Doors of Perception
It’s a simplification to conceive the Cathedral as a media apparatus. As simplifications go, however, one could do far worse. Media are essential to the Cathedral, even if by no means casually synonymous with it.
It is surely noteworthy that ‘the media’ have become singular, in much the same way as ‘the United States’ have done. ‘They’ have turned into a thing, and one that is still far from being confidently understood. Even when subjectively identifying with a residual plurality, they cannot but identify themselves with a unitary effectiveness.
While it would be asking far too much to expect the Cathedral to identify itself as a central causal factor in a world going insane, it gets close. NYmag expresses deep concern about the consequences of the news machine:
A terrifying jihadist group is conquering and butchering its way across big swaths of Iraq and Syria. Planes are falling out of the sky on what seems like a weekly basis. Civilians are being killed in massive numbers in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Others are falling prey to Ebola in West Africa. The world, in short, is falling apart. […] That’s how it feels, at least, to those of us who sit at a blessed remove from the death and destruction, but who are watching every bloody moment of it via cable news and social media. It raises an important question: In an age when we can mainline bad news 24/7 if we so choose, what’s the psychological impact of all this exposure to tragedy at a distance?
Drawing upon the work of Mary McNaughton-Cassill (a University of Texas–San Antonio professor at the “leading researcher on the connection between media consumption and stress”), it describes a process of “negative-information overload” driven by market-incentivized sensationalism, compounded by social media revolution, and prone to poorly-understood tangles of psycho-media feedback. Since a story of this kind consists primarily of the Cathedral talking to itself, with everyone else listening in, we quickly learn that the ‘problem’ cashes out into pessimistic disengagement from electoral politics and progressive voluntarism. According to McNaughton-Cassill, negative news bombardment produces “this malaise: ‘Everything’s kinda bad’ and ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help’ and ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’”
In addition to a burgeoning sense of helplessness, she said, cognitive shortcuts triggered by the news can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies. McNaughton-Cassill’s research suggests that that all things being equal, if you ask people, regardless of their circumstances, to evaluate what’s going around them — Do they think their neighbors are good people? Do they think the local schools are solid? — “People always say yes in their immediate setting.” […] Zoom out a little, though, and people have less to go on. … “As soon as you get out of your zone, most of your information’s from the news … and the news by definition covers the extreme things.” […] People could be forgiven for adopting a hell-in-a-handbasket stance toward the rest of the world. […] That’s a problem, because when people are led to believe things are falling apart, it affects their decision-making and their politics — whether or not their pessimism is warranted. We already know from political-psychological research that the more threatened people feel, the more likely they will be to support right-wing policies. And people who believe in the concept of unmitigated evil appear more likely to support torture and other violent policies. […] It’s hard to fully sketch out these mechanisms, of course. Could years and years of exposure to negative news heighten your belief in a Manichean world and in turn make you more reactionary?
As noted, there are some critical feedback circuits excluded (in principal) from this analysis, in part to preserve the fundamental architecture of the progressive historical narrative (“… on a broader level there’s solid evidence — perhaps gathered most comprehensively by Steven Pinker …”). Media malfunction as core meltdown of Western Civilization, sucking the world into hell, wouldn’t fit this story at all. Nevertheless, it’s clearly creeping in around the edges, and something considerably more drastic than standard information manipulation procedures seem to be called for.
How can we fight back against the unnecessary coarsening of our outlook that may be occurring every time we glance at one of our gadgets? The simplest technique is … to “Just turn it off.” That is, take a break from the news. […] “You can’t change the externals,” she said. “You have to get some control mentally.” What’s most important is “getting a handle on why you get anxious and worried about things that probably aren’t going to happen, or knowing what your triggers are.” The more you understand your own reaction to the news, the easier it will be to shape your news-consumption habits in an adaptive way.
If this sounds like subtle begging, it really kind of is. Afflicted by incomprehensible cybernetic pathologies, the media system is failing in its responsibility to screen you from reality, and now — quite desperately — needs your help. You can’t any longer rely on propaganda to save you. In fact, you have to assume that there’s a really good story out there that the media is keeping from you. You have to “understand that you’re seeing a lot of bad news not because the world is an inherently evil place, but because news outlets — not to mention individual Twitter and Facebook users — have lots of incentives to broadcast explosively negative news stories.” We interrupt this world historical nightmare to deliver an important news flash — the media has gone insane. You have to protect yourself, or it will seem as if the whole global order is falling apart into bloody chaos around your ears.
Overall, of course, it’s both unrealistic and undesirable to construct bubbles that keep out the world’s bad news. But there’s a difference between being informed and being obsessive, and it’s a line that’s very easy to accidentally slide across in an age when there’s so much scary information zipping around.
Scariest of all is the system of information itself, but it can’t quite get that part of the story into coherent shape. By the time it does, the world will have descended by another gyre. Experts now confirm that throwing your TV set out of the window will help …
ADDED: This classic movie scene (suggested by Mr Archenemy) seems obviously on topic.
ADDED: “Social media – in this context, the most inappropriate of phrases – has a new craze. Atrocity porn.”