"If you go far enough to the right and far enough to the left on the political spectrum you find people saying the exact same thing."
-- Bill James, quoted by Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise

Saturday, October 24, 2020

How We Got Here

     How did we end up in this situation where everyone is so polarized, so surrounded by like-minded people, and so dismissive of others who have a different opinion or different lifestyle?

     It all started with television, according to Jill Lepore, Harvard history professor and author of the new book If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

     When television started broadcasting the news, back in the 1940s and 1950s, it put newspapers in a difficult position. Everyone already had the news from TV, so why would they want to read it the next day in the newspaper? So newspapers reinvented themselves by focusing more on analysis than straight news, and before long the line between analysis and opinion was blurred. Now newspapers give us more opinion than news, and sometimes the opinion is disguised as news.

     But the main thrust of Lepore's book is the story of how Simulmatics, an early computer-based organization that came out of MIT, pioneered the process of collecting data, massaging it, and selling it to businesses and governments in an effort to predict and even manipulate people's behavior.

     Simulmatics failed. But like what AOL was to the internet, Simulmatics pioneered the era of Big Data. Both big government and big business began to electronically spy on people, collect enormous amounts of personal data, then slice it up into special interest groups so that they could manipulate minds, sell products, win over votes.

     John Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson, for example, used computerized research to develop political messages appealing to the Black vote. Richard Nixon identified the Silent Majority and crafted a message to appeal to the white middle-class concerned about communism and law-and-order.

     At the same time, Proctor & Gamble and other consumer goods companies targeted their ad campaigns to different market segments, from the working stiff to the suburban housewife to the Pepsi Generation. The politicians wanted power. The corporations wanted money.

     Meanwhile, news organizations and university professors began to question the very notion of objective facts. New Journalists argued that everything is relative. Everyone's view of the world is colored by their own experience. There is no Truth. There is only your opinion.

     As time went on, mass media carved the audience into thinner and thinner slices, tailoring their content to the interests of very specific groups. General interest magazines like Life and Look went out of business, replaced by specialized publications on fly fishing, race-car driving, organic farming, or long-distance running. Then along came cable TV, again slicing up the audience to special interest groups. Gone were Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett, who appealed to the mass audience. Those shows were replaced by the food network, the classic movie network, the history channel, a dozen different sports channels -- and the left-wing and right-wing news channels.

     From there it was only a short step to what we have today on the internet and social media. Organizations collect data, detect patterns, identify our interests, exploit our biases, and classify us into precise targets for their messages. They enlist our sympathies, sell us their products, win our votes, all in a system that "manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals and undermines democracy."

     Lepore is not saying that all Big Data is bad. Computer-aided analysis has helped us build better buildings, safer cars, more powerful medicines. It has opened up the mysteries of space, and now can help us meet the challenge of climate change. 

     The problem is that we humans have a natural tendency to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing convictions, and we tend to ignore or discredit information that runs counter to them. Modern marketing, polarized politics and the mean-spirited media all benefit by exploiting this trait and splitting us farther and farther apart. But people should not allow themselves to be "managed" into micro-markets just to they can sell us more products or focus-group us into gender/race/class divisions to make us easier to influence or control. 

     All knowledge is not biased. There are facts that are true beyond our own views of the world. We should not let the social scientists and market researchers tell us what to think or do. But it takes a conscious effort to resist these divisive forces. And it takes a willingness to walk a mile in someone else's shoes to rebuild a sense of community. 

     Or as Shakespeare said long ago: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

21 comments:

ApacheDug said...

Very interesting Tom, it’s sad to think this is the reason Life, Look & The Carol Burnett Show are relics. But this can work in positive ways... less than 2 years ago, I was thinking greatly about closing my blog. The few blogs I followed never reciprocated, and when one started going on a tear about baby boomers, I unfollowed them, then googled “blog + sixty” and “blog + baby boomer”. I found yours and several others I now enjoy & relate to a WHOLE lot better. So I think age can play a big factor in narrowing ones interests too.

DJan said...

I don't remember how I first found your blog, Tom, but I enjoy your essays and ruminations on life today. And seeing Doug's comment, I realize I found him (and follow him) through his comments on other posts. I know the world is much more polarized than it once was, but we can go the other direction with, as you point out, by walking a mile in someone else's shoes. It's a trying time, but certainly an interesting one, too.

Tom said...

I agree, blogging is one silver lining to our segmented society. But what's the old Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times.

Janette said...

Tom! What an excellent post today.

Wisewebwoman said...

What a great post Tom! You reminded me of the famous Marshall McLuhan who wrote extensively on this topic years and years ago, summing it all up to declare "The medium is the message."

Yes, when Netflix pre-rates documentaries for me (92%, 93%, etc.) I shake my head. It's the culmination, I think. But of course they know. Data mining at its finest.

XO
WWW

Rian said...

I too enjoyed this post, Tom. I think we need to stay consciously aware of what is going on around us... and it isn't always easy to do at our age. I do believe that everyone's opinions are colored by their own experience. And in that context, I also believe that my truth may not be your truth. But that doesn't mean that truth doesn't exist. Truth and lies do exist. This is obvious in politics. And we definitely do live in 'interesting' times.

