A Guidepost-related Conversation

This conversation from a draft manuscript of Creative Systems Theory confronts a particularly important truth-related question: What makes information communication, and, even more, communication that matters?:

James (A television news producer): Earlier we talked about our diminishing confidence in leadership. I see a dramatic loss of such confidence in my profession—in the media. I think it is warranted. I’m interested in what we in the media must do if we are to regain public respect.

CJ:       The word media makes a pretty broad brush. Does your concern reach equally across the board, or is it greatest with particular kinds of media?

James:  I feel most concern with television, also movies … and video games. Some less with radio and newspapers. The jury is still out with regard to the Internet.

CJ:   You say diminishing trust is warranted.  How is that?

James:   What most people criticize gets at a lot of it—the endless sensationalizing, the gratuitous use of sexual and violent images, so often, and I think increasingly, a lack of values beyond turning a profit. That list makes a start.

The trouble is that such criticism, even when on target, tends not to be of much help. People choose to consume this stuff—and often for exactly the reasons they condemn. And while media professionals often nod in agreement at such criticism, knee-jerk programming is easy to produce and attracts advertisers.

When I get frustrated, I just end up media bashing—which is not of much help. I need more useful ways to think about all this.

CJ:       Your question is hugely important. The media serve as our cultural nervous system. In times ahead, they will do so in evermore complex and impactful ways. If they don’t serve us, we will be in significant trouble.

Addressing the media’s future also provides good illustration of needed changes in how we make discernments more generally. Successful decision-making—including that which relates to the media—requires that we rethink the truths on which we base our choices.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to engage your question on both of these levels.

James:  Sure.

CJ:       Pick one of your concerns—violence, sex, sensationalizing, a more general lack of values—and we will use it as a way in.

James:  Let’s take violence.

CJ:       We need to start by better understanding why violence is a concern. We  tend to assume it’s because violence begets violence, but that is only part of it.

I’ll share an experience from several years back that forced me to revisit the question. I’d gone to a movie I knew nothing about. I wanted a break from writing and the country town I was visiting had only one theater. I came out feeling more troubled about the human condition than I had in a long while. I could barely make out the movie’s plot through the explosions, the car crashes, and the splattering blood. It was pretty clear that the story and the characters existed primarily as an excuse for the mayhem. We see this increasingly—and not just in movies, but also TV, and certainly with video games.

What disturbed me was not the violence per se, but the purpose it obviously served. I realized that the attraction of the violence in the movie didn’t really have  much to do with violence itself. Much more it had to do with artificial stimulation, the mini-injection of adrenaline that came with each shooting and explosion. Empty stimulation can be very attractive—especially when tied to provocative imagery. And it becomes particularly attractive if we aren’t doing that well at finding excitement and meaning in daily life.

At the least, violence used in this way exploits important human impulses.  Our innate biological response to violent images tells us “be alert, stay tuned, this is important.” When real danger exists, that is a very healthy response. But when it doesn’t, or worse yet, when the images serve no purpose except to raise ratings or sell products, then the images themselves become a kind of violence.[1]

James:   What you describe is increasing prevalent. Often it seems pretty much the norm.

CJ:         I can imagine a person responding to my concern with “Hey, lighten up, this is just entertainment.” But the use of media as artificial stimulation has implications even more dangerous and fundamental.

I’m drawn back an experiment often referred to in introductory psychology texts to illustrate the mechanisms of addiction. Wires are inserted into excitement centers in a rat’s brain then attached to a depressable pedal in its cage. Eventually the rat steps on the pedal. Once he discovers the connection between pressing the pedal and the excitement it brings, he presses it with growing frequency. In time, the animal neglects other activities, even eating, and dies.

We could debate whether violent media content is formally addictive, but the parallels with addiction are hard to ignore. Addiction starts with a chemical or some other stimulus evoking a response—excitement, pleasure, whatever—that is meant to tell us that something needs attention or is good for us. What makes addictive substances addictive is that we get this excitement or pleasure without having to take the life risks or do the work these signals are meant to reward. When violence is used as artificial stimulation, this is exactly what we see.

