Monday 27 February 2017

Affirmative Reflections

Posted by Emile Wolfaardt
Are we in danger of suffocating in the ever-shrinking world of parochial narcissism in which we are systematically enclosing ourselves? The sidewalks of history are littered with the carcasses of isolated nations (like Nazi Germany) and individuals (like Jim Jones) who lost the value of objective feedback. We, however, have access to rounded thinking like no generation ever has. At the click of a button one can summon the official and unofficial libraries of the world and the individual and collective wisdom of the ages.
But this access, ironically, may come at a price which is steeper than we want to afford. This is because digital marketing has gone and muddied the waters of our newfound informational freedom. The first quarter of 2016 saw an increase of new revenue in the digital marketing space of $5 billion. And that was gobbled up essentially by two marketing giants -– Google (about 60%) and Facebook (about 40%). Neither of them produced any of the content that generated that income. Instead, it was accomplished with ads that other people or organisations placed in their space. Since the 800 plus commercial TV channels in the USA are owned by roughly a dozen companies, and the 11 000 plus national digital publications are owned by only half of that, what we read online and offline is in the hands of eighteen major sources, who are motivated not by the objectivity of news, but rather by profitability.

Marketing Gurus have long known that the way to generate ‘click revenue’ through their digital marketing is to place their ads in the articles that the masses are reading -– it is the Law of Large Numbers. But here is the twist. They have also learned that people naturally tend to read articles that are congruent with their thinking. The mind, with its innate bias toward self-aggrandizement, typically tends to filter out those that challenge their thinking.

After all, since human nature could not make us perfect, it did the next best thing –- it made us blind to our imperfections. Besides, isn’t it easier to believe the lie we want to than the truth we don’t? In other words, we naturally filter out perspectives that disagree with our own, and focus on those that affirm what we already believe.

Marketers have cottoned on to that big time. Traditional ‘Objective Journalism’ has bowed out to the more financially viable ‘Popular Journalism.’ If journalists want to eat (and many of them do), they must be read. To be read, they must report popular news – news that people want to read – and articles that agree with their thinking. And nestled in those articles is the potential for ‘click revenue.’ The Internet has become a place of hostile comfort built on the deception that the world is as we want it to be –- that indeed, it is the universe we believed in all along.

This begs the rather disturbing question: are we in danger of losing the richness of objective thinking? If we are surrounded by congruent thought, and our perspectives are seldom challenged, we will never rise above the limitation of our current thinking, as perceptions become absolute, and have no gauge of right and wrong, Now that the digital media overwhelms us with warm fuzzy feelings of congruity, we have no easy way of reaching beyond the low ceiling of what we currently see.

One of the great African values, ‘Ubuntu’, suggests that I can only know myself as I see myself through your eyes. Digital marketing recognizes that I tend to read those things that agree with me. Popular journalism is attracting me by letting me see myself and my world through my own eyes. And the result is that I believe in myself even more blindly. As I typically surround myself with people who agree with me, expose myself to media that tends to agree with me, and live in a digital world that leans a bias in my direction, I am slowly working myself deeper and deeper into the deception of comfortable parochial isolation.

It is a dangerous deception -- the examples of Nazi Germany and Jim Jones being just two examples in the vast tragicomedy of our world. Today, while we may have lost the divide between news and entertainment, we do not have to sacrifice the process of objective processing. As Mark Twain famously quipped, “It ain’t what you don’t know that will kill you. It’s what you know that just ain’t so!” This individualised Internet may just have morphed into one giant selfie of deceptive affirmation and fatal comfort. Instead of allowing the frog to slowly succumb in the deception of his ever-warming pot, try these three things to secure your place in reality:

  • Have one friend who fundamentally disagrees with you on most things, and actually ‘hear’ him (you know the one) 
  • Read one book a month on a topic you are somewhat unfamiliar with, and 
  • For one day every two weeks, genuinely take and defend a position that is normally in opposition to yours. The research will either firm up your perspective, or help balance it with a different set of truths.


Keith said...

An interesting discussion, Emile.

One angle on this same discussion is, of course, epistemological: What do we know? And how do we know it? Mechanisms like ‘confirmation bias’ — which ‘inconveniently’ skew what beliefs we end up clinging to at all odds, like lifelines — get in the way of discovering reality. It’s probably easier than it should be to nourish confirmation bias, given the irresistibility of turning to newspapers, cable news outlets, blogs, editorialists, pundits, and other sources with which there is known compatibility over political beliefs, even ideology. Hence, isn’t this process unhelpfully circular, where the snake’s head starts to consume its tale? Don’t we end up having to make decisions and take actions knowingly on the basis that we’ll never be totally certain that they’re well founded, with unpredictable consequences? And, if that’s the case, how accountable can one be held for outcomes? Beliefs are easy; bracketing truth, in order to isolate it from what’s untrue, is harder, by orders of magnitude.

