Perhaps the biggest cultural change of my lifetime has been the growing influence and ubiquity of commercial media in our lives.
Commercial media companies exist to make a profit, and they've grown that profit faster than just about any industry you can name.
At first, it was the scarcity created by the FCC (a few channels) and mass markets that led the industry. Now, though, it's a chaotic system with different rules.
A system that rewards certain outputs, relentlessly, generating ever more of those outputs. The participants all believe that the ends will justify the means, all believe that in the end, it'll lead to a positive outcome. But, taken together, over time, drip, drip, drip, the system wins.
They do this by engaging with ever more of our time, our decisions and our systems. They do this by selling not just ads, but the stories and expectations that change the way we engage with those ads.
They sow dissatisfaction—advertising increases our feeling of missing out, and purchasing offers a momentary respite from that dissatisfaction.
Much of that dissatisfaction is about more vs. enough, about moving up a commercial ladder that's primarily defined by things that can be purchased. It's possible to have far more than your grandparents did but still be deeply unhappy believing that you don't have enough.
And so one purpose of work is to get enough money to buy more stuff, and to have the time to consume more media (so we can buy more stuff).
The media amplifies anxiety, and then offer programming that offers relief from that anxiety.
It's been shown repeatedly that watching TV increases the perception that other places, particularly cities, are far more dangerous than they are.
The media likes events and circuses and bowl games, because they have a beginning and an ending, and because they can be programmed and promoted. They invite us into the situation room, alarm us with breaking news and then effortlessly move onto the next crisis.
They train us to expect quick and neat resolutions to problems, because those are easier to sell.
They push us to think short-term, to care about now and not later.
And now they're being gamed at their own game, because the artificial scarcity that was created by the FCC has been replaced by a surplus and a race to the bottom, with no gatekeepers and with plenty of advertisers willing to pay for any shred of attention.
Intellectual pursuits don't align with the options that media would rather have us care about.
A walk in the woods with a friend or your kids does the media-industrial complex no good at all. It's sort of the opposite of pro wrestling.
Books are the lowest form of media (too slow, too long-lasting, no sponsors, low profit) while instant-on, always-on social networks are about as good as it gets. For the media.
If you're not the customer, you're the product.
I was talking with a smart friend the other day and she said that the media is just a reflection of us. I'm not buying it. There are many reflections of us, and the craven race to the bottom is just one of them. The people with the mirror have a responsibility, and in exchange for our time and our spectrum, that responsibility is to make us better, not merely more profitable.
We've been willing participants in this daily race for our attention and our emotions. But we don't have to be.