5. Death of Compromise?

Thanks to parallax within the context of media proliferation, for the first time in history, communities are no longer defined by geography; they are now defined by interests.

Because of the decline of broad-based mass media, such as newspapers, fewer of us are presented daily with balanced coverage which confronts us with opposing points of view. The tendency to select specialized media that reinforce our view of the world means that we may see only one side of things and no longer be challenged by conflicting points of view.

Because we no longer share common stimuli as much as we once did, the common values that once knitted communities together are eroding.

During most of human history, physical locations defined communities. Today, in cyberspace, common interests define communities.

People once bound together in cities and states by physical needs now bind themselves together in interest groups based on psychological needs. The medium of the Internet enables people to reach out globally to others who share peculiar interests, hobbies, political views, grudges and fetishes.

Isolated in Information Enclaves Based on Self-Interest

Surrounded only by like-minded people in these interest groups, it becomes easy to believe that everyone believes what we believe. Isolated in information enclaves defined by self-interest, we begin to lose touch with conflicting points of view. Compromise begins to treaten our view of the world. If we don’t like the way someone thinks, just hit the delete button, block them, or scoot to the next chat room. They’re gone in a New York nano-second.

Does Media Diversity Really Make People Broader-Minded?

Of course, one could argue that the rich diversity of media outlets and the democratization of publishing via the Internet expose people to more points of view and that these are healthy trends. As a channel flipper, XM radio owner and reader of three or four magazines and newspapers per day, I might agree with them. People now have more sources than at any time in history to crosscheck facts. But do they?

To the degree that humans actually seek out opposing points of view, they can consciously weigh them and arrive at conclusions that represent “truth”. More frequently, however, people seek out points of view that reinforce their own.

 Media Fragmentation Fuels Intellectual Isolationism

Audience-starved media understand this, of course. They research markets and develop content to cater to a specific audience’s tastes. The ability of a medium to “find a market” determines its financial success. Media sell demographics to advertisers in much the same way that restaurants sell menus to customers.

Newspaper and magazine publishers, like television and radio programmers, must hold an audience’s attention or seek bankruptcy protection. Much of the news that we rely on to make decisions has become politicized and polarized. Increasingly,[1] hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher blatantly and unashamedly pander to narrower market segments.

This accentuates the differences between people, not their similarities. If it feels as though society is falling apart, perhaps it’s because media proliferation spawns ever-finer audience segments based on narrower and narrower interests.

The demise of many mass circulation magazines and city newspapers has coincided with the rapid rise of the Internet and the proliferation of narrowly focused television and radio stations. It is now entirely possible that no two people in America have exactly the same media diet.

Proliferation exacerbates parallax distortion. Segmentation begets fragmentation.

People can follow the path of self-interest into tiny information enclaves where they can remain in the comfort of self-reinforcing media cocoons and become intellectually isolated.

Parallel With Ethnic Communities

Americans saw this same trend in the late 1800s, but it was fueled by immigration, not technology. My grandparents emigrated from central Europe. They arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, around 1900, met each other, and married in a small Czech enclave. Because they did not speak English, this enclave enabled them to survive by providing a support network of people who spoke both English and Czech.

They attended a Czech church, bought their meat from a Czech butcher, frequented a Czech bakery, read a Czech paper, and belonged to a Czech social club. Thus, they survived until they died. Millions of other immigrants had this same experience.

Today, specialized media perform the same support functions that ethnic neighborhoods did a hundred years ago.

Consolidation of ethnic groups helped fuel the rise of the American empire in the 1900s. The children of immigrants began to identify themselves more as Americans than Czechs, Germans, Poles, Indians, Irish, Chinese, Italians, Japanese, Mexicans and so forth. The emergence of two mass mediums during that century – radio and television – helped fuel this consolidation. When most people had access to only three or four television stations, we had many more shared experiences and a common point of reference in the middle of the political spectrum.

The Return to Immigrant Roots

Today, the trend points in the opposite direction, back to our immigrant roots. We see separation, not consolidation. Today, Houston has 14 television stations, five of which broadcast in Spanish to the City’s estimated 700,000 Hispanics. The other nine channels have few or no locally generated Hispanic programs. Mainstream media seem to have largely conceded the Hispanic market to Azteca America Television (KUVM), Univision (KXLN), Telemundo (KTMD), Telefutura (KFTH) and an independent (KZJL).

Politics Now a Zero-Sum Game

As a child, the adults in my life put compromise on a pedestal with telling the truth and hard work. Compromise was a core American value. Fast forward half a century. Today, congressional leaders refuse to compromise. Government is in gridlock, stumbling from one fiscal crisis to another. What happened?

We have always had political disagreements. But in the past, people came together. They gave a little to get a little. Today, politics has become a zero-sum game. Is it because we feel less connected, less of a sense of community? To what degree has the demise of mass media unleashed the forces of dissolution? Are we bound together more by interests than geography?

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[1] The Pew Research Center For People and the Press conducts national, biennial news consumption surveys. In 2004, they titled their, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized.” 2006 and 2008 reports also showed strong preferences among Democrats and Republicans for certain networks, shows and hosts.