True Enough

June 27, 2010

Due to flaws in our perception and the money to be made by exploiting them, you have to work really hard to live in the real world nowadays, so most of us don't.

From the all-you-can-believe buffet of conflicting facts afforded to us by the internet and national media, all versions of reality are on an equal footing; so, people cherry-pick whatever they need to construct the most pleasant, self-affirming world. The racist simply doesn’t notice all the nice black people, but his mind feasts deliciously on any example, however rare, of a black person conforming to his stereotypes. He doesn’t choose to do this. It happens all behind the curtain of his awareness.

Manjoo points to three primary mechanisms which actively undermine consensus about things that are true:

selective exposure
Also called the “echo chamber effect”, it’s that we choose the information we’re exposed to, and naturally tend toward information that makes us feel good about ourselves and about our view of the world. (We can do this because there are no short-term consequences to this dissociation from reality.) We used to have to deal with all kinds of people and beliefs because towns were small and full of relative diversity. Furthermore, people used to have to defend their beliefs against disagreement in daily conversation. Now, people are removed from the diversity of their neighbors and watch the same small cluster of people on the news, read the same ideologically isolated blogs, and never have to defend their views against skeptics.
selective perception
We perceive subjectively. What we see and hear is filtered through our view of how the world is. As before, the racist simply doesn’t see the shining examples of his most hated group, and gives special attention to the examples that conform to his prejudices. Research experiments have shows that when conservatives and liberals both watch a decidedly neutral speech, conservatives will think the speech is biased against them, but liberals will report the opposite!
the cult of fake experts
Situations political, economic and otherwise are too many and complex for the layman to understand, or at least understand within a reasonable time-span. Television news is for entertainment, not education, so the news isn’t going to ruin its ratings trying to inform people. The networks have a profit-motive to spout nothing but the most digestible sound-bytes. Thus, people become reliant on their favorite (as opposed to the most credible) sources of information to be their sources of interpretation as well. And anyone can claim to be an expert. Everyone is equally an expert on TV, since the format doesn’t allow for the time or complexity of argument for the PhD to distinguish himself from the cynical corporate PR person. So both sides have their “experts” and the people who actually understand up from down are “just another expert” regardless of their credentials or their actually being right.

The upshot? Because of this polarization, people associate less with people of different ideologies, increasing general distrust (“Starbucks-slurping hippies” vs. “racist rednecks”), which in turn increases insularity in an ever-widening gyre. Partisan news media are creating, catering to, and profiting from this polarized situation, and political forces can’t afford not to align themselves with one side. After all, Democrats and Republicans don’t open their wallets for candidates because they think the other side may have some valid points. Ultimately, what’s for sale in this system are expertly-tailored, alternate versions of reality. But when you have to choose between competing realities, choosing means trusting one reality and its proponents and rejecting the others. As a result, those who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re insane, completely detached from our own, self-selected “objective reality”. Is this really fertile soil for enlightened progress, or a shouting match on a sinking ship?