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Monday, December 19, 2016

Idiocracy 3.0


One day when she was five, my daughter looked up at me and asked, "Mommy, was the world black and white when you were growing up?"

Right or wrong my kids were both raised with lots and lots of TV time. And watching some of the innocent old shows, like I Love Lucy and My Three Sons, she had come to the obvious conclusion.

I was talking with a colleague about how much TV we were raised on, as well. I confided that the moment my parents brought home the huge brown boxlike structure in approximately 1979 was one of the happiest days of my life.

Today of course it's a big taboo for kids to watch TV without parental monitoring, if they are allowed to at all. Introducing myself to the mother of a toddler at synagogue, I asked her what type of shows he likes, and her response was, "We don't have a TV."

"Then what do you do with him all day?"

"Uh, play."

Well that was an awkward moment. But apparently I am not the only lousy parent in synagogue; according to a November 2016 article by Steve Rosen published in the Kansas City Press, "studies show that kids will be exposed to millions of commercial messages and marketing pitches on television, radio, the internet and other social media, even game systems, by the time they’re teenagers."

Now, when I was growing up I didn't just watch TV; I read a lot of books, too. And that might have saved my brains from turning to complete mush, because the ever-present ads on TV are meant to completely manipulate your thinking, simplify it and steer it toward the purchase of whoever is advertising on your favorite show. If you ever watch the documentary Supersize Me, about one man's experiment eating McDonald's food only, there is a segment about marketing-as-mental manipulation that is completely fascinating.

The 2006 movie Idiocracy imagined a frightening, dangerous, sad future where people were so bombarded with advertising and soaked in materialism that they lost the ability to either critically think or to care. And of course, branding--with its emphasis on navigating the consumer through complex buying choices--contributes heavily to this social climate. For example, the classic book Brand Simple, by Allen Adamson (who runs a consultancy with the same name), is all about leading your customer through this decision-making process so that ultimately they choose you.

But the problem with "thinking brand first," of course, is that once you begin to think in overly simplified terms it's hard to go back and get your mind working. We saw this happen during the election season, with media conversations limited to a brief overview and discussion of at-the-moment headlines, absent historical context, shades of gray, or complicated characters. Rather, we got heroes and villains; Tweets; talking points; and of course, the screamingly provocative headline, designed to make you think one way or the other.

This is not a good situation, this idiocracy we've come to tolerate and even celebrate. "Give me the elevator speech," we demand. "Can't you fit your resume on one page?" "I don't read anymore, I scan." "What's the Cliff's notes version?"

Because here is what's happening. On the one hand, we're filling up the freight train of life with input that goes well beyond the human capacity to assimilate and integrate it quickly. Ideas, laws, technologies, news, research, and so on. (Like with dieting, one day it's "cut out the fat" and the next day it's "lose all the carbs.") Impossible to keep up, and we have major decisions to make.

That train is only going faster and faster.

Yet our minds are poorly equipped to handle all this complexity. We have deliberately dumbed ourselves down, or accepted the dumbing down, when we should be thinking more and more critically and clearly.

In my mind, "Idiocracy 1.0" was superstition, eventually superseded by science. "Idiocracy 2.0" was branding, delivered by TV or computer, and it is being superseded by a populace which increasingly realizes that nether the government nor the corporation can be trusted to handle its interests.

But "Idiocracy 3.0" is by far the most dangerous: It is the submission of human thinking to artificial intelligence. We think that just because a computer can absorb it all and spit it back to us, that we will get to sit back and play an extra round of golf.

But one day the machines will take advantage of our laziness, our arrogance and our complete inability to steer the ship. They will be programmed by the best of us.

And we may well find ourselves serving them, principally occupied by making them dinner.

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Photo by NovelRobinson via Pixabay (Public Domain). All opinions my own.