Silos and Screens

When we ask why people persist in beliefs contrary to evidence, explanations quickly turn to the notion of an information “silo,” the notion that people tend to consume information from sources in prior agreement with their beliefs.   It makes sense: things rarely change when everything stays the same.

On the other hand, the silo imagery leaves something to be desired.  If we’re to think of a silo, where’s the wall? Basic factual information in the form of text, images, and videos is transmitted just about everywhere, just about all of the time.   If there is a “wall,” it’s an ephemeral barrier in the minds of information consumers – we take the news we care to take.

Even then,  there’s a problem.  Trump gives a speech or tweets something, and there’s no wall at all – everyone sees it.   When the left flails at Trump’s latest inanity, likewise everyone finds out: liberals are left to puzzle over another ineffectual reaction, while the right gleefully pokes fun at the liberals.  So, where’s the wall?

I’m not sure we’re really dealing with information walls or silos at all – the notion of an information silo may be obsolete.    Different sides in our policy debates, but particularly the right, have realized that dissemination of facts in this country cannot be easily throttled or controlled.  But they’ve found something better.  Facts can be screened – instantly surrounded by a set of countervailing statements, which tend to neutralize any negative impact, and offer supportive interpretation.  Screens are certainly related to spin – they are rather like spin’s first-alert responder team.   These days the screen’s been applied almost as soon as the event itself has become known.  If the screen does its job, a costly propaganda campaign of full-fledged damage control won’t even be necessary.  Hey, it’s great to save time and money when part of the government doesn’t want to spend time usefully, or money at all.

An information screen has a parallel in physical processes  – many liquid and solid media respond to a foreign substance by screening, in which the medium accommodates a foreign object by countering its presence.   Screening is central to phenomena ranging from dissolved salt to capacitors.  Close up, a screened object looks a lot like the original, but at a distance its impact is lessened, sometimes to the point of irrelevance.  As for the medium, all that matters is that it responds rapidly – the details of the media’s new configuration are irrelevant, and in some systems will be very dynamic.

It’s very much like information screening.  To work a screen has to be effective and fast, but needn’t be very specific – people are predisposed to believe the screen, so screening is more a matter of speed and negation than of accuracy.    Thus screens tend to repeat themselves – in the case of administration blundering, rudeness is recast as strength, and incompetence converted to foxy craftiness.

From a distance, these just might be possible interpretations.  But if we look more closely, it’s clear that if any of us performed like the president in our jobs, or tweeted like the president in our jobs, we’d be out on our ear within hours, and properly so.  (What’s the phrase? You’re fired!)  A society that prides itself on independent thinking has permitted screened facts to supplant reality, even though reality is beamed to our phones and browsers merely for the asking.   It needn’t be that way.  There really are no information walls, and screens are only as effective as our acquiescence.



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