This picture raises some scary questions about the future. Tomorrow’s more interactive media technologies will have the potential to keep us better informed. But will also be able to generate greater and more highly targeted artificial stimulation—to function as increasingly powerful “designer drugs.”  That, combined with how today’s crisis of purpose makes us ever more vulnerable to such exploitation, creates an exceedingly dangerous situation.[2]

Most people who reflect on the risks as well as the benefits of future invention tend focus on capacities most obviously cataclysmic in their potential effects, such as splitting the atom or genetic manipulation. Bur it may very well be that new information technologies, the inventions with the greatest potential to support positive change, present also the greatest ultimate danger to the human enterprise. Disconnect the feedback loops we rely on to know when something matters and we lose any ability to deal effectively with the future. Social evolution could essentially come to an end.[3]

James:  How about other concerns I mentioned—such as gratuitous sex and sensationalism more generally? Is what we see related?

CJ:        The situation is similar. Today’s pervasiveness of erotic imagery in the media might reasonably lead to the conclusion that modern culture is obsessed with sex. More accurately, we are highly vulnerable to and obsessed with titillation—pseudo-sex—and, particularly, its use to sell products. We see sexualized imagery—often combined with images of violence—used increasingly for effects more akin to an artificial high than anything really erotic. And what we see with sensationalism more generally works in a parallel way. The emotional charge provided by soap opera, talk show, and “reality” TV melodrama has less to do with feelings than cheap, consumable substitutes for feeling. In each case, what we see concerns empty stimulation more than communication.

James:   I was going to defend my world of news as somehow different, but I guess it really is not. Certainly television news is not immune to those charges. “If it bleeds it leads” all too often rules. And there really isn’t much difference between talk-show sensationalism and the road-kill journalism of a news camera poked into the face of a grieving parent.

CJ:        Given the symbolic status the news media holds in the modern psyche,[4] what we see there is of even greater concern. Much more of news than we would like to admit is less about significance than about creating the appearance of significance when little if any is present.[5] This fact violates what is in essence a sacred trust.

James: Point taken. The news should be warning us of ways we can be exploited, not adding to the exploitation.

CJ:   But let’s shift our attention to solutions. Here is where we confront that need to rethink the truths we use. We can stick with the violence example. To take useful action with regards to media violence we first have to ask what needs to be different.  The goal might seem self-evident: we need less of it. But if we make our referent, our measure, only the frequency of violent acts, we miss the point. We will fail at dealing with violence, and more important, with what ultimately makes violence a real concern in the first place.

James:  The problem is not so much violent images as their exploitative use.

CJ:        Exactly. Visual media’s ability to depict violence with graphic inescapability represents one of its greatest strengths. Remember those pictures of tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square, or the photo of the young girl who had been hit by napalm running naked toward the camera during the Vietnam War. Such images mark some of modern media’s greatest moments. We would pay a high price if we could succeed at eliminating violent imagery. The ability to depict violence, and sometimes with graphic immediacy, will be essential for the depth of informed decision-making culturally mature responsibility requires.

So just having fewer violent images by itself can’t be the answer. We need a different measure if our response to the exploitative use of violent content is to serve us. We have to get more directly at whether violent imagery represents meaningful communication or a cheap substitute.

In the end, this is not just a different measure, it is a different kind of measure.  We see the most obvious difference in how much harder it is to quantify. The number of violent images (or sexual images, or whatever) used in an hour is readily added up.  But measuring the degree such images make us more or divert us from what matters—whether they fill us or rob from us—that is a trickier proposition. Indeed it is a whole different sort of proposition.

James:  What you describe would seem to throw us back to square one. It becomes all in the eye of the beholder—a totally subjective call.