Fred said...

An earlier example of public manipulation were the 4 minute men of WWI. 75K speakers organized by Woodrow Wilson. They fanned out across the country to give 4 minute speeches between movies, at restaurants and in small towns. They were selling WWI. Americans fell for it and we entered a completely useless war. Many of these men went on to work on Madison avenue and continue to sell us everything we did not need. We are now the most consumer centric economy in the world.
WWI was directly responsible for WWII. That in turn gave us the military industrial complex which promoted the commie threat to keep us pouring money into a perpetual military buildup. That gave us Korea, Vietnam, the CIA overthrow of the Iranian government and Joseph McCarthy. Then Ronald Reagan used the commie threat to almost triple the national debt. Now that the communist BS has run its course we have moved on to terrorism to justify obscene amounts of military and security expenses. Afghanistan and Iraq are the most recent mistakes tied to this pack of lies. We have been sold a bill of goods designed to enrich a small percentage of Americans for many generations.
The reality is no country or terrorist group is capable of invading this country and controlling it. The biggest protections we have are the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. If this country fails it will because of our own failures not an outside party.
Sometimes the most patriotic thing to do is point out false philosophies instead of going with the flow.

Arkansas Patti said...

Oh yes we are polarized and I find when I locate a like thinker that I can finally relax even if we never discuss anything political. I have family and friends on the "other side" and while I can like them and love them, I am not totally comfortable around them. We are both partially guarded in our conversations and just know to "not go there."

Olga said...

Rebuilding community is so badly needed. I read things like this and put away my phone and computer for a while, but then it's really hard to do without them.

Linda Myers said...

We find we need less and less stuff as we get older. I hope it will continue that way. We seem to have been taken in by the idea that more is better. During this pandemic I have become even more aware that less is okay, but that hugs are better. May we learn again to focus on community.

Kay said...

I'm probably guilty of some of that. I prefer visiting news sites and blogs that have similar views. I would never go to FOX for news. Sigh. It's true and almost everyone on my sidebar feel friendly. I suppose I do live in a bubble.

Red said...

More and more people are telling us what has happened to divide us. It was simple to get to this place. Now how do we get out of here?

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! Very thought provoking post--so you know i like it. My take away is the reminder that we live in a very paradoxical world. Sure, some of the things you mention are scary and manipulative, while others are helpful. I won't give up my computer or the chance to zoom but I must keep in mind that there are trade-offs to convenience and technology. It's mainly when we forget and go numb to what's happening around us and within us that we can really run into trouble don't you think? It will be so very interesting to see where we as a culture go next after all this change. ~Kathy

Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged said...

Interesting post. I think many of us, myself included, imagined that the downfall into our current situation has its roots in the advent of social media. But, as you point out, it started long before. A very interesting series on PBS (my go-to for news and information) you might want to watch is Hacking Your Mind. Very informative and well-presented.

David @iretiredyoung said...

It's not the first time that I've started a comment with "I'm not from the US, but..." I guess that means that I can have a different perspective, but it could also mean that I don't see the full picture when commenting on a US blog. With that caveat in mind, what strikes me is how partisan the main US news programmes seem to be and I'm sure that must have a big part to play in the with me or against me situation that appears to often be the case. Something not helped by the man currently in charge(?).

Carol Cassara said...

The huge lack of critical thinking skills scares me bigtime.

concerned citizen said...

I want to share a comment I read regarding the divisiveness and the crisis to US democratic system. You be the judge, and your thoughts how to save it: "Once the internal delicate balance of the highest judicial institution is broken, the checks and balances between the three powers can easily be kidnapped by party disputes. Because in the context of polarized party disputes, the candidates nominated by the justices present more ideological divisions, prompting the Supreme Court to gradually tend to serve the interests of one party or become a one-party-dominated judicial institution, thus deviating from the original intention of American democracy. The current Republican Party is very likely to use its current power advantages to strive for irreversible changes to the democratic system of three checks and balances.". All above is referring to the current Republican legislature and executive branch made long lasting change to the judiciary branch (without much opposition support) and thus affected the judiciary independence, i.e. questionable checks and balances of three branches of government for a long time to come.

Tom said...

Good point, concerned. The Republicans pulled a pure power play. But let's face it, the Democrats tried to do the same thing in 2016; it's just that they couldn't pull it off. That's why I think Supreme Court justices should be appointed for a limited term -- say 8 years -- or at least be subject to a retirement age of, say, 75. But history has showed us that many justices rise above party politics after they ascend to the bench. Let's hope this current crowd follows the better, higher path.

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Nancy Coiner said...

Thanks, Tom. It's too bad that every step of change brings with it troubling things as well as good things. So here we have this fabulous new technology of the internet, and it connects us but also polarizes. My guess is that human beings are just genetically designed to function in tribes. I hope we'll figure out how to function as a nation without resorting to hatred of an enemy (internal or external) and appreciate each other's contributions again.

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