It’s ironic: having too much information is much the same as having no information. Given too much data to process, we filter out what would make us work harder or add to our stress, like an idea challenging our existing notions.
That’s not surprising. Who among us doesn’t want to disengage at times from the muddy and polluted infocurrent in which we swim? And now the stream flows to our personal devices unimpeded, wherever we are – delivering news we don’t particularly need, views we don’t particularly hold, advice we don’t really want, and ads for products we’re unlikely to buy. Getting our attention isn’t easy, but the purveyors of this digicrap have rediscovered a thing or two in the last decade about actionable communication: don’t bother with facts, just pitch to emotion. Negative emotions building on embroyonic prejudices seem to work the best, unfortunately.
The resulting dynamic is double-edged. Our prejudices are reinforced, oddly enough, through the auspices of excessive information. But as we shut out digital bombardment, we can only be reached by increasingly extreme and emotional messaging.
Does any of this explain our 2016 presidential candidates and the discourse we’ve seen in this campaign? Perhaps. Fringe candidates knew from the beginning the sort of messaging they had to deliver for success – keying emotionally to the small but committed minority that would determine their party’s presidential nomination. What better and more powerful emotion to leverage than disenfranchisement? As Eric Hoffer pointed out in The True Believer, the disenfranchised form a potent basis for far-from-center political movements. Once started, these movements develop a self-perpetuating momentum, and their leader’s failings can actually become advantages, as they also have been rejected by conventional society. Sound a bit like Trumpism? It’s easy to reject Trump as unsuitable, but the left-behind feelings of his movement are real and not without justification.
And now we have the campaign endgame-messaging…. Trump would reject the electoral system that doesn’t elect him, while Clinton claims that her non-election would lead to the apocolypse (whatever that means). I understand when people tell me they would rather sit this election out, as neither choice is very palatable. But as often happens with real problems, the question we wanted to answer is irrelevant – it’s the question we have to answer that counts. Our mandate is to pick one of these two, even if we would rather not. I know… But as a possible pick-me-up on voting day, try listening to Gil Scott-Heron’s 1981 song B Movie, which begins memorably with the line “The first thing I want to say is mandate, my ass.”