Media and the Selling of Pseudo-Significance

These two pieces are adapted from Cultural Maturity: A guidebook for the Future

The Selling of Pseudo-Significance:

When I talk to groups about the double-edged potential consequences of new technologies, I am often asked where I think the greatest future technology-related dangers lie. My answer surprises people: The greatest area of danger is also where the greatest possibilities lie—the information revolution.

No sphere of technical advancement is likely to better support Cultural Maturity’s changes. Emerging information technologies are increasingly interactive and systemically linked. And their combined use of text, sound, and image offers that we might communicate with greater depth and creativity than ever before. We could not ask for more. But at the same time, if used poorly, emerging information technologies have the potential to do great harm, indeed to fundamentally undermine the human experiment.

Making sense of how this might be so starts with the essential recognition that much we find in the media has little to do with communication. Most people recognize that very often communications media don’t provide much in the way of useful information. But my point is different. Often what communications media put forward is, in effect, information’s opposite. It has more to do with a selling of pseudo-significance than a conveying of anything useful.

We see this most readily when “entertainment” media substitute shootings, car chases, and quick-flash images of erotic titillation for substance, for anything real. But we witness something related with “if it bleeds, it leads,” sensationalism-based journalism. And with digital media, the dynamic can be even more striking. For example, video games often function as little more than Skinner boxes with explosions being the reward.

Should all of this concern us? If all we were seeing was superficiality and trivialness, this situation would be neither new nor of great consequence. But when we look more deeply, and place what we see in the context of the challenges that will most define our future well-being, this trend very much becomes a concern. It takes us beyond the simply superficial toward something more ominous—the substitution of artificial stimulation for substance. Much of what I described in the last paragraph works ultimately at this level.

Appreciating why this is a problem requires that we understand what makes pseudo-significance—and most particularly the substitution of artificial stimulation for significance—attractive: It mimics the mechanisms of addictive drugs. I’m drawn back to an experiment that introductory psychology texts often reference to illustrate the dynamics of addiction. Wires are inserted into excitement centers in a rat’s brain and then attached to a depressable pedal in its cage. Eventually the rat steps on the pedal. Once it discovers the connection between pressing the pedal and the feeling of excitement it brings, the rat presses it with growing frequency. In time the animal neglects other activities, even eating, and dies. In a similar way, addictive drugs hook us by providing the feedback our bodies use to let us know when something matters—arousal, pleasure, release, or magical/spiritual experience—without us having to do any of the work, learn any of the lessons, or take any of the risks that real significance requires. The selling of artificial substitutes as substance involves the same mechanism. And the closer the artificial substitute comes to being little more than bare excitation—stimulation with only the illusion of content—the more powerful the result.

This picture raises some scary questions about the future. While tomorrow’s new communications technologies will have the potential to keep us more richly and creatively informed, they will also be able to provide ever greater and more highly targeted artificial stimulation—to function as increasingly powerful “designer drugs.” Add to this the way today’s crisis of purpose makes us particularly vulnerable to such exploitation, along with how such exploitation can produce great profit, and we get an exceedingly dangerous situation. The information revolution could be an essential part of what saves us—or a direct contributor to our undoing.

We are left with the question of whether there is any effective way to respond to the addictive selling of pseudo-significance. We can say for sure that we must respond if our future is to be at all healthy and sane. We can also say something about just what effective action depends on. Our answer ties the media challenge to more fundamental truth concerns and in the process dramatically further emphasis the importance of finding effective response. Effective action hinges on learning to better discern when fake significance masquerades as the real thing.

The critical recognition as far as our new-truth tasks is that this kind of discernment depends on an ability that we can realize at all deeply only with Cultural Maturity’s changes—the ability to discern significance bare-boned, separate from its trappings. This ability to more directly discern what matters will become increasingly essential in times ahead. It is necessary to making good decisions separate from the specific beliefs of our particular cultural backgrounds and to getting beyond ideology more generally. As we see in this example, it will be increasingly important to making discernments of immense consequence.

