information assymetry in a media overloaded world

Per la boca by L'Ham de Foc on Grooveshark

some awesome (pipe) music from valencia, though they mix many sounds from all over

for a long time i felt the information overload was somehow focused, as if the overload wasn’t an overload of everything, but of specific things. i’d like to look into this in terms of asymmetry of information. i’ll go through some examples, including one of my pet peeves, social media

one of the main things about the way we perceive things is that our understandings of those things make us induce extra things about what we’re seeing. simplifying, if someone is wearing a lab coat, we will instinctively think that they somehow know more about something because it looks like they do. say, an actor with no training in pharmacy can be hired to do an ad for a bogus product, but since they look like they have a say, we will feel they have a say. since we are dominated by our emotions rather than reason for the most part, we will then attribute that feeling of authority to a real projected authority. if something looks like it is something, then it must be. it’s a common way we simplify the complex world around us, creating on one hand prejudices and biases, but on the other hand, very efficient ways of dealing with the world. say, if it looks like a door, it must be a door, so i will try to use it as the previous doors i’ve seen. we’ll see how this is important

i’m focusing on feelings because for a long time i’ve believed (though for the most part i can’t prove) that the way we feel about things defines more about our actions than the way we think about things. feelings decide, then we rationalize. obviously, critical thinking protects us from this, but then again, one can’t be critical 24/7

one of the feelings that is incredibly interesting for me is the one that marketing and advertisement exploits, in the form of smiles, beautiful faces and engaging scenes and actors. if you have a billboard with a beautiful half naked person looking straight at you the feeling we get is immediate and real. it is a beautiful person looking at us, maybe we’re special, maybe that person wants to do something with us. in reality, it is a beautiful person that was made up to be beautiful (by lighting, make up, surgery, etc), looking into a camera and pretending to be engaging with that camera or the photographer. it is someone that was hired by a panel, stood in a room for hours posing in fake engaging scenes that will be perceived as a real human connection. when someone stares at a camera that will broadcast something to millions, be it a billboard or a tv, we are creating a one way asymmetrical connection between the actor and the targets. asymmetrical because the actor didn’t engage anything but the camera and did their job, but on the other hand, everyone that will see that ad or video will feel engaged by that very same actor. they will feel there was something there even though there wasn’t, and that feeling will be multiplied and copied thousands of times. each one of these individuals will feel engaged by someone they will never meet, never really engage with, but already feel connected to them, creating a strange sense of on one hand familiarity but on the other hand isolation and loss (there’s that beautiful person looking at me again, but i’ll never meet them and they’ll never be mine). funny enough, this can go to extremes as far as making fans go crazy over being touched for a few seconds by one of these actors (i’ve been calling them actors, but performers in general, celebrities, etc). the power of this asymmetry means that all these fans have a feeling of being connected to someone who doesn’t know (and most of the times, doesn’t care) who they are or how they feel about them. in my opinion, this emotional asymmetry creates a permanent feeling of ineptitude, of loss and of longing – ideal characteristics for a consumer and a submissive citizen. a property of this asymmetry is that it will always create an imbalance and a craving on the masses for that particular feeling that was being sold. again, if it looks like that singer really loves me, they must, so i’ll love them back. never mind they were singing to a camera and only interested in the sales

applying this same reasoning to the way social media works in most platforms, one sees that this same idea of broadcasting something an audience will “individually” connect with is there too. if i tweet “i love you” and have one million followers, each one of those will feel the message was for them, even though it’s a form of diluted love. one might ask, if someone writes something like that to one million people, how could they ever express it? probably they won’t. but since social media is about sharing thoughts and things that matter, but also about popularity, what are the things that are most guaranteed to be successful? the very same individually engaging things that tap into those good feelings, but can be told to anyone. we encounter this pressure to share things that are going to be perceived as engaging and that will make people want to read and connect with. but the vast majority of things we encounter every day aren’t like that: most of what we do and what we encounter throughout a day are menial, boring, uninteresting things that don’t matter, so we won’t share that. we will just share what “matters”. but if everyone broadcasts only what matters, to someone listening it will seem that things that “matter” happen all the time, and that each individual’s life in comparison is lacking. if we have 10 friends online and each shares one meaningful thing in one day, and we had one meaningful thing happen to us, that day will have 10 times more goodness happening in other people’s lives than in ours. and again, if someone else looks like they have a lot going on, then we feel they do