CJ:       Not really. It certainly becomes a harder call. It requires us to discern more complexly and do so in ways that draw on more of ourselves. Better we observe, simply, that it is a more systemic call. Thus we have to be humble to the complexity of the considerations required, and necessary limitations

But it is not beyond us. I’ve experimented with having people rate clips from TV news after introducing them to the dilemma we’ve discussed. I make sure they understand how the distinction we are talking about—news versus an artificial substitute—is different from just biased news versus unbiased news, or serious journalism as opposed to entertainment,[6] I’ve found much greater consistency in people’s responses than we might expect, And the consistency improves markedly if I give people tools that can help them distinguish reactions that may have more to do with personality style differences or local tastes than significance. It is very possible to make useful policy decisions without our more familiar kind of quantitative measure.

James:  I’d still like things to be clearer.

CJ:       We have to rethink what we mean by clarity. We get nowhere by measuring variables that miss the point because they are more readily measured—a trap we all too often fall into. We have to do our best to measure what is really our concern—here whether information diminishes us or makes us more—even if we can’t do so with our favorite kind of precision.[7] In the end, this provides answers that are more precise not less. Whatever, this will be the kind of call we will increasingly have to make.

James:  I don’t understand whether you advocate censorship of some kind or are just saying we should be more aware.

CJ:       Certainly we need to be more conscious in our choices. We will successfully address exploitative uses of the media only if we understand what is going on. The growing prevalence in our schools of classes on media literacy represents an important step in this direction.

With regard to policy, nothing is off the table. Most often people will vote on media policy with their feet—or with their ears and eyeballs. But I can certainly think of situations that would call for formal social limits—particularly with regard to children. America’s first amendment guarantees freedom of speech. However, when speech becomes more a tool of addiction than communication the first amendment no longer applies. We have no problem arresting a drug dealer selling his wares at the corner of a schoolyard. The dangers here are much greater.

But censorship presents even more than the usual problems when needed measures become more systemic. Again, the measurement questions—just what do we censor?  The good news is that Cultural Maturity’s changes support the capacities required to make needed discernments—whether in a specific situation the task is formal limits or just getting better at saying no.

James:  They somehow must.

CJ:       I agree.

[1]              The gratuitous use of violent images exploits not just our “fight or flight” reaction, but also the compassion we naturally feel toward those in pain. Exploiting our natural responses to crisis can’t help but numb us to feelings and make the world a more cynical place.

[2]              Much of our vulnerability to the attraction of such pseudo-excitement (and pseudo-meaning) is a product of our natures. But as much derives from today’s crisis of purpose and hope.

[3]              We can think of  vulnerability  to artificial stimulation (along with  the willingness to produce it is the name of signficance) as an ultimate Transitional Absurdity. Truth during Late-Axis culture was defined increasingly by the  abstract “products” of creation—individuality, objective observation, and material acquisition—the stuff of structure and delineation. With Transition, truth becomes even more abstract—simply information. The less positive manifestation of this final abstractness is  the ease with which we confuse artificial stimulation with significance. Add disconnection from bodily knowing and confusion readily translates to addiction.

[4]              With the late twentieth century, television news became increasingly our “keeper of final truth”—like the church in the Middle Ages or science in the Age of Reason. Events became real only when we’d seen them on the evening news. As the Internet challenges this information monopoly, this function is becoming more decentralized. How much more responsibly ithis function will be held will depends on the  broader changes this book is about.

[5]              Local television news is the worst offender. Once, in preparation for a speech at a media literacy conference, I taped a week of television news from each of Seattle’s local commercial stations. Two-thirds of the content—setting aside sports and weather—was either the latest killings, rapes, and natural disasters, or tabloid sensationalism—O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, and the like. What most struck me was how little of what I witnessed was actually news—in the sense of anything new, anything that could add to what people know.  We can predict pretty accurately how many robberies and rapes are likely to happen in a year. Parading the latest examples before us each evening (often from locales far distant) really isn’t news—except in the unlikely chance that we know the people involved.

[6]              This polarity, too, begins to break down in a culturally mature reality.  “Serious” news is about that which is creatively significant.  Such communication appropriately engages all of our cognitive complexity (serious and playful parts equally).

[7]              In a way, nothing is new.  Whether information is truly information, something that “informs,” has always been media’s bottom line question—from the earliest cave drawings.  The change is that today we must face such questions much more consciously and with a  deeper understanding of the complexities involved.