the same time frame, and Google was the company most often singled out as the cause of the disruption.

Auletta’s book was published in 2009, near the end of this decade, and it’s interesting reading it in light of the decade plus that has passed since. There was a sort of breathless urgency in the telling of the story, a sense that this was ground zero of a shift that would be historic in scope. The very choice of Auletta’s title reinforces this: “The End of the World as We Know It.”

So, with 10 years plus of hindsight, was he right? Did the world we knew end?

Well, yes. And Google certainly contributed to this. But it probably didn’t change in quite the way Auletta hinted at. If anything, Facebook ended up having a more dramatic impact on how we think of media, but not in a good way.

At the time, we all watched Google take its first steps as a corporation with a mixture of incredulous awe and not a small amount of schadenfreude. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were determined to do it their own way.

We in the search marketing industry had front row seats to this. We attended social mixers on the Google campus. We rubbed elbows at industry events with Page, Brin, Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer, Matt Cutts, Tim Armstrong, Craig Silverstein, Sheryl Sandberg and many others profiled in the book. What they were trying to do seemed a little insane, but we all hoped it would work out.

We wanted a disruptive and successful company to not be evil. We welcomed its determination — even if it seemed naïve — to completely upend the worlds of media and advertising. We even admired Google’s total disregard for marketing as a corporate priority.

But there was no small amount of hubris at the Googleplex — and for this reason, we also hedged our hopeful bets with just enough cynicism to be able to say “we told you so” if it all came crashing down.

In that decade, everything seemed so audacious and brashly hopeful. It seemed like ideological optimism might — just might — rewrite the corporate rulebook. If a revolution did take place, we wanted to be close enough to golf clap the revolutionaries onward without getting directly in the line of fire ourselves.

Of course, we know now that what took place wasn’t nearly that dramatic. Google became a business: a very successful business with shareholders, a grown-up CEO and a board of directors, but still a business not all that dissimilar to other Fortune 100 examples. Yes, Google did change the world, but the world also changed Google. What we got was more evolution than revolution.

The optimism of 2000 to 2010 would be ground down in the next 10 years by the same forces that have been driving corporate America for the past 200 years: the need to expand markets, maximize profits and keep shareholders happy. The brash ideologies of founders would eventually morph to accommodate ad-supported revenue models.

As we now know, the world was changed by the introduction of ways to make advertising even more pervasively influential and potentially harmful. The technological promise of 20 years ago has been subverted to screw with the very fabric of our culture.

I didn’t see that coming back in 2001. I probably should have known better.

Moving Beyond Willful Ignorance

This is not the post I thought I’d be writing today. Two weeks ago, when I started to try to understand willful ignorance, I was mad. I suspect I shared that feeling with many of you. I was tired of the deliberate denial of fact that had consequences for all of us. I was frustrated with anti-masking, anti-vaxxing, anti-climate change and, most of all, anti-science. I was ready to go to war with those I saw in the other camp.

And that, I found out, is exactly the problem. Let me explain.

First, to recap. As I talked about two weeks ago, willful ignorance is a decision based on beliefs, so it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to argue, cajole or inform people out of it. And, as I wrote last week, willful ignorance has some very real and damaging consequences. This post was supposed to talk about what we do about that problem. I intended to find ways to isolate the impact of willful ignorance and minimize its downside. In doing so, I was going to suggest putting up even more walls to separate “us” from “them.”

But the more I researched this and thought about it, the more I realized that that was exactly the wrong approach. Because this recent plague of willful ignorance is many things, but – most of all – it’s one more example of how we love to separate “us” from “them.” And both sides, including mine, are equally guilty of doing this. The problem we have to solve here is not so much to change the way that some people process information (or don’t) in a way we may not agree with. What we have to fix is a monumental breakdown of trust.

