Why Controlling the Masses Through Media No Longer Works
As the Internet takes over from broadcast television, we find ourselves in a new psychological ecosystem—and people's ability or failure to adapt explains the last two years of American politics.
Jordan is now in his 17th year of building disruptive technology companies, and is the co-founder and CEO of Neurohacker Collective.
Early in his career, he helped start the online digital video revolution as co-founder and CEO of DivX. After somewhat successfully navigating two financial crises and an IPO (and going down in flames at Stage6), he left the helm at DivX to return his attention to the big picture. He tried his hand at capitalism – combining Angel investment at the sharp edge of the Schumpeter wave — with participation in a number of think tanks and institutes; most notably, the Aspen Institute and the Santa Fe Institute where he served on the Board of Trustees for five sweet years.
This exposure led him to the conclusion that humanity is in the midst of a world historical transition which will likely kill all of us (see Mad Max) but just might end in a truly amazing future (see Star Trek). Getting there is going to require many things of us – most notably a significant upgrade of our individual and collective capacity for thought and action.
JORDAN GREENHALL: I don't want to go into the history but there's actually a really neat history of exactly why and how a particular set of ideas became so important in the latter half of the 20th century. I'll give you just one example, but the idea of operational management, which was innovated during the heat of World War II and largely to do things like make strategic decisions about how we were going to go about moving ships across the Atlantic or run bombing raids on Germany using statistics, actually applying statistics to analyze the effectiveness of different approaches and then therefore making decisions based on statistics. And so operational management was very effective in the military theater and the people who had learned those techniques after the war percolated out into the broader economy and started applying those techniques in things like deciding how to run their businesses. So that's the basic framework of the order that we built up until now.
Now, the idea of the blue church is trying to get a sense of what it is that is the essence of the control structure. By control I don't mean necessarily anything bad I just mean the mechanism by which we're able to make collective decisions and engage in effective collective actions, the thing that holds our decision and action structure together. The control structure that still is the one that we're operating under that came out of that timeframe and the proposition is that in addition, and this is one piece but it's a very important piece, that there's a dominant role played by the structure of media. We're actually in the process of breaking that apart right here so this is good. We know that there's a particular dynamic associated with the kinds of media that are broadcast where one individual or group, because of the nature of the medium, so for example broadcast television in the day of three networks there was only three people who got to be the anchors who communicated out to the entire population. It was a massive asymmetry between the speaker and the listener and there's no interaction. So I am in the position of listening, you're in the position of speaking and there's 30 million of me and one of you.
Now, that's actually a very important dynamic. If you don't understand the fact of that and its importance you're going to have a very hard time understanding what actually happened during the latter half of the 20th century as in particular television emerged as the dominant medium displacing radio and newspapers. And by the way, you also have a hard time understanding what's happening now has the Internet is now emerging as the dominant medium replacing television. Just understanding that transition and what it implies and means at a deep level is sort of fundamental for predicting future states.
So using sort of television as the metaphor I then looked back and said all right are there other things that we see that look like that? And it's actually quite interesting that, for example, school has a very similar shape to it in the sense that you've got one speaker, a large audience and a very little interactivity, particularly like the university setting where there's a lecture and there's 500 people in the lecture hall. That is effectively the same thing as television in the sense that the relationship of information flow is effectively the same. This is important both from sort of the social dynamics as well as the psychological dynamics because if as a child your primary relationship to how you engage in culture is one of almost certainly being a pure receiver then your psychological development, your set of assumptions and habituations and how you adapt to the world will be associated with that environment. You're adapting to your local environment and this implies a certain set of sort of deep psychological structures. So we get a relationship between the mechanisms and techniques and potentialities of broadcast as a concept, so school, television, fill in the blank, and the behavior strategies, the habits and even the capacities of the individuals in the social layer.
