Seeking shelter from the information monsoon

Saturated with Trump commentary, Danyl Mclauchlan’s brain felt like a tiny teacup with a firehose gushing into it. Here he explains why he decided to refocus his attention away from the floods of content and the ‘ludic loop’ of social media, where, more than ever, the audience is the product.

I keep a large stack of books by my bed. They’ve sat there undisturbed for many months now. They literally have dust on them. I want to read them; they’ve been recommended by friends, or won awards, some are by my favourite authors. I just haven’t gotten around to them yet.

But how many words have I read about Trump since I piled those books there sometime last year? Easily a million, probably way, way more. I’ve read very astute commentary on how Trump would never win the Republican nomination, and similar assurances that he’d never win the presidential election, and now I’m reading commentary on how he’s a nationalist, or an economic populist, or a white supremacist, or a covert neoliberal, or a Russian intelligence asset, or the next Hitler, or the next Berlusconi, or the next Putin, or a reincarnation of Robert Muldoon, and/or he’s possibly a guy who pays prostitutes to pee in front of him.

Sometimes he’s a genius, a dazzling showman who uses modern media and the politics of white grievance to leverage the cracks in America’s crumbling post-industrial democracy, and in others he’s a buffoon, an imbecile being manipulated by his sinister advisors, and in still others he’s just a symptom of deeper and even more sinister currents in history. All of the different, often contradictory analyses seem plausible. I’ve read commentary on the commentary, and now I suppose I’m commenting on the comments on the comments. Yet, despite everything I’ve read online in the last 12 months I feel like I’ve learned very little. Most of the things I’ve been outraged about are already forgotten. My brain is like a tiny teacup with a firehose gushing into it. The torrent displaces itself. I’ve read everything yet remembered nothing. Still it keeps coming.

Cover detail, 1932 first edition of Brave New World (Chatto & Windus)

Apparently George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four has become a bestseller for people struggling to make sense of our times. It’s a great book. But all the way back in 1984 the media theorist Neil Postman gave a series of lectures titled Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he argued that Orwell’s book was not the dystopian novel that currently described our society: instead he urged us to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

This feels increasingly true to me. One of the few books I have managed to read recently is The Attention Merchants, by Timothy Wu: it talks about where the sea of information comes from, and why it keeps rising and rising. It’s a history of media and advertising.

There’s this episode of Futurama in which the hero, Fry, has travelled in time to the year 3000 and is outraged to find paid adverts appearing in his dreams. When asked if we had ads in the 20th Century he replies: “Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games … and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.” Wu writes about the encroachment of advertising from the public sphere into the private sphere, and how that drove a massive expansion of the culture industry, which exists to harvest our attention in order to advertise to it. It’s a history of a roughly 180-year period in which advertising crept ever closer to our dreams, while our society moved closer to Huxley’s dystopia.

It seems hard to believe now, but back in the day conservative thinkers argued about whether modern marketing techniques were anti-capitalist. In Amusing Ourselves to Death Postman put it like this:

The television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, the surely rationality was the driver. The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out.

Throughout most of the 19th century advertising was factual and informative, Postman argued: a manufacturer told people about their product, sometimes by advertising in newspapers – which were sold at a fairly high price to a limited number of educated readers – and if customers wanted the product, they bought it. If no one wanted it, because it didn’t work or no one needed it, the company went broke.

What changed? Wu thinks it was the convergence of two powerful and simple ideas. The first was the growth of emotive advertising. Pioneered by the patent medicine industry – people who literally sold snakeskin oil as a panacea for all ailments – it convinced consumers to buy things they didn’t know they wanted, or needed, by manipulating their anxieties and playing on their credulity. As Postman put it: “What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer.” And they made so much money leveraging their increasingly accurate knowledge of what was wrong with us, and how our rational judgement could be subverted that their techniques metastasised throughout the US, and then the rest of the world.

The second big idea was a change in the newspaper business model. In 1833 a young print shop owner named Benjamin Day decided to set up a newspaper: the New York Sun. But instead of recovering his costs through selling the Sun to his customers, he decided to sell the paper at a loss, but then recover the cost through selling high volumes of advertising based on the expanded readership. Previously the readers had been the customers. Now they – or, rather, their attention – became the product that he sold to the advertisers. These two trends, manipulative advertising and audience-as-product, quickly converged.

Postman argued that this “broke capitalism”, and replaced it with consumerism. Wu argues – convincingly – that it broke the media. People today grumble about fake news and clickbait but they’ve been there since the beginning. Day’s paper specialised in sex and crime stories, but its greatest boost in circulation came from “The Great Moon Hoax”, a series of articles about the “scientific discovery” of a sophisticated race of man-bats and their lunar civilisation. Other newspapers raced to match Day’s highly successful model. The race to the bottomless bottom had begun.

