How did we end up in this situation where everyone is so polarized, so surrounded by like-minded people, and so dismissive of those who have a different opinion or a different lifestyle?
It all started with television, according to Harvard historian Jill Lepore. When television began carrying the news, back in the 1940s and 1950s, it put newspapers in a difficult position. Everyone already had the news on 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 the newspapers give us more opinion than news, and sometimes opinion is disguised as news.
in his bookIf Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, Lepore chronicles the rise of this first computer-based organization that pioneered the information-gathering process. The company sliced and minced the data and sold it all to companies and governments in an effort to predict behavior, manipulate minds, sell products, and win votes.
According to Lepore, politicians, beginning with Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, have used computerized research to select and distort information and then craft messages to win the votes of specific audiences: labor unions, suburbanites, students, African Americans, Latinos, women Men.
At the same time, Procter & Gamble and other consumer goods companies targeted their advertising campaigns at different market segments, from the hard worker to the suburban housewife to the Pepsi Generation. Politicians wanted power. The corporations wanted money.
Meanwhile, news organizations and university professors began to question the very notion of objective facts. The new journalists of the 1970s began to argue that everything is relative. Everyone’s view of the world is colored by their own experience. There is no Truth. Only your opinion remains.
As time went on, the media divided the audience into ever thinner slices, tailoring their content to the interests of very specific groups. General interest magazines such asLifeYTo watchclosed, replaced by specialist “lifestyle” publications. Then came cable television, again dividing the audience into special interest groups. Gone are Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett, replaced by the food chain, the history channel, the shopping chain, a dozen different sports channels, and the news channels of the right and left.
The internet and social media have only made it worse. Organizations collect data, identify our interests, exploit our biases, and gain our sympathies, all to sell us products or win our votes. It is a system, according to Lepore, that “manipulates opinion, exploits attention, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals and undermines democracy.”
Not all Big Data is bad. Computer-aided analysis helps build better buildings, safer cars, and more effective medicines. It has unlocked the mysteries of space and can help us meet the challenge of climate change.
The problem is that humans have a natural tendency to seek information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, and we ignore or discredit information that goes against them. Or, as singer Paul Simon acknowledged many years ago, we all “hear what we want to hear and ignore the rest.”
So what does this have to do with retirement, with older people? Well, we’re supposed to have perspective and pass on our wisdom. We must know that modern marketing, polarized politics, and petty media profit by exploiting and separating us.
The younger ones are less experienced, they are more gullible. We should be reminding each other and telling our children: Don’t get “managed” into micromarkets just so corporations can sell more products or politicians can target groups on gender/race/class divides to make it easier for us. manipulate and control.
We must not allow market researchers and political operators to tell us what to think or do. But it takes a conscious effort to resist these divisive forces. We can receive the messages with a skeptical eye, especially those from “our own side”, and we can verify the facts. (Take a look at the excellent work of Bob LowryPost on My Satisfying Retirement for some links to fact-checking sites).
All knowledge is not biased. There are facts that are true beyond our own narrow view of the world. Or as Shakespeare said long ago: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horace, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
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