So when you get to the mid and late '90s you're actually dealing with a society that could be understood as the society of broadcast and that has implications for how decisions are made. So the society of broadcasts is characterized by what you might call the Encyclopedia Britannica model or the Walter Cronkite model where you have a set of hierarchical structures where the individuals who have permission, authority and responsibility for speaking, for having authority are selected in some fashion to be positioned at the top of the broadcast hierarchy and then the rest of us defer to them. And so somebody has written an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica or some group of people, some group of experts who have been nominated in some fashion to be positioned as experts and at best take that responsibility very seriously, they pull the total set of questions back into their centers of excellence so they're having conversations in academic environments and groups that get together in think tanks, they produce an authoritative statement of what is in fact our collective opinion around this particular object. They then disseminate it through a broadcast medium and the rest of us listen to it, cohere around it and say okay that's what we do and then move forward.
So a major piece, not the only piece but a major piece of the transition that we're going through is precisely the fact that the decentralized communication infrastructure, sometimes known as the Internet and all of its manifestations and mobile and everything else, radically changes that dynamic. So the Internet is characteristically symmetrical meaning that the number of people who can speak is effectively everyone. Obviously there's not an even distribution of audience among everyone, but it's not structurally locked in. And the relationship between speaking and receiving has become intrinsically or at least intuitively bidirectional.
Now this shift implies a very large number of differential consequences so we can graph the notion of the impact that it has on power and the relationship between decision making and action taking. But there's also the impact that it has on psychology. The intuitive sense or the way that your brain, in fact even just you're sort of way that you go about making decisions in the world actually has to adaptively change. So the people who grew up in the post Internet environment have a fundamentally different psychological set of structures like deep habitual architectures and expectations of how to most effectively present themselves in the world than people who grew up before them. So what that will mean is two things: one is the set of techniques and approaches that socially evolved in the television or in the broadcast era are suddenly maladaptive in this new psychological ecosystem. So think like the Pepsi commercial that so famously was a disaster. That's very much the kind of thing that is produced by a broadcast intuition. We get to send messages and those messages are things that you receive. But the psychology and the technology of the Internet or of the decentralized or the symmetrical medium is one of no, no we get to critique. We get to directly respond to. And things that feel like they are broadcast or feel like they are quite obviously intending to influence us emotionally we know what that feels like and it doesn't work anymore so we're going to respond to that and our ability to respond swarms around it and breaks it up.
And so this, for example, is I think at least a reasonably good explanation for what's been happening in the political domain over the past 30 or 40 years and certainly over the past two.
When television took over from print and radio as the dominant media in the second half of the 20th century, a hierarchy evolved in which the privileged few with TV camera access spoke to the masses. This top-down dissemination of news and opinion not only shaped information, but it also shaped the psychology of those people, and of anyone who has lived with one foot in the TV broadcast era, and the other in the new dynamic brought on by the Internet. That established top-down directive—and society's conditioning to widely accept what is presented to them by experts—is what Neurohacker CEO Jordan Greenhall describes as the Blue Church: "The Blue Church is a kind of narrative/ideology control structure that is a natural result of mass media. It is an evolved (rather than designed) function that has come over the past half-century to be deeply connected with the Democratic political "Establishment" and lightly connected with the "Deep State" to form an effective political and dominant cultural force in the United States," writes Greenhall on Medium. Greenhall is careful to point out that control is not necessarily always a bad thing: it is how hundreds of millions of individuals are able to make collective decisions and engage in effective collective actions to advance their society.
Greenhall believes the switch from top-down broadcast television to the bottom-up nature of the Internet explains American politics in the past 30 or 40 years, and certainly in the past two years. Broadcast television was asymmetrical: one person, speaking to millions, with no interaction. The Internet is highly symmetrical: everyone can speak and interact, and that is psychologically profound for individual thinking, and the manner in which a society makes decisions collectively.
Top-down media no longer has much sway over the masses because they have been shown an alternative and adapted quickly to it; younger people particularly are intuitively aware when something is being broadcast to influence them emotionally, and it simply doesn't work the way it used to. Take the recent Pepsi protest ad, which Greenhall calls a typical product of broadcast thinking. The bi-directional flow of information that characterizes the Internet is a new psychological ecosystem, one in which individuals can respond and critique the establishment or a phony advertisement openly. Top-down social control has been replaced by bottom-up social swarms.
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- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.