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By Rusty Guinn
We humans are not very good at thinking about non-linearity.
When a process interacts with another process – or itself – our usually deep capacity for pattern recognition and estimation goes out the window. I could be referring to viral spread, or why we have concerns about B.1.1.7 becoming dominant in the US. I could be referring to the effects of leverage, concentration and liquidity in investment portfolios.
But not today. Today, I am thinking about the effects of a vastly larger world population and the effects of always-on social media that is deeply embedded in our lives. I am thinking about how these two things interact. I am thinking about how in our lifetimes it has become significantly harder to trust the quality and balance of information we receive and incorporate into our decision-making.
And no, I don’t mean garden variety media bias on some political dimension, like the left-wing bias of MSNBC or the right-wing bias of Newsmax. I mean bias – a measurable tendency toward a particular framing, presentation or interpretation of information – as an endemic feature of media. The systematic presence of Fiat News on a million different dimensions.
To that end, I’d like you to read this opinion piece on NBC News. It rose to the top of our Zeitgeist for unsurprising reasons. Super Bowl commercial coverage always does.
It is going to make you angry.
If you did read the piece, I am sorry. If you elected to skip over it, allow me to give you the highlights: an NBC News opinion contributor watched the Squarespace Super Bowl commercial in which Dolly Parton switches her classic tune to “5-to-9” as part of celebrating how website-building technology can help people surviving office drudgery express themselves or start their own business or passion outside the office. The contributor then calls this “The Gig Economy” and spends a few hundred words tut-tutting Dolly for playing a role in it. After all, she should have known better given the obviously subversive intent of her original song and all the good work she’s done, but apparently she’s just about that “filthy lucre.”
Ignore that a hit piece being about Dolly Parton is prima facie evidence that your argument is wrong. Ignore that it’s a damn commercial. Asserting that Big Tech promotes memes of financial independence! around the actual gig economy is NOT preposterous. Asserting that businesses have long promoted memes of workism and “family” in manipulative ways is NOT preposterous. Yet the fulcrum on which the entire article rests – that dreaming and working and making your LIFE about anything other than your job is The Gig Economy! and all of the memetic badness that represents – is absolutely preposterous.
Towards the end of this NBC News piece, you see where it is going:
I’d bet my bottom dollar that the true horrors of the gig economy and of America’s broken economic system never came up.
The premise, if you will, is that someone contributing a song to a 30-second commercial spot for a website hosting company should have leavened their participation with the consideration of whether celebrating after-work passions appropriately accounts for the often poor treatment of labor in America. It is “but why didn’t you talk about…” with the volume cranked to 11.
I think you could dismiss this as part of the hot take economy that has infected all traditional media. You wouldn’t be wrong. I also think you’d miss something if you did. The world of 2021 is big enough, prosperous enough and connected enough to support literally any beat. There is no shtick so salacious, no conspiracy theory so cockamamie, no narrative so niche that it cannot attract an adequate community to sustain it. If there is a cancel-culture beat, a cancel-culture-isn’t-real beat, and a there-isn’t-a-cancel-culture-isn’t-real-beat beat, you’d better believe there is an everything-is-about-corporatism-manipulating-labor beat.
One way or another, a piece about the intersection of the Super Bowl and labor was going to be written. After all, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Friends, make no mistake: we are a hammer, too. We are able to exist because of these forces. We see narrative and missionary behavior everywhere. We see the widening gyre of a polarized America everywhere, too. These are our hammers and a lot of things look like nails to us. We are happy if you read what we publish. We are even happier if you subscribe.
We also really hope we aren’t even close to the only thing you read.
I described this as a force of non-linearity because I think it is a change in kind more than it is a change in magnitude. That is, it isn’t just that news is becoming more biased on some continuous scale. It is that the average piece of information you consume today is far more likely to have been produced by someone wielding a very specific hammer.
It is easy for us to take a look at the outlets, social networks, lists, substacks, authors and podcasts we consume and judge whether we think we’re getting a good mix of various biases on common dimensions like politics or opinions about how markets work. It is much harder to think about whether our sources are sufficiently large to insulate us from persistent idiosyncratic frames.
In the past, we have counseled that fellow consumers of mass information ask often the question, “Why am I reading this now?” I’d suggest one more regular query:
What are their hammers and what are their nails?