Bull Session

Media Decay

December 3, 2015          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about media decline in the digital age. In its current state, media has ceased to be the gold standard and alarmingly, is becoming just another kind of noise in the cacophony of the 24-hour always on news cycle.

The media appeals to the lowest common denominator. And, it’s a valid question as to whether it’s a well-designed product at all anymore. Worse still, in the Internet age, our smorgasbord of media choices perpetuates the dangerous world of self-validating viewpoints. We can’t remember things correctly. We edit our memories. Has it always been like this? Or are our minds being transformed by the age of information?

Resources
America Is Too Dumb for TV News

 

Jon:
Welcome to episode 132 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hi Jon, did you have a nice Thanksgiving?

Jon:
I did. It was just a great time to spend with family. Went down to Connecticut. We had three different kinds of roast meats, a lot of barbecue. Definitely a little bit of gluttony there.

Dirk:
What’s the third, turkey, ham, what?

Jon:
Porketta, which is another pork. A pork shoulder roast on the grill.

Dirk:
Nice.

Jon:
Marinated and everything. My uncle’s a great cook. It’s a lot of fun. The kids got to play with the dogs. It was just a good time.

Dirk:
That sounds wonderful.

Jon:
How was yours?

Dirk:
It was fine. Quiet. Family. Fun.

Jon:
Yeah. Well Thanksgiving is in my opinion right on par or very close to Christmas time just in terms of the quality time that you get with family. Christmas can be a little crazy. Thanksgiving always feels a little bit more casual, at least for me.

Dirk:
Yeah, I prefer Thanksgiving because unless you’re one of those Black Friday participants, it eschews the consumerism that is so insidious in Christmas. I appreciate that.

Jon:
Today Dirk I wanted to chat a little bit about an issue that I see coming up time and again, which is media splintering in the digital age. What drew my attention to this topic for this week was a very interesting article in Rolling Stone magazine about the decline of media and it’s called “America is too Dumb for TV news”. It was specific to the television broadcast news medium, but I think some of the things that the author said also related to news in the digital age generally speaking.

The writer, Matt Taibi, is discussing television news as related to Donald Trump’s outrageous claims that he saw thousands and thousands of Muslims celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11.

The author says, “It’s our fault we in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fattened sugar and violence and wait for your obese, overstimulated customer to come waddling forth. The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.”

Not only is Matt … Can turn a phrase there, but I think he’s onto something. There are a number of different views on this that I wanted to take today. First, I wanted to see what your thoughts were on the subject.

Dirk:
Yeah, I mean, he’s right. It’s no surprise. I mean look, this is the ultimate byproduct of lightly regulated capitalist economic systems. It’s all about profits and making money. There’s not government oversight of structure of any kind to make sure that your broccoli gets through to you. It’s all about how can create addicts who buy our stuff. How can we appeal to the basest animal instincts and reactionary aspects of the human animal. The human brain. The human neuro-endo chronological system.

The fact it’s taken this long is the only thing that surprises me. The idea now seem quaint, that the media would have some sort of a more neutral, a more highfalutint perspective on things. The media now is just like any other profit driven organization and lacking government regulation or government role in the process. That ain’t going to change.

I’m not surprised in the least. We have gotten exactly the “media” that our economic system would inevitably lead itself to. Why are we surprised and outraged? We shouldn’t be surprised and outraged about that. We should be surprised and outraged about capitalism which is totally fucked. No surprise here. Matt is right on.

Jon:
I think the digital age has some interesting attributes which I think accelerate in some ways this sort of media debacle. One of the things that, at least my perception on the media over the period of time from the late seventies until now, was that there was some sort of gold standard or at least it appeared like there was when there were three channels on TV, a few select newspapers which were sort of seen as the pinnacle of writing, then you have some magazines and such. Rightly or wrongly, the impression that I get now is that while those brands those companies may still exist, they exist in a cesspool or whatever of a lot of other just plain old noise where equal sort of say is given to less well research, not well thought through, and particularly biased outlets.

The end result is that if you are a sort of well-researched and generally even-handed publication, you’re going to be seen in the same light from anything else from your blog sites to your video bloggers to your social media. It’s this uneven … Rather than lifting up certain voices to a higher level, it seem like the once gold standard voices have been sort of dragged down into the muck.

Dirk:
I think some of that’s perceptual fiction.

Jon:
Okay.

Dirk:
I mean, go back to the ABC, CBS, NBC days right? We were getting Flintstones, I dream of Genie, and Have Gone Will Travel, or whatever the hell the crazy western shows were from the 1960s. That’s not high art. It’s not high news. It’s not objective journalism. It’s base entertainment. It’s rubbish. If you watch those shows now, they’re horrific.

The idea that there was this gold standard I think is a myth. I think it’s a total myth. Those were entertainment outlets that happen to inject small nuggets of perhaps closer to some journalistic ideal of news within a trough of slop that people only watch because they didn’t know better.

Jon:
I’m a little less jaded on that point. I want to ask you, do you think … We’re talking about the media as a product right? Do we think that it’s a generally speaking a well designed product? I think that’s an interesting question because it seems to drive views, right? So it’s all about click through and views and things. You mentioned the word addiction and I can tell you, I’m checking Twitter and social media and clicking through links to the point where I think oh I have to stop and get back to work.

Dirk:
Yeah.

Jon:
There is that “addiction” that I have as well. Is it a well designed product? Are we just getting what we’re asking for.