Beliefs thrive in a vacuum. In a vacuum, there’s nothing to challenge them. And we have all been forced into a kind of ideological vacuum for the past year and a half. I talked about how our physical world creates a more heterogeneous ideological landscape than our virtual world does. In a normal life, we are constantly rubbing elbows with those of all leanings. And, if we want to function in that life, we have to find a way to get along with them, even if we don’t like them or agree with them. For most of us, that natural and temporary social bonding is something we haven’t had to do much lately.

It’s this lowering of our ideological defence systems that starts to bridge the gaps between us and them. And it also starts pumping oxygen into our ideological vacuums, prying the lids off our air-tight belief systems. It might not have a huge impact, but this doesn’t require a huge impact. A little trust can go a long way.

After World War II, psychologists and sociologists started to pick apart a fundamental question – how did our world go to war with itself? How, in the name of humanity, did the atrocities of the war occur? One of the areas they started to explore with vigour was this fundamental need of humans to sort ourselves into the categories of “us” and “them”.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Henri Tajfel found that we barely need a nudge to start creating in-groups and out-groups. We’ll do it for anything, even something as trivial as which abstract artist, Klee or Kandisky, we prefer. Once sorted on the flimsiest of premises, these groups started showing a strong preference to favour their own group and punish the other. There was no pre-existing animosity between the groups, but in games such as the Banker’s Game, they showed that they would even forego rewards for themselves if it meant depriving the other group of their share.

If we do this for completely arbitrary reasons such as those used by Tajfel, imagine how nasty we can get when the stakes are much higher, such as our own health or the future of the planet.

So, if we naturally sort ourselves into in groups and out groups and our likelihood to consider perspectives other than our own increases the more we’re exposed to those perspectives in a non-hostile environment, how do we start taking down those walls?

Here’s where it gets interesting.

What we need to break down the walls between “us” and “them” is to find another “them” that we can then unite against.

One of the theories about why the US is so polarized now is that with the end of the Cold War, the US lost a common enemy that united “us” in opposition to “them”. Without the USSR, our naturally tendency to categorize ourselves into ingroups and outgroups had no option but to turn inwards. You might think this is hogwash, but before you throw me into the “them” camp, let me tell you about what happened in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

One of the experiments into this ingroup/outgroup phenomenon was conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the summer of 1954. He and his associates took 22 boys of similar backgrounds (ie they were all white, Protestant and had two parents) to a summer camp at Robbers Cave and randomly divided them into two groups. First, they built team loyalty and then they gradually introduced a competitive environment between the two groups. Predictably, animosity and prejudice soon developed between them.

Sherif and his assistants then introduced a four-day cooling off period and then tried to reduce conflict by mixing the two groups. It didn’t work. In fact, it just made things worse. Things didn’t improve until the two groups were brought together to overcome a common obstacle when the experimenters purposely sabotaged the camp’s water supply. Suddenly, the two groups came together to overcome a bigger challenge. This, by the way, is exactly the same theory behind the process that NASA and Amazon’s Blue Origin uses to build trust in their flight crews.

As I said, when I started this journey, I was squarely in the “us” vs “them” camp. And – to be honest – I’m still fighting my instinct to stay there. But I don’t think that’s the best way forward. I’m hoping that as our world inches towards a better state of normal, everyday life will start to force the camps together and our evolved instincts for cooperation will start to reassert themselves.

I also believe that the past 19 months (and counting) will be a period that sociologists and psychologists will study for years to come, as it’s been an ongoing experiment in human behavior at a scope that may never happen again.

We can certainly hope so.

Why Is Willful Ignorance More Dangerous Now?

In last week’s post, I talked about how the presence of willful ignorance is becoming something we not only have to accept, but also learn how to deal with. In that post, I intimated that the stakes are higher than ever, because willful ignorance can do real damage to our society and our world.

So, if we’ve lived with willful ignorance for our entire history, why is it now especially dangerous? I suspect it’s not so much that willful ignorance has changed, but rather the environment in which we find it.

The world we live in is more complex because it is more connected. But there are two sides to this connection, one in which we’re more connected, and one where we’re further apart than ever before.

Technology Connects Us…

Our world and our society are made of networks. And when it comes to our society, connection creates networks that are more interdependent, leading to complex behaviors and non-linear effects.

