We Easily Miss the Big Stuff

Popular imagination typically lags way behind innovation, and sometimes unwanted change.

We live our lives as a continuing series of adjustments to what we know or what we believe. There’s sometimes nothing wrong with this. After all, even when the evidence is clear, it takes a lot of cognitive work to abandon long-standing patterns of thinking. Think of us as moving around a lot of heavy mental furniture.  It took a long time to acquire it, and we’ve carefully arranged it in our minds. We want everything in its place so we can move through it with ease. An active imagination is no help: the goal is to not have to trip over unfamiliar facts or attitudes.

Eventually, a degree of hindsight or perhaps events on the ground force us to acknowledge emerging realities that we could have seen coming years earlier.  For example, I can’t remember ever reading much about GPS systems, which moved from military to civilian applications between the mid-1980s and 2000. I probably didn’t look, and didn’t know that I would care. It seemed like, all of a sudden, a lost hiker or motorist could find their exact position on a map of their area, thanks to the precision that is possible with receivers that can triangulate to signals beamed from from satellites. Car navigation systems have become common, with most now counting on this useful advance. This was the case of a rapid and consequential change coming to most of us from our blind side. I, for one, will never be lost again on nearby Whiskey Lane or Stompf Tavern Road, though I suspect some earlier settlers had their own reasons for wandering in circles.

For most Americans, the same pattern of unexpected and rapid adaptation to an innovation was true with the miniaturization made possible by transistors, or the use of multi-track recording on tape in the 1940s, or ATM machines that suddenly appeared on the outsides at banks. Sound on sound was a novelty when Les Paul applied to music, and “banks that would never be closed” was an advance that seemed like an instant and new convenience.

I’m old enough to remember smirks of disbelief  from others if a conversation turned to the prospect of electric toothbrushes, phones that people would actually want to answer, electronic books, cryptocurrencies, or airlines that sold seat space measured in centimeters.

More recently, many of us have been surprised that reliable vaccines for COVID-19 were developed so rapidly. Who knew that the nRNA idea behind some of them has been around for a while and usefully adapted for this supreme test?  It’s a reminder that other medical marvels are just out of view.

All of this makes me wonder how many tech-savvy people at the time knew that Xerox/PARC was designing the way most computer displays would evolve. Reportedly, Apple’s Steve Jobs’ could see the future in Xerox’s true “visual interface,” which he “borrowed” to make his own devices do more than offer a grey screen with green text. And on a less urgent note, probably no one could have imagined that an obscure British composer, Gustav Holst, would anticipate modern film music so completely. His 1916 tone-poem, “The Planets,” is now a kind of template for music used in modern action-adventure films.

My point is that the popular imagination lags way behind innovation or sudden new realities. Sometimes we are just slow to join the party.  At other times the price we pay may be great. We still have Americans who didn’t notice an attempted coup at the nation’s Capitol on January 6. And the rest of us couldn’t have imagined that such a foul political act might be attempted in the United States:  a dramatic case of incrementalist thinking leaving us clueless about what was about to happen.

Defiantly Out of Touch

[This 2016 post seems as relevant today as when it was written. Even with a few updates, it is still true that willful ignorance has become a form of political life.]

In his sobering 1989 study, Democracy Without Citizens, Robert Entman dwelt on the irony of living in an information-rich age with huge numbers of badly informed citizens.  There is a rich paradox to a culture where most have a virtual library available on any digital device, and yet would struggle to pass a third grade civics test.  According to the Annenberg Policy Center only one in three Americans can name our three branches of government. And only the same lone third could identify the party that controls each of the two houses of Congress.  Fully a fifth of their sample thought that close decisions in the Supreme Court were sent to Congress to be settled.

Add in the dismal results of map literacy tests of high school and college students (“Where is Africa?,”  “Identify your city on this map”), and we have just a few markers of a failed information society.

Many seem comfortable living without even an elementary understanding of the world they “know.” 

As Entman notes, “computer and communication technology has enhanced the ability to obtain and transmit information rapidly and accurately,” but “the public’s knowledge of facts or reality have actually deteriorated.”  The result is “more political fantasy and myth transmitted by the very same news media.” We seem to live comfortably without even elementary understandings of the complex world we live in.

This condition is sometimes identified as a feature of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a peculiarly distressing form of functional ignorance  observed by two Cornell psychologists.  Many of us seem not to be bothered by what we don’t know, overestimating our knowledge.  Dunning and Kruger found that “incompetent” individuals (those falling into the lowest quarter of knowledge on a subject) often failed to recognize their own lack of skill, failed to recognize the extent to which they were misinformed, and did not to accurately gauge the skills of others.  If you have an Uncle Fred who is certain that the President Obama was a Muslim who was born in Kenya, you have an idea of what kind of willful ignorance this represents.

Circumferance of the unknownThink of this pattern in an inverted sense: from the perspective of individuals who truly know what they are talking about.  For even the well-informed, the more they know about a subject, the larger the circumference of the borderlands that delineate the unknown.  That’s why those who have mastered a subject area are often the most humble about their expertise: their expanded understanding of a field gives them a sense of what they still don’t know.

The key factor here is our distraction by all forms of media—everything from texting to empty-headed television programming—that leaves us with little available time to be contributing members of the community.   When the norm is checking our phones over 200 times a day, we have perhaps reached a tipping point where we have no time left to notice our own informational black holes.

With regard to the basics of membership in a society, the idea of citizenship should mean more.  In most elections cycles easily half of eligible voters will not bother to vote.  And even more will have no interest in learning about the candidates who want to represent them in Congress or their local legislatures.  Worst still, this has happened at a time when a President and many others have been captured by a reality-show logic that substitutes melodrama for more sober discussions of policy and governing best practices.  Put It altogether and too many of us don’t want notice that we have been captured by fantasies rather than truths.