Dirk:
Yeah. It’s not even what we’re asking for right? We’re getting what the natural human reaction to stimulus demands. We’re getting what our need for sex, the way that sugar mixes with our system to become addictive, the way all these chemicals are sort of perfectly suited to make us say, “More, more, please.” We’re getting that. None of us, or very few of us I would hope, are consciously saying, “What I want is more of the tit stuff.” Serve me up a lot of tits, like you clicking on them. No we click on the tits because we like tits. Few of us are saying, “Give me the empty sugar that’s with worthless calories that’s going to shorten my life. That’s going to do all of these bad things to my body.” No, it’s just that it’s so addictive and so yummy. We’re just like, “rah rah rah”.

Jon:
Your sound effects are awesome.

Dirk:
I don’t think any of this is conscious.

Jon:
Right.

Dirk:
It’s just that we are at our core a basic primitive and simple species and if you allow these giant organizations to get these great incentives to tap into those parts of ourselves and leverage them to the hilt, then you’re going to get us going to those behaviors more. Being incentivized to do so by these companies. For them to be rewarded for it while we are taken down to a more primitive and unfortunate manifestation of what our species is possible of being.

Jon:
I think there’s a corollary or an add-on to that which is, especially as this political season in the United States heats up, it’s going to get into a fever pitch at a certain point. Whether this is a new phenomenon or not, I don’t know. I see a danger here in self-validating viewpoints right?

I think a certain way. I click on articles that reinforce the way I think about it. I pay attention to these lengths that are maybe left-leaning, maybe my uncle pays attention to the lengths that are right-leaning. We have faulty memories, even the best of us, and we revise our memories over time, right? You end up with things like, “Oh, this statement from Trump,” where he remembers exactly what happened and that’s what happened for him. Suddenly there’s collective amnesia or collective sort of dream where everybody else remembers it and why didn’t the media record it because they certainly must be lying. You have these … this search for self-validation which I think is really kind of dangerous when you don’t have a way of validating at the end of the day against what is true.

Dirk:
Yeah. I mean so there is you’re right. There is that intellectual self-validation in terms of the things that we choose to read and do. Then there are those other things, like clicking on tits, that isn’t self-validation. It’s just being drawn to our lowest common denominator.

One thing that all of this gets back to, especially when we’re talking about the media and reporting and some golden standard of journalism is the idea of truth. I mean I happen to think truth is a myth. I think that we claim that there’s this idea of truth. Objectively there’s this certain specific way of being. It’s total bullshit. I mean, let’s decide who’s the most fantastic journalist ever. In our lifetimes, which journalist is just the balls. “This is the guy or girl who just, they told the truth. They were honest.”

I mean so let’s say Edward R. Murrow. I think that would be a name I could throw out and few people would disagree with me.

Jon:
Right.

Dirk:
Edward R. Murrow came from a worldview of United States, Democracy, freedom, good. Soviet union, evil empire, horrible. He was telling his truth from the standpoint of within and as a champion of the system in the United States in contrast to the system of the Soviet Union. There’s no objective correctness there. He simply happens to be someone who is advocating the worldview and viewpoint of the majority of the people in the society around him. That’s a very different thing from truth.

If we throw out the idea of truth, and if we start to look at this as, “Look. This is just a case of different people and different contexts with their own specific agendas giving a take on what happened and trying to be as close to, or not worrying about how close they are to the facts as possible,” the conversation changes very much.

I do think that the whole notion of the golden time of journalism is bullshit. I think it’s sort of fiction on top of fiction on top of fiction. Now it’s just much more apparent that what it all boils down to is chasing the money and clicking on tits.

Jon:
Dirk, do you think it’s always been like this or do you think our minds are actively transformed by the digital age of information? Are we getting so much reinforcement for certain behaviors that we’ve described at length today, like are we changing our mindset? Are we changing our actual minds? Are we evolving in a direction that is you know going to reward this kind of behavior in the future?

Dirk:
Yeah, I think it’s always been this way to some degree. Let’s go back to the time, late 18th century, early 19th century. The founding of the United States. There was a lot more of what we might consider serious journalism that people were caring about and paying attention to. The Common Sense pamphlets would be a good example of that.

Well that was happening in a society where the majority of people were fighting against an oppressive, imperialistic regime in England. On a daily basis, you were having to think about what you could do at the level of survival. What you could do to make sure you have basic freedoms and live in a somewhat even just a simple way.

Today, the majority of us just take that for granted. We live in these nice houses, it’s very safe. We have food. Any kind of food we want, push a button. It’s a totally different world. Now that we have the cushion of safety in our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to just sort of degenerate to sugar and tits.

However, at the same time, you hear now in politics especially, one candidate will lambaste another. Say terrible things or the commercials are just outrageous, skewering a candidate. I always hear people say, “Oh my God it never used to be this way. Oh my God.” If you go back to the late 18th century and early 19th century, it was worse. If you’ve read the things that the John Adams campaign was saying about Thomas Jefferson and the stuff that the Thomas Jefferson campaign was saying about John Adams, it would make people today blush. It was horrendous and unbelievable and it was preposterous, the things that they would say.

This stuff has always been around to some degree. At that time it was necessary that there be something like Common Sense. That there be something that was really meaty and toothy to engage people because they wanted their freedoms. They wanted these British the hell off their backs and they wanted to live with some sense of security and promise. Now we don’t … We don’t have those concerns. We’re fat and happy, and so sugar and tits baby.

Jon:
On that note, listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one “L” in “the digital life” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterwards if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on twitter @jonfollett, that’s j-o-n-f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?

Dirk:
As much as I like sugar and tits, generally I talk to people about other things. If you’re interested in engaging me, you can follow me on twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at d-k-n-m-e-y-e-r, or you can email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 132 of The Digital Life, for Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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