We must also realize that our rate of connection is accelerating. The pace of technology has always been governed by Moore’s Law, the tenet that the speed and capability of our computers will double every two years. For almost 60 years, this law has been surprisingly accurate.

What this has meant for our ability to connect digitally is that the number and impact of our connections has also increased exponentially, and it will continue to increase in our future. This creates a much denser and more interconnected network, but it has also created a network that overcomes the naturally self-regulating effects of distance.

For the first time, we can have strong and influential connections with others on the other side of the globe. And, as we forge more connections through technology, we are starting to rely less on our physical connections.

And Drives Us Further Apart

The wear and tear of a life spent bumping into each other in a physical setting tends to smooth out our rougher ideological edges. In face-to-face settings, most of us are willing to moderate our own personal beliefs in order to conform to the rest of the crowd. Exactly 80 years ago, psychologist Solomon Asch showed how willing we were to ignore the evidence of our own eyes in order to conform to the majority opinion of a crowd.

For the vast majority of our history, physical proximity has forced social conformity upon us. It leavens out our own belief structure in order to keep the peace with those closest to us, fulfilling one of our strongest evolutionary urges.

But, thanks to technology, that’s also changing. We are spending more time physically separated but technically connected. Our social conformity mechanisms are being short-circuited by filter bubbles where everyone seems to share our beliefs. This creates something called an availability bias:  the things we see coming through our social media feeds forms our view of what the world must be like, even though statistically it is not representative of reality.

It gives the willfully ignorant the illusion that everyone agrees with them — or, at least, enough people agree with them that it overcomes the urge to conform to the majority opinion.

Ignorance in a Chaotic World

These two things make our world increasingly fragile and subject to what chaos theorists call the Butterfly Effect, where seemingly small things can make massive differences.

It’s this unique nature of our world, which is connected in ways it never has been before, that creates at least three reasons why willful ignorance is now more dangerous than ever:

One: The impact of ignorance can be quickly amplified through social media, causing a Butterfly Effect cascade. Case in point, the falsehood that the U.S. election results weren’t valid, leading to the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6.

The mechanics of social media that led to this issue are many, and I have cataloged most of them in previous columns: the nastiness that comes from arm’s-length discourse, a rewiring of our morality, and the impact of filter bubbles on our collective thresholds governing anti-social behaviors.

Secondly, and what is probably a bigger cause for concern, the willfully ignorant are very easily consolidated into a power base for politicians willing to play to their beliefs. The far right — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the far left — has learned this to devastating impact. All you have to do is abandon your predilection for telling the truth so you can help them rationalize their deliberate denial of facts. Do this and you have tribal support that is almost impossible to shake.

The move of populist politicians to use the willfully ignorant as a launch pad for their own purposes further amplifies the Butterfly Effect, ensuring that the previously unimaginable will continue to be the new state of normal.

Finally, there is the third factor: our expanding impact on the physical world. It’s not just our degree of connection that technology is changing exponentially. It’s also the degree of impact we have on our physical world.

For almost our entire time on earth, the world has made us. We have evolved to survive in our physical environment, where we have been subject to the whims of nature.

But now, increasingly, we humans are shaping the nature of the world we live in. Our footprint has an ever-increasing impact on our environment, and that footprint is also increasing exponentially, thanks to technology.

The earth and our ability to survive on it are — unfortunately — now dependent on our stewardship. And that stewardship is particularly susceptible to the impact of willful ignorance. In the area of climate change alone, willful ignorance could — and has — led to events with massive consequences. A recent study estimates that climate change is directly responsible for 5 million deaths a year.

For all these reasons, willful ignorance is now something that can have life and death consequences.

Making Sense of Willful Ignorance

Willful ignorance is nothing new. Depending on your beliefs, you could say it was willful ignorance that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. But the visibility of it is higher than it’s ever been before. In the past couple of years, we have had a convergence of factors that has pushed willful ignorance to the surface — a perfect storm of fact denial.

