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.