This blog post was produced by one of the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals, currently being taught at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.
by David Jeong
The brain craves information. Individuals demonstrate high preference for novel, highly interpretable visual information (Biederman & Vessel, 2006). This preference stems from an evolutionary advantage that an information-rich stimuli/image/environment would provide over a barren environment. Neuroscientists have even provided evidence we have a bias for irregular, non-singular shapes/curved cylinders over regular, singular shapes/cylinders (Amir, Biederman, & Hayworth, 2011). Simply, human beings are not carnivores or omnivores– rather, we are info-vores. And oh boy, do we have a lot of information– we can presently access more information than ever before in our evolutionary history (I hope I can make this claim?).
Since our brains evolved to solve the problems of our ancestral environments (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992), we may be experiencing a capacity load crisis in the amount of information we can remember, understand, or care about. Whether intentionally or not, we are constantly sifting through information in our environment– we always have, not just in present day. My main argument is that when we have as much information at our disposal as we have today, there must be casualties.
One type of information that does seem to thrive is novel information– we are constantly sharing and re-distributing “original content”. It is no coincidence that we receive pleasure from new information. Competitive Learning Theory, otherwise known as “Neural Darwinism”, occurs when strongly-activated neurons among a network of activated neurons inhibit the future activity of moderately-activated neurons upon recurring presentations of an image (Grossberg, 1987). The strongest-activated neurons dominate these future perceptions of a particular image, resulting in a net reduction of neural activity. This means that neurons prefer novel stimuli because they have yet to undergo Neural Darwinism.
The information in the current media sphere seems to also be undergoing its own version of what I will refer to as “Information Darwinism”:
* Given two forms of information, the novel information will dominate over the replicated.
* Given two forms of information, the simple information will dominate over the complex.
* Given two forms of information, the visually appealing will dominate over the neutral.
* Given two forms of information, the humorous (which also implies novelty) will dominate over the banal.
You get the picture.
Of course, novel information does not always reign supreme. Nostalgia and familiarity are counter-examples of this pattern. That said, nostalgia would not be nostalgia if it was pushed to our attention daily. Nostalgic content can only become effective through intervals of inattention.//
We have a bias for the fantastic, the amazing, the horrible, and disastrous. Most of the time, we are not interested in what occurs most of the time. We disregard the status quo.
What I mean by Informational Darwinism is that amidst the massive amount of information being pushed into our brains, we are witnessing an information-based natural selection where novel, simple, and visually appealing information dominates.
Not only are shorter, simplified forms of information (memes, Twitter updates, Facebook statuses) winning out, these forms of information champion novelty (original content, humor), and visual appeal. These “predators” are feasting on information that maintains a degree of persistence, permanence, and god forbid– patience. Public discussion of climate change, ongoing conflicts overseas, inner-city poverty, and our tremendously dysfunctional health care industry are simply being driven to “extinction”.
Tversky’s and Kahneman’s (1982) availability heuristic suggest we attribute greater probability and frequency to information that is more readily available in our minds. Perhaps the more troubling issue is the potential for a naturalistic fallacy to take place: that the survival of the fittest indeed yields the “fittest”. Ultimately, “fitness” should refer to physical survival — and indeed, accurate and proper communication of health and political issues do indeed have implications for life/death– but I feel it also encapsulates physical and mental health, financial stability, and any domain of social life that represents a form of success. As such, “fitness” here refers to the positive impact on the most number of people– regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion, and the like. In other words, we may be fooling ourselves to think that the information that our mind’s eye is attending to is indeed the information most worthy of our attention.
The information that survives is information that garners our collective attention, that captivates the collective consciousness. This information may be biased, inaccurate, or may simply be fictional content intended for entertainment– which is not to say that such information is meaningless as it represents the social reasons for sharing information in “spreadable media” (Jenkins et al., 2012).