Some of those effects include the social media effect, the erosion of traditional journalism and a global health crisis that has us all focusing on the same issue at the same time. The net result of all this is that we all have a very personal interest in the degree of ignorance prevalent in our society.

In one very twisted way, this may be a good thing. As I said, the willfully ignorant have always been with us. But we’ve always been able to shrug and move on, muttering “stupid is as stupid does.”

Now, however, the stakes are getting higher. Our world and society are at a point where willful ignorance can inflict some real and substantial damage. We need to take it seriously and we must start thinking about how to limit its impact.

So, for myself, I’m going to spend some time understanding willful ignorance. Feel free to come along for the ride!

It’s important to understand that willful ignorance is not the same as being stupid — or even just being ignorant, despite thousands of social media memes to the contrary.

Ignorance is one thing. It means we don’t know something. And sometimes, that’s not our fault. We don’t know what we don’t know. But willful ignorance is something very different. It is us choosing not to know something.

For example, I know many smart people who have chosen not to get vaccinated. Their reasons may vary. I suspect fear is a common denominator, and there is no shame in that. But rather than seek information to allay their fears, these folks have doubled down on beliefs based on little to no evidence. They have made a choice to ignore the information that is freely available.

And that’s doubly ironic, because the very same technology that enables willful ignorance has made more information available than ever before.

Willful ignorance is defined as “a decision in bad faith to avoid becoming informed about something so as to avoid having to make undesirable decisions that such information might prompt.”

And this is where the problem lies. The explosion of content has meant there is always information available to support any point of view. We also have the breakdown of journalistic principles that occurred in the past 40 years. Combined, we have a dangerous world of information that has been deliberately falsified in order to appeal to a segment of the population that has chosen to be willfully ignorant.

It seems a contradiction: The more information we have, the more that ignorance is a problem. But to understand why, we have to understand how we make sense of the world.

Making Sense of Our World

Sensemaking is a concept that was first introduced by organizational theorist Karl Weick in the 1970s. The concept has been borrowed by those working in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence. At the risk of oversimplification, it provides us a model to help us understand how we “give meaning to our collective experiences.”

D.T. Moore and R. Hoffman, 2011

The above diagram (from a 2011 paper by David T. Moore and Robert R. Hoffman) shows the sensemaking process. It starts with a frame — our understanding of what is true about the world. As we get presented with new data, we have to make a choice: Does it fit our frame or doesn’t it?

If it does, we preserve the frame and may elaborate on it, fitting the new data into it. If the data doesn’t support our existing frame, we then have to reframe, building a new frame from scratch.

Our brains loves frames. It’s much less work for the brain to keep a frame than to build a new one. That’s why we tend to stick with our beliefs — another word for a frame — until we’re forced to discard them.

But, as with all human traits, our ways of making sense of our world vary in the population. In the above diagram, some of us are more apt to spend time on the right side of the diagram, more open to reframing and always open to evidence that may cause us to reframe.

That, by the way, is exactly how science is supposed to work. We refer to this capacity as critical thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of  data in order to form a judgment, even if it causes us to have to build a new frame.

Others hold onto their frames for dear life. They go out of their way to ignore data that may cause them to have to discard the frames they hold. This is what I would define as willful ignorance.

It’s misleading to think of this as just being ignorant. That would simply indicate a lack of available data. It’s also misleading to attribute this to a lack of intelligence.

That would be an inability to process the data. With willful ignorance, we’re not talking about either of those things. We are talking about a conscious and deliberate decision to ignore available data. And I don’t believe you can fix that.

We fall into the trap of thinking we can educate, shame or argue people out of being willfully ignorant. We can’t. This post is not intended for the willfully ignorant. They have already ignored it. This is just the way their brains work. It’s part of who they are. Wishing they weren’t this way is about as pointless as wishing they were a world-class pole vaulter, that they were seven feet tall or that their brown eyes were blue.

We have to accept that this situation is not going to change. And that’s what we have to start thinking about. Given that we have willful ignorance in the world, what can we do to minimize its impact?