when we cater to this paradigm of individual broadcast and consumption, filtered to make each shared item more popular, we are creating a mass of airbrushed and made-up lives for an audience to see. if all we share are meaningful and interesting things and hide the menial and downright banal things we do, we are effectively doing “plastic surgery” on our lives so they fit this paradigm of popularity. and since there will always be more “meaningful” broadcast messages than our own, we will always feel we have done less, felt less, lived less, because it looks like everyone is living more

the issue here is both asymmetry, in that we are looking at multiple shared things as an individual, which pretty much guarantees that things that happen to us will be fewer just out of sheer numbers, and the problem of inducing things based on biased data. if our sample of other people’s lives is social media, we will be basing ourselves on a doctored, media ready version of people’s lives, not a real historical account

the challenge will always be, in my opinion, to see the through the billboard and realize that this is all part of a poorly conceived marketing ploy to make us want to sell our lives for the highest bidder, liker or follower. popularity is hardly a good measure for quality or meaningfulness, and above all, every time someone in a photo or a post is engaging us “personally” in a broadcast message, they will continue to contribute to the erosion of the feeling that life is being lived fully, since in comparison to this mass media broadcast, it is lacking in many ways

no wonder we feel uglier, lonelier, less apt and less skilled. in a mass media world, only the masterful and popular are promoted, so in proportion, we will always be lower on that pyramid. it seems the bias for popularity has overcome the fully horizontal nature of networks, and that has made us live in a strange made up plastic world where lives are incredible and we will never be able to get there

how can we protect ourselves? how can i live my life without being “engaged” personally by scantily clad men and women whose looks are surreal? how can i live without being told i should have more, be more, do more? how can we let urbanization turn our lives into this terribly oppressing environment? if we are to be a city species (as it seems we are becoming), how can we build cities so that they empower and nurture each individual, and not make them feel like a cog in a machine?

on the explicit and implicit forces in everyday life

Kilfenora by Danu on Grooveshark

kilfenora jigs, a recently discovered favourite

ever since i moved i’ve felt different in a lot of ways. mostly i would say it was due to the clear lifestyle changes: new job, new culture, new language and so on. but along that came a feeling of uneasiness, something i had a hard time putting into words until now.

when i lived in lisbon, the clear and visible corruption of governments and the economic sector and the consequences of bad policy in everyday life were so blatant that i had no trouble in being aware of them at all times. this gave me a strange comfort, in that somehow my individual shortcomings were irrelevant when considered together with the massive financial crisis. in a way, i wasn’t even aware of my psychological limitations, since i could attribute everything that would possibly go wrong to these blatant outside forces. the oppression here was explicit in that it was known by me and everyone i interacted with, creating a sense of individual innocence. i had no weight on my shoulders — everything was the crisis, the politics, the corruption. i was on one hand suffering anti-democratic influences in my everyday life (in this case in the form of the economic oligarchy’s manipulation of my everyday livelihood) but on the other hand free in my mind: i knew i had had no role in it, no responsibility for what was going on, and that carried with it a feeling of dignity from being oppressed by these economic forces but at the same time emancipated by my own education

fast forward to my life in sydney. all of a sudden, the social state worked, employers were nice and worried about work ethics, i had no money issues or any political concerns whatsoever. in a way, i could no longer blame “the system”, because in a way the system worked fine. all of a sudden, i had to analyse why things would go right or wrong including my own capacities in the equation

life here is not only easy, it is promoted dogmatically as such, with an almost obsessive promotion of success, happiness and indulgence. this means that somehow for me there was no explicit blaming possible, no innocence by default. this made me start to experience an entirely different type of oppression: that of the implicit rules and values of an apparently functioning society. the constant exposure to beautiful people (in a superficial sense), to beautiful objects (in a materialistic sense), to wealth and exterior happiness started creating in me a sense of inadequacy that i never felt before