The great significance of this more general new capacity puts the importance of effectively addressing the media question in particularly high relief. The reason the substitution of artificial stimulation for significance presents enormous danger is only in part that the results can be addictive. Of more ultimate importance, the exploitative use of media does direct damage to this essential new capacity. The selling of artificial stimulation as substance destroys the feedback mechanisms we will more and more need to effectively make our way. That includes the feedback needed to make good media choices. And the damage is more fundamental. The selling of artificial stimulation as substance, in the end, undermines the ability on which our future will most depend.

The digital revolution also alerts us to a further truth-related imperative. We encounter it most directly with a more generally recognized future conundrum: Even when information is not used exploitatively, its shear quantity threatens to overwhelm us. Part of the antidote to info-glut is precisely what I have described—we need to get better at discerning where substance lies. But we also need something more. We need ways of thinking that help us recognize pattern in information, that let us better discern useful knowledge within information, and, beyond this, that can assist us in the wise use of knowledge.


The Future of the Media:

Essential leadership tasks: The news media—both traditional and in all its new, increasingly decentralized forms—will be critical to effectively confronting Cultural Maturity’s challenge. They must clearly articulate the new questions, provide the informational resources a culturally mature populace requires, and go beyond just balanced reporting to engage essential issues with an unswerving focus and creativity that at this point is rare. Popular media also have an essential role. They must stand opposed to the artificial-stimulation-as-substance diversions that today too often pass as communication, and put forward images that can model and inspire culturally mature lives.

The news media’s obvious systemic function is to help us be informed. But it also had a deeper role that is key to addressing its future. In the Middle Ages, we looked to the church and to the crown for the guidance we needed to make our choices. They functioned as our “trusted agents.” In modern times, the news media, when at its best, has taken over this trusted agent role, functioned as the source we can look to for information we can rely on.

The news media’s story through history by itself adds in only limited ways to previous observations. We could examine how different intelligences have predominated in what we have found important to communicate at different times in culture, but that is now a familiar topic. And while I could describe how means of communication have evolved—from drumbeats, to wandering minstrels making their rounds among medieval villages, to the advent of movable type, to the digital revolution—this is largely a technical history. For this look at the future of media, historical perspective’s most important contribution is to affirm the importance of the news media’s trusted-agent role—how it has functioned in modern times to provide us with key information we have needed to live safe and productive lives. Culturally mature media must necessarily continue this trusted-agent tradition, but now at a new level of sophistication. Going forward, the media must provide reporting and interpretation able to support people making culturally mature choices in both their personal and collective lives.

In identifying this essential task, we need to acknowledge how very far the news media today often are from succeeding at it. Of cultural functions we have looked at, the news media are probably most blind to how badly their current practices fall short of what real leadership in a culturally mature world requires. The news media’s approval ratings are rarely much above ratings we give politicians—and for good reason. Too much of what we call news is sensationalized “if it bleeds it leads” journalism—the latest murders, rapes, and disasters. Arguably, this is barely news at all, if by news we mean something new, information that tells us anything we did not previously know.

In Chapter One, I observed how even when the news media do take on serious issues, what we find tends to fall well short of culturally mature journalism. Most often reporting takes the form either of ideological advocacy or, in the name of fairness, voicing one predictable ideological position followed by its opposite. I’ve described how even the best of journalism too often confuses “balanced reporting” with the kind of systemic perspective needed if we are to arrive at the needed new, more creative and complete kind of understanding.

Today’s increasingly diverse and decentralized digital media options invite new possibilities, but they also present new dangers. The most obvious danger lies with the creation of “gated communities” of the like-minded. But there is also how the sheer amount of information can make us vulnerable to confusing quantity with significance—a Transitional trap. Information overload can also have us simply stop listening. And nothing in a more diversified media environment, by itself, protects us from the sensationalizing of content and the confusion of empty stimulation with news—indeed this danger increases.

