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Information Pollution Alert! Living with Data Smog

Information Pollution Alert! Living with Data Smog

Information Pollution Alert! Living with Data Smog

    We are a nation awash in data smog. This is more than just information overload — it’s not just that there’s too much information out there for one person to adequately encompass, it’s that there’s too much data out there to even make out the information clearly, let alone to evaluate and act on that information.

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    What’s worse is that unlike normal smog, which is the unintentional byproduct of our need to burn things to provide energy, much of the data smog is intentional. We aren’t supposed to be able to see clearly! Between pernicious advertising, ideological pronouncements, and allegedly entertaining “infotainment products”, we’re being bombarded with data explicitly intended to dull out senses and distract us from clear thinking about important matters.

    This is not a conspiracy theory — it’s straight out of Marketing 101! Rational, considering actors make lousy consumers; deliberation and cautious evaluation muck up the democratic process; critical analysis makes the powerful look foolish. Marketing wants none of that! No, far better to engage the impulses, to feed the primal emotions of fear and longing, to get in and out in the blink of an eye.

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    Here’s a couple of examples:

    Dumb Parents (Don’t) Rule!

    Watch a kids TV show recently? Watch a few? You might have noticed a trend — dumb parents. Uncool, hapless, clumsy, dorky, way-out-there dumb parents. Remember the parents of yore? The Bradies, the Cleavers, even the Wah-Wah-Wahing parents of the Charlie Brown universe? They were pretty with it — voices of sanity and authority in an adult world kids struggled to grasp. Not any more — today’s TV parents are hopeless.

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    Why? Because that’s what media producers’ customers want. Not the kids — viewers aren’t customers, they’re product. You don’t buy Jimmy Neutron. The advertisers whose spots fill the commercial breaks during Jimmy Neutron buy you — the cartoon is just a way to get enough of you watching to make it worth the advertisers’ buck. Well, not you — your kids. You’re just a wallet with legs — what they really want is to show your kids really cool stuff that they’ll get you to buy. And of course, you’re going to say “No”. That’s where the show’s content comes in — your kids have just spent 4 hours learning that parents are uncool idiots who say “No” to all the coolest stuff.

    Pay no attention to the scientist behind the curtain…

    Why would an oil company like Exxon-Mobil fund global warming research? Anyone with half a brain knows that they’re only going to publish research that’s favorable to them. Why would a tobacco company fund research on second-hand smoke? Again, it only takes a 40-watt brain to realize that their results are going to be biased in their favor. Yet both petroleum companies and tobacco companies spend millions on research that nobody can possibly take seriously.

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    They don’t do it for love of science, obviously. Nor do they do it to convince you, or me, or anyone that smoking’s good for you and burning coal saves penguin lives. They hire scientists and churn out biased research to muddy the waters, pure and simple. Knowing that oil companies pay scientists to put out bogus climate change research calls into question the objectivity of all scientists — who’s to say that the scientists saying that burning coal is bad for the environment aren’t just as biased as the petroleum-backed scientists saying it’s not? Certainly not you — you’re no scientist! It’s perfectly logical, then, to conclude that “nobody knows for sure” and that it’s all just a political dance.

    Dealing with data smog

    Amid all this fear, uncertainty, and doubt-mongering, one thing’s absolutely sure: it’s going to get worse. And I don’t mean “it’s going to get worse before it gets better”; it may never get better. As more and more ways for data to reach us become prevalent (there will be more and more apps for that!), there will be more and more ways to obscure what’s important amid what’s urgent, like buying things.

    So we have to learn to deal with it, to sort through the come-ons and the panic-inducing attacks and find the information that actually makes our lives better. Here’s a crash course in smog survival:

    • Get educated: The most important step in dealing with data smog is to build up your mental toolkit, and that means getting educated. There’s a reason that Jefferson saw education as the cornerstone of a functioning democracy.
    • Share your ideas with others: Community can be a great protection from malevolent data. Tell people what you’re thinking to avoid the echo effect of standing alone in a tunnel, where only you hear your ideas coming back to you. Suddenly “I’m going to buy a sports car” doesn’t seem like such a great way of dealing with your pattern baldness, does it?
    • Winnow news sources to one or two trusted daily sources (local and national paper, for example) and three or four less frequent analytical sources (magazines, mostly). In their quest to differentiate themselves, news outlets pour on all sorts of gloss and glitter (everything except actual analysis, it seems), but they’re really reporting the same stuff as everyone else — probably from the same wire. Get what you need and move on.
    • Learn marketing techniques: Learn what makes your news sources and other information sources attractive to their customers (advertisers) and take that into account. Read up on how marketers do their job, so you can identify when marketing techniques are being used on you. Try Robert Cialdini’s classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion for a good primer.
    • Follow the money: Find out who paid for research and what the payers’ goals are. Most academic books and articles list this in the acknowledgements (for books) or the footnotes (for articles); for mainstream books, you may have to check the references.
    • Follow the interests: Ask who a story seems to help, and how.
    • Consume critically: Ask yourself if the opposite conclusion is possible, and how your source deals with that possibility. Biased sources usually ignore or belittle opposing viewpoints, instead of engaging them. But it’s rarely likely that the other side is stupid or in some sort of conspiracy.
    • Does it matter? Maybe this should be the first thing you ask, about anything. It’s easy to get caught up in things that ultimately don’t matter. That’s OK if you’re just having fun, but not much to build a life on.

    This isn’t anything like a comprehensive response to data smog — at best it’s Data Smog 101. But it’s a start — and we need a start, because the alternative is getting less and less informed about the real world around us. Maybe you have some ideas? Let’s hear ’em in the comments.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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