Friday, March 23, 2007

FOLLOW UP: Irri-tainment

Here's the latest in a devleoping thought stream on the linkage of entertainment, individualism, and information.

Why DO we get hooked by the sensationalism of irri-tainment? Why the focus on pop culture? On Celebrity? Yuck.

I suppose number one we’re curious beings, thankfully, or we’d not have evolved as we have. And number two we're social beings. So we’re not just interested in news which has a direct (or potential) impact on us personally – we’re also fascinated by anything impacting our larger community, since historically those of us on this planet today are descendants of humans who succeeded at leveraging their communities to achieve more than they could have achieved alone. Recognizing that of our achievement, perhaps 40% is not due to ourselves, but our communities, we are vitally interested in the long-term viability thereof. We valued them for the protection, achievement, nurturing, and information that they afforded us. We equally value their guidance and self-governing powers. In today’s world, however, we are individually richer and more comfortable than ever before. We thus feel less need for community.

Moreover, we are for the first time faced with more information than we can process. In fact, whereas historically, paying attention to something necessarily implied that you reacted to it, we’re now so busy just in-processing info that we never get around to reacting to the majority of it, especially when the needed reaction benefits the overall community more than it individually benefits us (such as helping a neighbor repair his damaged house). Plus, we’re newly able to cast our social nets without respect to geography due to communication and transportation technologies. We are thus testing the very outer limits of our ability to socialize, to “belong” and contribute to reliable and useful communities. Often we fail and community suffers. Because these things are new, we’ve not evolved with the ability to properly filter – to train our attention solely on that which is relevant to us, to more precisely and also selectively define the communities to which we choose to belong such that our own socialization capabilities are not stretched too thin or otherwise rendered ineffective. Necessarily, as community members fall down on their contributions individually, the overall community becomes less useful to each member and consequently loosens, compounding the problem of community viability. We thus forge ahead constantly absorbing as much information as we find ourselves physically capable at every moment, too quickly to associate much of any emotion to it beyond overall fear, and thus diminishing the memory’s later recall-ability. We hear and remember facts without learning lessons. As an aside, this carries the effect of leading us to repeat our mistakes. Should we take time out to truly cogitate over some new fact, we are promptly interrupted with a new one. Our brains have evolved to value new facts over old, and thus it dutifully drops the ball of cogitation on the earlier fact in order to in-process the newer. The former never gets revisited and thus the time spent cogitating is wasted, a lesson not entirely lost on our brains.

Our brains have also, however, evolved to connect with and care about those we see commonly. We build/perceive community and begin to show an interest in things impacting those people. Perversely, our physical world has become so horrendously anonymous that this natural inclination is left numb and unnecessary. What are the chances of the dude at Best Buy remembering you (much less anything personal about you) 6 months later when you go in to buy a TV? Whereas this used to be a big-city-only phenomenon, and one moreso observed in the likes of Moscow than the US, it is today pervasive in every anonymous suburban paradise. Californians, in fact, once citizens of the Wild West, now exhibit only the thinnest veil of interest in ANYone outside their immediate household. Yet their community-building synapses continue to fire desperately. More often than not, this urge settles upon those we see most frequently who, ironically, are usually far far away, yet brought close by the wonders of tele-media. Put explicitly, our brains begin automatically to create community with news anchors, politicians, and actors. Celebrities.

Once brought “in” to our community, any news about or words from these people catches our attention and begins to take up space in our memory and our cognition. We begin an unrequited one-way relationship of caring for these people who have no direct impact on our lives to the preclusion, at the most extreme, of those proximal who could requite or otherwise provide us some benefit. Whereas it is possible to gain insights from such one-way relationships, they indeed comprise false communities and are a net drain on our lives.

To be considered, therefore, is whether one should consciously focus on building community with those around each of us rather than these faux-amis. With the powers of telecommunication and transportation, we might be successful not at delimiting geographically but based on true benefit. For example, is it more valuable to me to try for a communal bond with the Best Buy guys or with peers in my industry who live across the country? In either case, to the extent that all members of the community truly commit to actively contribute to the community, the two options both have potential value to me. However, vocational commonality may indeed be more valuable to me than mere geographic and thus the latter would be a better choice. On the other hand, because we have not fully neutralized the impact of distance on community, the latter community will also cost us more in terms of effort.

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