So, not only are we wired to prefer this attention-grabbing information, this attention-grabbing information is concurrently being reproduced and shared at the expense and demise of information that is less attention-grabbing.
Problem: We have already been primed with much of the important information in the world.
Another Problem A: Less attention-grabbing information tends to be information we already know, information that is complex.
Another Problem B: Important information tends to be information we already know, which tends to be less attention grabbing.
We know diet coke is bad, we know much of the Middle East is under various sorts of turmoil and conflict, we know, we know. We just can’t bring ourselves to care about this information more than the next episode of Breaking Bad, or the top post on the front page of Reddit.
This is not to say that Breaking Bad offers less desirable information or a less desirable mode of delivery. In fact, its writers demonstrated an example of a truly complex form of narrative that goes against the traditional and familiar TV narrative. It is precisely its creativity and originality that makes it a champion of TV ratings and our collective consciousness.
That said, annual re-runs of Breaking Bad– while remaining strong in popularity, will inevitably decline in ratings and our collective consciousness over time. Aren’t “ongoing issues” basically “re-runs”?
The Irony: “Fittest” information = information that provides a positive impact to the most people. “Fittest” information represents the essence of morality and altruism. Ironically, the information that is becoming “extinct” is the information that is most crucial for our collective success, survival (Perhaps collective survival goes against the central tenets of natural selection?!). //
Complex concepts in science are often misunderstood because they are simplified and thought in terms of “linear causality” with a singular cause and effect, when in fact science often involves a complex system of causality that may be iterative, cyclical, and take place over time and space (Grotzer, 2012). According to Grotzer, we simplify causality due to our preference to attribute agency to conceptual understandings, our tendency to make cognitive heuristics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982), and our limitations of our attention (Mack & Rock, 1998). Our visual perception is subject to natural tendencies of not only our attention, but also differences in the perception of visual images in our central vs. peripheral visual fields.
With a world of images, memes, and 350-character messages, we cannot help but be deterred from complex understandings of crucial political and scientific issues– let alone an accurate and complete understanding of those issues. The non-immediacy of these issues means that they do not alert our attention or perceptual systems as would an elephant charging towards us. Rather, inattention and conscious ignorance of non-immediate, non-perceivable issues (radiation-contamination, global warming, GMOs, etc) all involve gains that are immediate and gratifying (fresh sashimi, convenience and laziness, cheap food, etc) and harms that are tacit. Even more troubling is the exploitation of our cognitive limitations and tendencies for harmful consequences. Sensory formats (visual/auditory advertisements, and even tastes) are now engineered to target sensory vulnerabilities while we overlook non-sensory information (global warming, obesity, risky decisions, any decision with a positive short term and negative long term outcome.
This is not necessarily a value judgment against the Breaking Bads, the Twitters and the Reddits of the information world. Rather, there is much to learn from these thriving models of information. There is a wealth of “fit” information intertwined with entertainment on these newer modes of information dissemination. If anything, perhaps we have to move past the “iron curtain” of network news, academic fluff, and the like. We are facing a communication gap, a failure of learning, and a reality that is increasingly at odds with traditional communication environments. If there is indeed an Information Darwinism underway, we cannot continue to beat the dead horse with “what used to work”. It is our moral obligation to engage in our own pedagogical arms race against the changing information landscape in order to maximize information that yields the most physical, mental, social “fitness” for as many people as possible.
Amir, O., Biederman, I., & Hayworth, K. J. (2011). The neural basis for shape preferences. Vision research, 51(20), 2198-2206.
Biederman, I., & Vessel, E. (2006). Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain A novel theory explains why the brain craves information and seeks it through the senses. American Scientist, 3(94), 247-253.
Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange.The adapted mind, 163-228.
Grossberg, S. (1987). Competitive learning: From interactive activation to adaptive resonance. Cognitive science, 11(1), 23-63.
Grotzer, T.A. (2012). Learning causality in a complex world. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., Green, J., & Green, J. B. (2012). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. NYU Press.