The most significant new possibility lies with the way new types of media can help us develop resources to filter and triage information. Our trusted agents no longer need to be established figures—such as Walter Cronkite in his time—with the resources of major networks behind them. New media modalities invite the development of media resources that specifically highlight information able to help us create a culturally mature world. This is a possibility that we have yet to significantly realize. It is essential that we successfully do so.

Changes in popular media similarly involve both new dangers and new options. The business of popular media is the telling of stories. Old stories necessarily leave us short. But we also have the option of telling new kinds of stories.

I’ve observed how modern (Late-Axis) storytelling has most often applied either heroic (putting a man on the moon) or romantic (Romeo and Juliet) narratives and how each of these most familiar kinds of narrative has derived much of its attractiveness from idealization, projection, and dreams of limitlessness. I’ve also described how the growing influence of postmodern narrative in contemporary popular media has begun to take us beyond these two options. Such more Transitional storytelling has often challenged past idealizations in important and creative ways.

But I’ve emphasized, too, how we can’t stop there. Transitional storytelling can translate into a difference-for-its-own-sake, ironic-glibness-in-the-name-of-profundity sensibility that produces at best cleverness, at worst a self-satisfied superficiality that reflects, and serves to perpetuate, Transitional Absurdity. While such ultimately unhelpful Transitional dynamics are often not of great concern—being more silly in their consequences than significant—they can also present real dangers. I’ve described how entertainment media with growing frequency draw on psychological mechanisms that differ little from those of addicting drugs. In doing so, they contribute to what is arguably our time’s most destructive form of Transitional Absurdity.

Fortunately, there is nothing to keep us from telling new kinds of stories. I often challenge friends and colleagues in the entertainment world to expand their thinking to include culturally mature narrative and to reflect on how such new storytelling can be translated into effective expression. We see bits of culturally mature narrative in the best of contemporary popular media—stories of people, often in very different ways, seeking personal meaning in a world where traditional guideposts are not as helpful as in times past; of relationships in which people not only step outside the bounds of expectations, but attempt to engage one another in more complete (Whole-Person) ways; of people looking toward the future in a manner that steps beyond outdated heroic imagery (and equally its polar twin, dystopian imagery) and provides authentic hope and creative inspiration for going forward. It is true that culturally mature narrative can initially seem less sexy than what it replaces. But, for the simple reason that culturally mature possibility describes what is becoming creatively right and true in our times, more and more we should find storytelling that draws on culturally mature themes compelling—and ultimately, most “sexy.”

I’m a strong advocate for media literacy classes in the schools. Good media literacy classes continue to be rare, and I think it is essential that media literacy insights inform education at all levels. I have particular interest in how media literacy becomes essential in our digitally interconnected world. The topic highlights the important relationship between the content of this section and that of the section previous.

The emphasis with media literacy curriculum has changed in recent years in ways that have sometimes caused conflict between media literacy advocates. Not long ago the primary focus was learning to “deconstruct” media so that students could better recognize biases and not be exploited by the media—particularly by television with its too often numbing, even addictive, effects and, within media of all sorts, by advertising’s distorting influence. The emphasis was largely protective. Newer media literacy advocates tend to be more positive and proactive, giving greatest attention to how digital media offer the possibility of endless media options and of student’s creating their own media.

Today, a next step has become essential. We reside in an easily confusing, in-between place when it comes to the promise of the digital revolution. We see dramatic new freedoms, and at once realities that are often decidedly less helpful than we like to imagine. What we encounter with new media—both with news media and popular media—is too often empty stimulation more than substance and content that is at best an inch deep and many, many miles wide.

I sometimes suggest a simple exercise for teachers to do with students that captures what is needed and in a way that draws on the best of the two media literacy traditions. The teacher challenges each students to put together a website that can function as a trusted agent—that provides links to information (and entertainment) that the student finds personally most useful and important (most life-affirming). Students then engage in discussion about why they chose to include what they did, and also about what they found to be missing that should somehow be included. This simple exercise not only captures what needs to be at the heart of good media education, it begins to get at the timely task for all of us if digital technologies—and the media more generally—are to serve us in a culturally mature world.