11. Reality Stew

We ingest information from a multitude of sources. Each source comes at us from a different perspective and filters information in unique ways.

In the last generation, as media proliferation intensified, producers and publishers once known for objectivity began to cater to special interests to attract advertising dollars.

This trend is most visible in news. We now have entire networks and newspapers designed for sports enthusiasts, Republicans, Democrats, African-Americans, Hispanics and other special interests. Producers and publishers are cutting audiences into ever-thinner slices.

Media Divergence vs. Technological Convergence

What effect does this have on audiences? One could argue that it has the potential to make people narrow-minded. One could also argue that it has the potential to make people broad-minded. On one hand, it is now entirely possible to live within a media environment that reinforces our own points of view rather than helping us understand others’.

A lack of shared values and perceptions limits the ability of people to communicate and almost certainly fuels their distrust of each other. For instance, a person who views only Arab television might have one view of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Someone who watches only Israeli television would probably have another. The lack of common media help fuel the distrust these people have for each other.

Anyone who has every gone to a foreign country and found himself or herself in a new media environment can relate. The shock is sudden and extreme. You realize instantly that the population of an entire country plays by different rules and assumptions, and that it has different concerns.

On the other hand, one could also argue that the plethora of specialized media – and their convergence on the Internet – make it possible to better understand other points of view. They expose us to other cultures, interests, races, and nations. They make it easier to research topics thoroughly. They give us potentially both broader understanding and increased depth.

Thus, ironically, media proliferation has enabled intellectual isolationism as much as it has enabled cross-cultural understanding.

The Search for Truth

Between these two extremes, most people live in a mixture of mediums that – via the phenomenon of parallax – creates a sort of reality stew. We accidentally stumble on stories that contradict our worldview when flipping channels, gazing at a magazine rack, surfing the Internet, or researching some topic. These contradictions fuel cognitive dissonance that we then attempt to resolve or ignore. The process parallels that of a jury’s search for truth.

A Free Marketplace of Ideas

Competing mediums provide checks and balances on each other. Sometimes these media cancel each other out. Sometimes we ignore opposing points of view. Sometimes we pay more attention to one than the other, giving the stew a unique flavor. Sometimes, a new, higher point of view evolves via a dialectical process; thesis sparks antithesis and ultimately leads to synthesis.

In this process, why do we listen to and believe some sources more than others?

Would you put as much credibility in the advice of an anonymous Internet article as you would an experienced physician?

Did you support invading Iraq when America’s political leadership claimed it was a nuclear threat? Your answer may depend on whether you listened to the president or consulted a Vietnam veteran.

Did you invest in real estate at the height of the boom? Your answer may depend on whether you placed more faith in the financial press touting double digit returns or relatives who lived through the Great Depression?

When we make such decisions without full awareness of how and why mediums filter information, we set ourselves up to make potentially bad decisions. Therefore, it may be beneficial to understand how filters work.

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