when i was living the peasant life under an incompetent government and a crippled economy, i had nothing to live up to but my own sense of ethics, since society was not an example to follow. in fact, i felt most of my ideas validated by the mistakes the government would make. now, since everything is easy and functional, i start to hit my own limitations, be it how smart i think i am, how attractive or how talented. these pressures are created by these implicit forces that exist in a society devoted to these ideas of success. successful careers, successful families, success in everything. this standard is too high for anyone: it’s a standard that guarantees that individuals will always feel inadequate, because any goal in a pyramid will mean the number of people at the top will always be outnumbered by the ones at the bottom, no matter the hierarchy. but these pressures are also entirely unnecessary and virtual. if i were to transplant my state of mind from one place to the other, i would be incredibly happy here. but with the easy life came these artificial standards that i was never exposed to. i started feeling like the guy that has a car but since everyone has two, feels like he has no good way of driving around. my guess is that these forces came with the dominant cultures, that work in terms of competition and pyramidal structures of power. nowhere is this spelled out, since it’s not part of any law or government. but it is everywhere in how people act with each other. never before i’ve been more told what to do “for my own good” by random strangers. it’s almost like taking a $1,000,000 mortgage is the right thing to do because that’s how you “make it”, even when that doesn’t mean anything. or when you work out too much because that’s how you’re “meant to look”, or when you spend lots on gadgets or ikea furniture because that’s what your money is for

in a way, i felt freer in a society where i knew where the boundaries of my cage were, explicitly, than in a society where the boundaries of my cage were inside my head, in a twisted mix of outside conditioning that implicitly controlled me directly through my thoughts. to this day i’m still not sure how to live here and how to deal with this pressure. i brush it off thanks to some self analysis, but it contributes to a strange erosion of my dignity, in that thoughts of inadequacy come up much more, even if they are unfounded. i know i’m a great engineer, i know i’m not ugly or unattractive, i know that i’m not poor any more, but permanent exposure to these artificial standards makes me feel it isn’t so

this path of self discovery has coincided with my slow distancing from the anarchist groups here, and from non-authoritarian activist groups in general. i’ve been slowly realizing that by not making rules and hierarchies clear and explicit, not only in what they are but how they come to be, is a dangerous game to play that will inevitably lead to the most manipulative, charismatic or passionate to naturally bubble up to power. when there is no clear distribution of power done by some kind of accountable supra-entity, we fall back to our basic tribal instincts that make us much more susceptible to be manipulated, consciously or unconsciously, by someone with charm and charisma. i’ve slowly been realising that the real (ideal) role of power is not to press but to protect the oppressed, to prevent these natural tribal behaviours to bubble up, to put bullies back in their place, to prevent victimisation of anyone. in a way, this means that even though i’m still a leftist, and certainly not a communist or a socialist, i’m also not enticed by the anarchist way of getting things done. too much time is spent trying to have no power structure, to the point that the collective becomes structureless and with it, powerless. the best moments of community work i’ve ever had were possible thanks to a common vision but above all, a sense of structured progress that i feel lacks in a lot of activist groups these days

both these points tie in with each other in that i see transparency and explicit definitions of power and motives to be more empowering to the individual than letting us loose with all the possible implicit forces that are stronger than us. with this i don’t mean we’re born evil at all — i mean that we have our shortcomings and that the job of collectivising into structures of power should be focused on liberating us from these implicit oppressive forces, even if it means to be oppressed by explicit (and therefore, controllable) forces

i’m reminded of the film ‘the day the earth stood still’ (the original 50s one), in which the superior race submits wilfully to killer robots with a higher standard of morals than they individually posses and with it achieve a peaceful and flourishing society. does this mean, then, that neither right nor left are good paradigms any more, and that our new insights into our own shortcomings as a thinking animal might be the first step into politics that’s done with one foot in empirically tested truths and the other in ideals that go beyond our ancient tribal baggage? i certainly think that time is coming