Remember the big, bad sequester – the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect a few months ago because Congress was obstructionist and inept? If you weren’t directly affected by those cuts, it’s probably not on your mind anymore, but those cuts continue to hurt many people. I don’t remember the last time someone in the media mentioned the cuts or how the cuts have affected Americans. Of course, I guess you could say that’s because “what’s done is done,” and that would be true on some level, except that it was something that wasn’t supposed to happen in the first place. And now that it has happened, it’s a little like we grew apathetic or just sort of accepted it.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve just thrown up our arms and said, “Well, oh well.” When the Afghanistan and Iraq wars happened, as a society, we quickly forgot America was (and still is) at war. Remember the gun control debate that arose after Sandy Hook (or after the hundred other shootings that happened before that)? Remember the debt ceiling when Republicans refused to pay the bills we owed? Every time there’s a national crisis of some such, we talk about it a little, and then it just disappears as though it never mattered or never happened. Vanished into some sort of information oblivion.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was always like that. I want to say, before the advent of the Internet, when an issue gripped the nation’s attention, it didn’t go away as easily or as quickly as it does today. People didn’t just forget about what was happening in Vietnam. When a politician did something awful, or even just lied to the American people, they were held accountable. It wasn’t a five-minute news segment that ran for a week or two and then was completely forgotten.
Before I go on, I should say that I don’t mean here to get off on some dystopian tirade ranting about how awful America’s future will be if we don’t do something different. I’m not interested in whining and moaning about sequestration or gun control or the manufactured deficit crisis. (At least, not here). And I also don’t mean to hearken back to the days of yore when all you had to do was protest Vietnam and… still nothing changed (which could explain why we do so little today). What I’m interested in here is dissecting what happened that made us stop caring.
Granted, that’s probably a loaded question. It’s not clear that we ever really stopped caring. In fact, many people are extremely passionate about a wide range of sociopolitical issues. But that’s just it: we’re battling a wide range of issues, not just one or a few. And all of them are fighting for our attention. It makes caring meaningless on some level.
It’s a problem that I think is especially unique to the information age. That is, it’s a kind of societal information overload. Every day, there’s a new story vying to be a part of the short-lived national discourse. Some stories stick around long enough for us to enact some level of change. But most come and go, increase our bitterness, leaving us dulled and inactive. I think politicians today have figured out that they can ride out the “infobesity” time-frame long enough to bury their screw-ups in the fat folds of other information.
So how does it work? I think there’s a few basic premises behind “infobesity”:
First, the type of information we consume is driven not by what we need to know but by what we want to know. We’re even hoodwinked into believing that what we want is what we need out of social media and other media formats. Thus, we consume what makes corporations money. That’s why most news channels are “infotainment,” rather than information. I wrote about this a little when I left Facebook for the first time. It’s also a well-documented problem often called the “filter bubble” and featured in a pretty interesting TED talks. The idea here is that the more you’re told what you want, the more you close yourself off in your own little information bubble, and as that happens, the less likely you are to care to hear differing opinions from your own. It’s a way of socializing us without us ever knowing we were socialized to fit conveniently into a consumer category. And it’s part of what’s made this generation so divisive.
Second, the information we consume is given to us in a format that allows and encourages us to forget. People who study the so-called “oral tradition” (that is, a long time ago before the advent of writing, we passed our information by remembering it) will tell you that our brains no longer function like those of pre-literary societies. The written word, particularly after the printing press was invented, made memorization less important. But the internet has gone one step further. Quick access to any information imaginable makes remembering even less necessary. That means we’re evolving to be less likely to retain information. This phenomenon, too, is well-documented.
So, put those together and it’s a recipe for disaster. The information we consume is tailored to us such that we’re told what someone else wants us to hear and told it in such a way that we’re likely to forget it. This breeds a kind of sloppy, lazy uninformed citizen who thinks they’re very informed. And that’s a politician’s dream.
Think about it. If you’re a politician, and you understand how the nation consumes information, you can use that to your advantage. Think of all the “scandals” that have happened in the past few weeks from Benghazi coverage to the IRS to the most recent Snowden NSA leaks. Big news, right? For a moment, maybe. Maybe even big enough news to turn a few heads or get a few people fired, but really, the government will continue to work like any other day – business as usual. The IRS and the State Department aren’t going to stop being large, bureaucratic machines because of a news story that ran for a couple of weeks. Most of the problems within those organizations aren’t going anywhere. And as long as the technology exists to spy on Americans, the government (or somebody else) will spy on them. Obama could resign, the Patriot Act could be repealed, and you’d be crazy if you think you’ve regained your 4th Amendment privacy.
Maybe that’s the real reason nobody does anything. Maybe it’s not just because we’re overloaded with information, though that’s got to contribute to our hopelessness. Maybe we just know that there’s nothing we can do but accept it. I realize that’s kind of a negative take on big government, which is probably surprising coming from someone like me. But how we consume information is something we should really worry about.