“I am sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer.”
That is a message no one wants to hear. There are lots of things we don’t want to hear. People have a multitude of ways to accept, deny or avoid, unpleasantries. Psychologists call it “compartmentalization.” The ability to take information and store it in a little lockbox in the corner of our mind and pretend it doesn’t exist.
People who have lived through close encounters with death, or who have been frightened beyond belief, often have no recollection of the incident. People who have lost a parent or were abused at a very young age will sometimes suppress their resentment and sense of abandonment for years. This form of denial is generally involuntary, but it can also be a tool purposely used to avoid discomfort.
The human brain has its own mind about how it should be used.
As our sources of information proliferate, is it any surprise that Americans are having difficulty agreeing on what is true and what is not? In his 1967 book, “The Medium is the Massage,” futurist Marshall McLuhan predicted the invention of the World Wide Web and the globalization of information systems. He warned that it would create an information tsunami that would overwhelm our personal ability to compartmentalize and ultimately disrupt social equilibrium.
He used a light bulb to illustrate his theory that it is not the content so much but the delivery system, we should be concerned with. The bulb delivers the content (the light) which illuminates the room, but it is still our responsibility to use the bulb properly to help us navigate the room. If you put the bulb in a corner behind the sofa, it won’t expose much.
McLuhan also warned that a filter can be placed over light bulbs, changing the color and intensity of the light delivered. The point is, no one should assume information content we receive has not been adulterated. Though Americans may be better informed than other populations, that doesn’t mean we are fully informed.
I noted this conundrum in my book “The Illusion of Knowledge”: “Knowing large amounts of data are available should make us more aware of the potential absence of information. It is like Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same is true of information exchanges: For everything you know, there is an equal and opposite thing you don’t know.”
In Communist countries like North Korea or China, citizens are fed only positive, inspirational and homogenized news content (light). Their state-controlled media “light bulb” is filtered and avoids disseminating information that might cause people to suspect that they are being controlled or manipulated. That filtered bulb is designed to create a sense of complacency and contentment. Citizens living under Communism don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t miss things they never had. They have few if any tools with which to measure their lot in life. People who have never experienced political freedom can easily dismiss ‘bright light’ as something that is overrated.
You could say citizens of Communist countries are “Happy Campers” because they simply don’t know any better. Conversely, having an abundance of unfiltered light (freedom, choices, divergent opinions) makes it hard to imagine not having such luxuries. Most Americans cannot fathom living without abundance. We think we know it all and tend to compartmentalize anything that disrupts our sense of equanimity. It is easy to marginalize “conspiracy theories” about how quickly our freedom, our bright light, could suddenly go out.
A recent Pew poll found that 63% of Americans think that news stories are often inaccurate. That fact is as disturbing as it is counter intuitive. With all of the advanced technology available, it would seem news accuracy should be increasing exponentially.
If it isn’t then we have to ask ourselves why not? Is the good doctor afraid to give us some bad news? Instead of informing us, are massive news conglomerates simply tools being used to produce Happy Campers?
Rick Elkin is a long-time resident of Escondido. He is an artist, author and cultural observer. You can follow his work at RickElkin.com.