The inhabitants of the moon, as depicted in the New York Sun, 1835

Wu is is interested in what he calls “Attention Rituals”. These are daily habits that the culture industry encourages us to take up so that they can harvest our attention and sell it to their clients. It began with reading the morning newspaper, often while commuting, or at work. Then, with the advent of radio it entered the home. The harvesting intensified during the age of television in which most families spent most of their evenings being entertained and advertised to. Now we have desktop PCs, smartphones and tablets: our attention can be harvested at almost any time during our waking lives. And the software applications most of us interact with – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds – are designed to be addictive. They operate on the same principle as slot machines, granting us small, unpredictable rewards – “likes” or retweets or bonus scores – to perpetuate a detached but compulsive mental state that psychologists refer to as a “ludic loop”. Our attention is incredibly valuable. Facebook made over NZ $30 billion in advertising revenue last year: and they don’t even need to create their own content. Their users do it for them, for free.

Does this even matter? Isn’t it a harmless exchange: free content for advertising? Where’s the problem? Wu’s concern with the model is summed up by a quote from the philosopher and psychologist William James, who warned that “Our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we paid attention to.” If our lives are increasingly spent paying attention to trivial nonsense accessed via applications designed to constantly distract and capture us, then we need to be aware of the real nature of the transaction: we’re mostly consuming meaningless nonsense and we’re paying with gradually increasing increments of our lives

The second reason to worry – I think – is the effect that changes in media technology are having on our politics. Politicians are always among the first to respond to media innovation: Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, ordered the manufacture of ultra-cheap radios so that every home in Germany could afford one, and hear his master’s infamously mesmerising voice. Handsome John Kennedy was the first TV president. Obama and his team of liberal technocrats rode to victory on the wave of “big data” washed up by the new media ecosystem of the late 2000s.

Postman’s hypothesis in Amusing Ourselves to Death was that the form of a communications medium determines the content. He worried that television transformed politics into show business: that it celebrated style over political substance. Thirty years later his fears seem downright quaint. As we transition into a society in which the internet, rather than television is the dominant medium, we might be witnessing the demise of the television politician.

What works online is very different from what works on TV. You don’t generate virality and maximise clicks with bland reassurance and easy charm. The commodities of the internet are transgression and conflict and perpetual outrage. Political systems based on those values are great for traffic and ad revenue, and for generating an endless stream of content and indignant reactions, to keep bored white-collar workers sitting at their desks hitting refresh on Facebook and Twitter all day, and they’re ripe for politicians who have a sophisticated understanding of the new media ecology to leverage all that transgression and outrage to earn media and promote themselves. They’re probably not-so-great for the stability and longevity of those political systems and the quality of life of those governed by them.

Back in the 1990s it became a popular Gex-X affectation to airly announce that you didn’t watch TV. “Friends? Never heard of it. I don’t even own a television. I prefer to read.” With the advent of the Golden Age of TV drama – The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood etc – this quickly became socially untenable. Why wouldn’t you watch TV? TV was awesome.

‘My phone was the last thing I looked at before I went to sleep and the first when I woke up.’ (NB This is almost certainly not a picture of Danyl.) Photo: Japanexperterna.se

I feel the same way about people who go off-grid and delete all their social media and messaging accounts. Why? I’d be lost without my smart-phone. Facebook is incredibly useful at keeping in touch with people. When something interesting happens in politics I like logging onto Twitter to check out the jokes and memes and inevitable mass-hysteria. But I agree with Wu that we need to be aware of our true relationship with these applications and the content they deliver. Remember that we’re the product, not the customer; remember that much of the content is designed to make us anxious and outraged, to generate reactions, and then reactions to those reactions, because it’s all content that can be monetised; remember that the applications are engineered to perpetuate compulsive behaviour; remember that transgression and outrage almost always works to the advantage of politicians who manufacture it.

TS Eliot said that “life is many days”. That probably wasn’t supposed to be an inspirational thought, knowing Eliot, but it can be. If we change our everyday behaviour in small ways, we can change our lives. I used to charge my phone on my bedside table and it was usually the last thing I looked at before I went to sleep and the first when I woke up. Now I charge it in another room. I try to always carry a book with me and read that instead of pulling out my phone and compulsively refreshing Facebook or Twitter or the news. Small things. Life is many days.

Postman’s prognosis at the end of Amusing Ourselves to Death was fairly bleak. Technology was changing our politics for the worse, he argued, and there was basically nothing we could do to stop it. He’s probably right. But we can exercise control over our own engagement with the technology and the impact it has on our own lives. Honestly, that’s all we can do. Trying to be more cognisant of what I pay attention to, and brushing off the cobwebs and dead flies from the pile of books by my bed, I’ve found that my intake of information is now more like an eyedropper dripping into the brimming thimble of my attention-span, not a monsoon bucket. I remember some of what I read, both in books and online, and think about it instead of instantly displacing it with something else. I pay more attention to things that aren’t books and screens, like the landscape, the changing seasons, occasionally even other people. It’s nice. I recommend it.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.