Friday, November 28, 2014

Land of the Lemmings

In 1993, I took a summer job as a park ranger for the city of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. My days consisted of touring the many small parks, checking restrooms for vandalism, and suggesting that park patrons keep their vicious labs and retrievers on leash, lest someone be injured by their opportunistic licking and dangerously wagging tails.

The parks department provided me with a bright orange Chevy S-10 sporting a leaky head-gasket and AM radio, which made Rush Limbaugh my best choice among limited listening options. Though not generally inclined towards Rush's view of the world, I often found myself agreeing with him despite his pompous radio persona. Relating this fact to a girlfriend a few years later, I thought she might find it amusing. It made her cry instead.

In the years that followed, my horizons broadened, and the internet came into its own as a media source. I found plenty of fault in the opinions I'd been sold by Mr. Limbaugh. Though I frequently have reason to doubt this assessment, I like to think of myself as relatively bright and open minded. It was quite clear, however, that I'd fallen for propaganda just like the lemming-folk I enjoy making fun of.

Whenever we hear a story repeated over and over with little refutation, there's a good chance we'll believe it. We're herd animals at heart, and neither logic nor reason are required to convince us of anything. Tell us that our peers already believe something, and we'll likely accept it without question. That's why Fox News loves the term "some people say..." so much.

With families typically uprooting themselves once every 5 years, and with both parents now working where one job once sufficed, we have ever less time for real social interaction. Television increasingly fills the void, with the average American now staring at the TV for 4.5 hours a day. TV tells us what our peers think, and thus shapes our worldview. It's far more effective than any of us would like to believe.

Though it can only be attributed to pure coincidence, during this period of growth in TV time, Americans have become increasingly convinced that 1) We need to buy all the cool stuff that everyone else already owns, and 2) Nothing which has the potential to impact next quarter's corporate earnings reports is worthy of our concern. Waning public concern for our life support systems (a.k.a. "the environment") comes to mind.

The end result of these two highly effective messages has been mad race to catch up to our television peers, going into crushing levels of debt to do so. The second message has cleared the way for the destruction of our country and planet, as we cheer the horde of frackers turning us into "Saudi America" while permanently poisoning our groundwater and atmosphere in ways that were illegal a few short years ago. Drill baby, drill.

Long viewed as the best way to "get something for free", advertising is the culprit here. That free television and radio programming costs us plenty, or it would never be worth it for the advertisers to spend their money in the first place. It's a rare occasion that any media outlet is willing to risk bankruptcy by offending an advertiser. That fact alone is what makes our dominant media untrustworthy, and it's why they've led us astray.  You'll even see some ads that aren't really about selling *anything*, but rather have been created simply to foster a compliant media.

The web is filled with bloggers who work for nothing. In most cases, they're simply parroting things they've heard elsewhere (not that I have ever been guilty of such an offense...), but there are many original sources. Most do not suffer from the censuring influence nor financial gains of advertising.

Though many have come to doubt Google's "don't be evil" motto with good reason (like cooperating with the NSA and Chinese censors), Google has done something wonderful, particularly if their model spreads. Google ads, because they are assigned by computers, sever the relationship between advertiser and media outlet. This simple fact allows media sources to receive funding and not have to censor their work for fear of losing their funding. While this offers no guarantee of integrity, it certainly removes one of the greatest impediments to it.

Books, because they've long been supported by readers rather than advertisers, can be a great source of untainted information, at least for those whose attention span hasn't slipped below the 60 second threshold (felt the urge to check your smartphone lately?).

Can your TV, and you'll find that your view of the world changes. You'll actually have the time to read books (4.5 hours a day on average!), or perhaps even have the time to reclaim some of the important and rewarding skills that will again be quite important in the years to come.  It's almost like getting out of a prison when you didn't even realize you'd been locked up.

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