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Cognitive Cocooning

If we don’t like various aspects of the world around us, we have many options at our disposal today to block it out or retreat from it.

To give just one small example, we may be stuck in traffic more than ever before in history, but at least the noise of it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  Contemporary cars tend to have good stereo systems--along with good climate control systems that enable us to drive with the windows rolled up, and good sound insulation.

When we get out of our cars, we still don’t have to hear traffic noise, because we can walk around with headphones listening to music of our own choosing.

We can also absent ourselves from the tedium of our physical surroundings by going around with cell phones stuck to our ears.  In this condition, we’re not just blocking out sound, we’re to a large degree mentally absenting ourselves from the current environment (sometimes to the annoyance of other people around us, and sometimes to the outright detriment of their physical safety, if we happen to be behind the wheel of a car).

Another option available to us is to immerse ourselves in various kinds of stage-managed environments.  We can visit “themed” shopping areas that attempt to create more exotic environments essentially out of thin air, or we can frequent faux “street scenes” like Universal Studios’ CityWalk.

We can even purchase homes in a complete Disney-controlled environment (Florida’s Celebration Township), or live in communities of "quaint" neo- cottages straight out of the paintings by Thomas Kincade (courtesy of a real estate venture by the artist).

In our own more typical homes, many of us blot out the dullness of our neighborhoods by installing gigantic TV screens that make us feel almost physically immersed in a “bigger” world of glamour, adventure, sex, and celebrity.

But perhaps the most significant change has been in our ability to control how the “larger world” of media presents itself to us.

In earlier times, almost every radio station of any size was general-interest.   Without changing your dial, you might hear Elvis Presley doing “Jail House Rock” one minute, and Patti Paige singing “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” the next.  It was a far cry from today’s ultra-specialized narrowcasting, where you can choose not only a genre, like heavy metal, but also a particular approach to it.

Television has undergone a comparable transformation.  Where once you were lucky to get three channels with only moderate "snow," now you get hundreds clearly—each devoted to some tightly-defined market niche.

Unfortunately, this fragmentation into niche markets has been fundamentally unhealthy for television news, once the unchallenged leading medium by which people got their sense of what’s going on in the world.

In the days when there were only three networks, each striving for as big a general-interest audience as possible, no network wanted to risk alienating a significant segment of the population.  The result was that what was presented was reasonably centrist and balanced, and we all saw pretty much the same TV news no matter which network we tuned into.  As a result, we all tended to share a frame of reference.  We might disagree passionately over matters of judgment—what should we do about issue X?—but not much of anybody disagreed over the basic facts of what was occurring in the world.

Today, I’m continually struck by the way my liberal and conservative friends seem to inhabit separate, parallel universes.  The arguments aren’t so much over what policy would make the best sense given the facts of some situation;  they’re more over the basic nature of reality.  Discussions of this type tend to be so exasperating, for both sides, that more and more people avoid them altogether.

Increasingly, we tend restrict our conversations about social and political issues to people who are likely to feel the same way we do—in essentially the same way we choose our intake of information from the media.

The net effect is that in the age of 500 channels, an ever-expanding Internet, innumerable blogs and podcasts,  and an unbelievably rich abundance of choices about which news we want to see and when, the proud motto of an earlier era of journalism, “All the news that’s fit to print,” has been effectively supplanted by  “All the news you want to hear.” 

This approach has rendered us dangerously inept as citizens.  We’re now no better than the most coddled and toadied-up-to of Old World monarchs at seeing what’s actually going on, and making sensible decisions based on the facts.