To that same point, what has been dubbed the ‘post-fact world’, the ‘post-truth world’, ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ place a bizarre sheen on information —uncomfortably discombobulating, as the mind struggles to process reality, even in the everyday world of news consumption. We end up not sure we can trust enough of ostensible facts to allow them to take root in our consciousness as we strain to discern what’s true. Accordingly, per Orwellian doublethink in the book ‘1984,’ “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Aren’t those ‘post-fact’ and ‘post-truth’? And isn’t this when the Rule of 7 applies, where the sufficient repetition of untruths, even doublethink, begins to make them perversely believable? Knowing what one’s government is really doing — that which government sees, by way of its grander vision, as what we may describe as the ‘end of ideology’ — becomes hard to parse out from the babble and noise that surrounds what’s communicated. Standards elude us amidst the dodging and even prevarication by those spreading the doublethink from their communications tool kit.

Social media, with all its democratic blessings — such as allowing for unbridled speech by everyone (a new inalienable right?) — poses also the challenge of often-uncurated content. Much of what social media calls ‘user-generated content’ exacerbates this shortcoming. This makes it all the more essential for us to turn to diverse sources — traditional and new — which relay different interpretations of supposed truth, where we now bear the responsibility to curate for ourselves (if we’re so disposed). Many news sources give primacy to their profitability — and thus put before us what they think aligns with our tastes based on their having data-mined into our lives, thereby keeping our eyeballs fixed on them. It’s therefore left to us to repudiate news media’s own tendency to be seduced by what we may refer to as the ‘shiny-bauble syndrome’, which often crowds out other global news otherwise deserving of our attention. (Case in point: ubiquitous ‘feed insecurity’, as the policy wonks call such things as malnutrition and starvation these days, finds it hard to compete with the ‘glitter’ of some politician’s latest hyperbolic statement or act.)

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Emile. Looking at your closing suggestions, something I have done, through my studies, is to take one elective per year which I least like. I have found this very rewarding.

I would add that popular writing attracts advertisers, yet controversial writing (of the 'wrong' kind) repels them. Controversial writing may be popular, or it could be, yet it is made less rewarding. It seems the age old dilemma still lies before us: become a prophet and you'll be wearing sack cloth.

Emile said...

It would be an interesting analysis to measure the amount of controversial writing value clicks as opposes to the confirming articles revenue. I love the idea of an elective that is less attractive. I have tried in these recent times to legitimize contra-opinions for my own enrichment.

When a writer's incomes is based on his value clicks, the motivation to be objective or controversial may be risky.

Emile said...

Thank you Keith for your deep insights and engagingly colorful but clear writing style. We are, no doubt, seduced by our preoccupation with ourselves and blinded by our bias toward our own perspective. While truth, I suggest, may be absolute, our perception of it is always (and can only be) relative, and, therefore, incomplete. At best, despite all our efforts, we are probably doomed, at best, to the illusion of objectivity. But, as you as refreshingly affirm, we ought to try and surround ourselves with at least a selection of diverse sources that we empower to challenge our self centered weltanschauung.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear gentleman,

Maybe the history of Jazz teaches how we could be challenged, emotionally and intellectually, without any idea of separation, even when segregation was a huge issue, the music would always tell you to come in, no matter who you are.

Today I would not know of any medium that tells you to come in, and have that vividness. As if a profound communication lacks about a common human cause, and I think that cause might be that the world dwells in us. This could be a form of objectivity, like a plane where we can place ourselves and observe and because this is a common space, it will not allow to divide things permanently.

What is accepted as common, to me seems highly uncommon to our human nature. How can there be ubuntu within ourselves when there is no plane within us that recalls this? I think this is the big trick of profit making. Distortion repeated sums believe. But also this, is humanity.

What I question is, if we came along the road you have designed above Emile, also our comprehension about objectivity might show gaps, i.e. Where did we place that objectivity? At the end it is very difficult to know where deception lies. (In the double sense of the word).

docmartincohen said...

Thank you for this unusual and informative post, Emile. It struck a particular note for me with reference to recent UK debates over the use of techological tools to 'harvest' Facebook users' preferences and attitudes in order to steer potential 'Brexit' voters towards casting their votes in the recent referendum.

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