Why is Everything Now ‘Unprecedented’?

Just once, I would like to get through one day without hearing the word “unprecedented.” And I wonder, is that just the media trying to get a click, or is the world truly that terrible?

Take the Olympics. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen an Olympics like this one. Empty stands. Athletes having to leave within 48 hours of their last event. Opening and closing ceremonies unlike anything we have ever seen. It’s, well — unprecedented.

The weather is unprecedented. What is happening in politics is unprecedented. The pandemic is unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m watching a blockbuster where the world will eventually end — but we just haven’t got to that part of the movie yet. I feel the palpable sensation of teetering on the edge of a precipice. And I’m pretty sure it’s happened before.

Take the lead-ups to the two world wars, for example. If you plot a timeline of the events that led to either July 20, 1914 or Sept. 1, 1939, there is a noticeable acceleration of momentum. At first, the points on the timeline are spread apart, giving the world a chance to once again catch its collective breath. But as we get closer and closer to those dates circled in red, things pick up. There are cascades of events that eventually lead to the crisis point. Are we in the middle of such a cascade?

Part of this might just be network knock-on effects that happen in complex environments. But I also wonder if we just become a little shell- shocked, being nudged into a numb acceptance of things we would have once found intolerable.

Author and geographer Jared Diamond calls this “creeping normality. “ In his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” he used the example of the deforestation and environmental degradation that happened on Easter Island — and how, despite the impending doom, the natives still decided to chop down the last tree: “I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day—it vanished slowly, over decades.”

Creeping normality continually and imperceptibly nudges us from the unacceptable to the acceptable and we don’t even notice it’s happening. It’s a cognitive bias that keeps us from seeing reality for what it is. Creeping normality is what happens when our view of the world comes through an Overton Window.

I have mentioned the concept of the Overton Window before.  Overton Window was first introduced by political analyst Joseph Lehman and was named after his colleague, Joseph Overton. It was initially coined to show that the political policies that the public finds acceptable will shift over time. What was once considered unthinkable can eventually become acceptable or even popular, given the shifting sensitivities of the public. As an example, the antics of Donald Trump would once be considered unacceptable in any public venue — but as our reality shifted, we saw them eventually become mainstream from an American president.

I suspect that the media does the same thing with our perception of the world in general. The news media demands the exceptional. We don’t click on “ordinary.” So it consistently shifts our Overton Window of what we pay attention to, moving us toward the outrageous. Things that once would have caused riots are now greeted with a yawn. This is combined with the unrelenting pace of the news cycle. What was outrageous today slips into yesterday, to be replaced with what is outrageous today.

And while I’m talking about outrageous, let’s look at the root of that term. The whole point of something being outrageous is to prompt us into being outraged — or moved enough to take action. And, if our sensitivity to outrage is constantly being numbed, we are no longer moved enough to act.

When we become insensitive to things that are unprecedented, we’re in a bad place. Our trust in information is gone. We seek information that comforts us that the world is not as bad as we think it is. And we ignore the red flags we should be paying attention to.

If you look at the lead-ups to both world wars, you see this same pattern. Things that happened regularly in 1914 or 1939, just before the outbreak of war, would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. The momentum of mayhem picked up as the world raced to follow a rapidly moving Overton Window. Soon, before we knew it, all hell broke loose and the world was left with only one alternative: going to war.

An Overton Window can just happen, or it can be intentionally planned. Politicians from the fringes, especially the right, have latched on to the Window, taking something intended to be an analysis and turning it into a strategy. They now routinely float “policy balloons” that they know are on the fringe, hoping to trigger a move in our Window to either the right or left. Over time, they can use this strategy to introduce legislation that would once have been vehemently rejected.

The danger in all this is the embedding of complacency. Ultimately, our willingness to take action against threat is all that keeps our society functioning. Whether it’s our health, our politics or our planet, we have to be moved to action before it’s too late.

When the last tree falls on Easter Island, we don’t want to be the ones with the axe in our hands.