The Rationality of Buzz

It’s early on a Monday morning – I would say “bright and early”, but it’s so early that the sun is still nowhere in sight. At any rate, the week is about to begin and so I figure it’s a good time to think about the barrage of buzz that is about to stream into mailboxes, land on doorsteps, and influence consumers via video screens across town, throughout the nation and all over the world-wide web.

One thing particularly nice about Sundays is the peace and quiet that settles in once last week’s buzz has piddled down to only a slight murmur echoing through the last few talk shows with nothing better to do than to rehash old buzz. By Sunday afternoons, the world has pretty much come to a stop and there is so little or even no new news whatsoever. Humanity has essentially stopped producing facts and by Sunday evenings one can observe that even though humans have not yet completely died out, there is practically nothing noteworthy to say anymore. Sunday evenings are really only surpassed by late August insofar as the dearth of buzz goes.

But never fear: Monday morning is near! The well-oiled fact-producing machinery is ready to run with incoming factoids and produce a plethora of buzzworthy content for hungry consumers ready to devour tidbits and lengthy articles, stories, analyses and whatnot alike. Empty minds need to be filled with buzz.

Why?

Well, the best answer is probably: It’s complicated.

You need to realize that the vast majority of what minds in the developed world consume is buzz. Mass production of buzz has been the daily (or nearly daily) media diet of developed consumers for well over a century already. Today, facts are churned out at breathtaking speed – far faster than eyes or ears alone can consume them. Luckily, smartphones have been developed which can also consume vast amounts of data lickity-split, and so the plethora of data can find homes in these handheld robotic assistants for their masters to feel superior over more and more bits of information, whether they are actually able to derive any meaning from them or not.

Most buzz is not intended to improve your understanding of anything. Do any Google search at all, and you will probably find that the top 10 results are all more or less equally meaningless. Of course you could ask the Google Guys what “2+2” is, and then they might tell you it’s “4” – but that would, I guess, be more the exception than the rule. The vast majority of results to the overwhelming majority of searches will probably give you a sense that the world is immensely complex and that there is little or no hope to finding a simple and direct answer to the very particular question you might have at any moment. In exasperation, the searcher clicks on something, and the goal is for the lost user to click on something that might earn Google a dime – or even better: a buck.

One needs to remember, though, that Google is only one of the latest entrants in the race for facts. News publishers have, as I alluded to above, been producing this crap for over a century already. Why are we still racing so feverishly for facts? Well, because last week’s facts are now no longer relevant as they were last week. Apart from dull truths, most facts are only really useful for short spans of time – somewhere from a few milliseconds to maybe half a minute. After that, everything needs to be recalculated – and that is why people continue asking Google all sorts of questions. The funny thing is: because Google is able to make money regardless of where people click on their ads – in other words, ads delivered to almost any webpage, the Google brand is not really damaged when the naive novice user clicks on an ad for a get-rich-quick scheme on some other website. If the naive novice newbie gets upset that their computer has now apparently made a mistake, then they will probably blame the mistake on “that darn website” rather than on Google. The Google Guys can write home: “Look ma, no risk!” 😀 The fact that Google recommended the website is probably long forgotten, and the fact that Google earned a buck or maybe even more from the click never enters the mind of the ordinary naive novice newbie – and if it ever did (as by reading this sentence), then it will probably be dismissed as far-fetched, out of the ordinary, and perhaps even merely a conspiracy theory. 😐

How did it ever come to this?

Again: It’s complicated.

Even though news publishing has only really exploited this “propaganda” technique for about one century, the history of the basic foundation dates back several centuries – all the way to the invention of the “movable type” printing press over five centuries ago. Movable type made it possible to make different sentences rather easily – and therefore it became much easier to revise old truths and also to formulate new truths (such as that the Earth is not at the center of the universe).

Yet for several centuries, the main problem was not so much a dearth of publishing facts as a lack of literacy to consume them. From 1450 to at least 1750 – that’s three centuries – the rate of (reading) literacy was quite close to zero. Even by 1850, the literacy needle had hardly moved at all. It is quite probable that this was due to the still quite high costs associated with literature. In the latter half of the 19th Century, two advances in publishing technology made literature far more affordable to acquire: wood-based paper and offset printing, By the end of the 19th Century, the rates of literacy in many industrialized countries had begun to increase significantly.

Yet it would be a great distortion of the historical record to maintain that reading and writing were in any way equal. Throughout the 20th Century, only very few writers wrote for increasing numbers of readers… and at the beginning of the 20th Century, the “publishing industry” as it was known throughout the century was formed with a view to feeding the masses of followers published facts.

It was not until the advent of the Internet, that questioning the publishing of facts by the few for the many was even a possibility in any meaningful way. Even though some schools did teach more and more pupils more and more writing skills, there was simply no technical capability to publish literature in any significant way. What is more: copyright law further cemented the publishing industry into a cornerstone position with respect to the supply of published facts.

Nonetheless, it would also be a grave distortion of the historical record to maintain that nothing of any significance changed in the 20th Century. In contrast: The publishing industry made very significant advances in the science of propaganda. Most of these have to do with increased understanding of the psychology of consumers, and perhaps the most significant insight is the very well known insight gained from Pavlov’s dog – namely that you can “train” animals (and people) to believe something by conditioning their belief system. Just as Pavlov was able to train his dog to salivate when he rang a bell, so today you can train people to think facts are true by associating them with other facts (such as today’s date, the author’s name, a specific location where an article was written, etc.). Beyond that, it is also possible to habitualize head-nodding behavior by increasing the number of facts, however inconsequential – for example, by listing the estimated temperatures in various locations across the country.

The more often you ring the truth bell, the more likely the consumer is to click when they see an advertisement.

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