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.
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."