Allowing the pursuit of convenience and comfort to become our primary societal paradigm has led to a host of harmful consequences. Obesity, crippling debt, and massive amounts of waste to name but a few. The effects on our physical bodies and environment are obvious and nearing catastrophic but there are pervasive effects on our thoughts and behaviors as well. These may not be as immediately obvious but are potentially just as catastrophic.
An societal explosion in anxiety, social isolation, and confrontational anger has occurred with regards to our thinking and interactions. The two primary culprits? A news media overtaken by the ‘entertainment’ model and the ability to personally and selectively censor the information we receive, get bombarded with, through social media.
The Trouble With News As Entertainment
There was a time when news media were a source of impartially conveyed information. Walter Cronkite simply sat at the desk and read out the news he was handed simply stating the facts free of bias or editorializing.
As advertising revenue became a more powerful influence, and eventually a controlling factor, the goal shifted away from impartial investigation and reporting towards attracting, engaging, and retaining consumers. Readers, viewers, listeners, whatever the format or medium the crucial element became engaging with the largest number of consumers possible and keeping them engaged as continuously as possible.
This has been steadily pushing journalism away from being a vehicle for the pursuit and sharing of factual truth towards functioning as an entertainment industry driven by the main tenets of maximized sustained consumer engagement.
Engagement : To keep consumers fixated all reported items need to be presented as dramatically as possible, every event painted as being a potential matter of life or death with world shaking new information certain to break at any moment ‘so stay tuned’. Not only does this make most reporting misrepresentative and hyperbolic it also creates a false sense of unrelenting urgency and impending potential disaster. If everything around us is constantly a matter of life and death we are trapped in a perpetual state of fight or flight, quietly building a subliminal form of PTSD through a ceaseless dripping of anxiety and fear. To say nothing of what the ‘crying wolf’ effect does to our sense of trust in open reporting.
Target Audience : One of the main tenets of success in entertainment is building, cultivating, and retaining your audience. Figure out who your viewers, readers, listeners are then produce the right kind of material to keep them consuming from you rather than any others. A logical enough approach and, while finicky, not particularly dangerous when it comes to writing books or producing scripted television. But when applied to news media it leads to not only being selective in regards to what material you report it also leads to manipulating the tone and connotations of that material to keep the message in agreement with the assumed preferences of the target audience.
Immediacy : With the advent of digital publishing, and exacerbation added by the instant sharing aspect of social media platforms, the pressures to be ‘first to report’ and ceaselessly updating have pushed journalism into a space where being first is considered more important than accuracy or veracity. In a world being drowned by endless information coming at us constantly our only way to keep ourselves relevant and noticed is seen as being a ceaseless update ‘ping’. It is seen as the only way to keep the target audience’s attention from being pulled away to something or someone else so news media do whatever they can to keep their ‘pings’ alerting constantly.
The Ability To Act As Our Own Sensors
There is nothing wrong with being critically selective with regards to the information we are bombarded with on a daily basis, in this day and age it is a crucial skill. Having the ability to ‘block’ undesired material from our feeds might seem like a natural good, we’re protecting ourselves from potentially harmful or upsetting content, and the operating algorithms of our various platforms are more than happy to keep funneling us more and more examples of things we have already engaged with in the hopes we will engage with them again and again.
But only being presented, and surrounded, with things we are already familiar with doesn’t just increase our feelings of comfort it traps us in them.
Excessively tailoring our experience of the world around us, or having algorithms do it for us, drastically narrows our perceptions and capacity for understanding. If we are only ever exposed to thoughts and opinions we have already formed we become blinded to any other ways of thinking or perceiving and thusly ever-increasingly afraid of them. The ability to filter and screen our personal feeds may seem like the ability to banish difference and change but all it truly does is render us weak and out of practice for when difference and change inevitably do come into our lives.
Finding and following sources we trust and respect is important and only natural but trying to look at things from differing views and angles is just as important, if only to confirm we have placed our trust in the correct place. Different can be uncomfortable, unsettling, even challenging but difference will always be present in the world. And we don’t have to try very hard to see the tragic and disastrous results born from excessive fear of difference impacting people all over the world.
We all prefer comfort to discomfort, familiarity to the unknown. It’s natural, part of how we seek out and mutually support a tribe to which we can belong. But there is no growth or development without change and there is no change without the addition and inclusion of new and different. There are many versions of the quip about wanting to live for however many years or to just live the same year however many times over and over again. While a legitimate question and challenge it operates from a false assumption.
The world around us will always change, sometimes in small ways sometimes in massive ones. Tinting our perceptions, blinding ourselves to other view-points, won’t make us immune from those changes. It will only set us up to be confused and crushed by them.