2017 was an average year for shark attacks.
And this just in… By the year 2050, half of the world will be nearsighted.
What could these two headlines possibly have in common? I’ll tell you.
First, let’s look at why 2017 was a decidedly non-eventful year, at least when it came to interactions between Selachimorpha (sharks) and Homo (us). Nothing unusual happened. That’s it. There was no sudden spike in Jaws-like incidents. Sharks didn’t suddenly disappear from the world’s oceans. Everything was just average.
Was this the only way that 2017 was uneventful? No. There were others. But we didn’t notice because we were focused on the ways that the world seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. If we look at 2017 like a bell curve, we were focused on the outliers, not the middle.
There’s no shame in that. That’s what we do. The usual doesn’t make the nightly news. It doesn’t even make our Facebook feed. But here’s the thing: We live most of our live in the middle of the curve, not in the outlier extremes. The things that are most relevant to our lives falls squarely into the usual. But all the communication channels that have been built to channel information to us are focused on the unusual. And that’s because we insist not on being informed, but instead on being amused.
In 1985, Neil Postman wrote the book "Amusing Ourselves to Death." In it, he charts how the introduction of electronic media -- especially television ---hastened our decline into a dystopian existence that shares more than a few parallels with Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World."
His warning was pointed, to say the least: There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shrivelled,” Postman says. “In the first—the Orwellian—culture becomes a prison. In the second—the Huxleyan—culture becomes a burlesque.”
It’s probably worth reminding ourselves of what burlesque means: “a literary or dramatic work that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation.” If the transformation of our culture into burlesque seemed apparent in the "80s, you’d pretty much have to say it’s a fait accompli 35 years later. Grotesque exaggeration is the new normal., not to mention the new president.
But this steering of our numbed senses toward the extremes has some consequences. As the world becomes more extreme, it requires more extreme events to catch our notice. We are spending more and more of our media consumption time among the outliers.
Which brings us to the second problem. By their nature, extremes tend to be ideologically polarized as well. If we’re going to consider extremes that carry a politically charged message, we stick to the extremes that are well-synced with our worldview.
In cognitive terms, these ideas are “fluent”: they’re easier to process. The more polarized and extreme a message is, the more important that it's fluent for us. We also are more likely to filter out non-fluent messages: messages we don’t happen to agree with.
The third problem is that we are becoming short-sighted (see, I told you I’d get there, eventually). So not only do we look for extremes, we are increasingly seeking out the trivial.
We do so because being informed is increasingly scaring the bejeezus out of us. We don’t look too deeply, nor do we look too far in the future -- because the future is scary.
There is the collapse of our climate, World War III with North Korea, four more years of Trump -- this stuff is terrifying!
Increasingly, we spend our cognitive resources looking things that are amusing and immediate. The information we seek has to provide immediate gratification. Yes, we are becoming physically short-sighted because we stare at screens too much, but we’re also becoming mentally myopic as well.