Mass culture no longer gives us the communal events or the common references we once had. For me, The Big Bang Theory has been a case in point. The recently concluded network comedy series aired from 2007 to 2019, and its finale drew 18 million viewers. Through many of those seasons it was the most popular comedy and sometimes the most popular scripted show on television, and it continues in syndication with high ratings. Even so, a Big Bang reference escapes many, perhaps a majority, of the country. If two generations ago I had worn a shirt with a depiction of Lucille Ball or Bob Newhart or the characters of Bonanza, I believe almost all would have recognized the images. I do own a shirt depicting a Big Bang Theory character (Bazinga). My friends and many others are puzzled by the reference.
With all the offerings we have, entertainment is more fragmented, and no longer the unifying force in the country that it once was, and in some ways has become divisive. When I say I have never seen Gomorrah the conversation ends. I might reply, “But have you seen Fleabag?” We are primarily talking past each other. And, of course, popular music is similar. We had more in common when Wolfman Jack, Cousin Brucie, and Larry Lujack on top forty radio stations that dominated the airwaves played the same limited selection of songs over and over.
That our popular culture has become more fragmented over the last generation might be a trivial thing, but our sources of information have also fractured the country. Fewer people read the newspapers that carry news from the wire services, which, having to satisfy many papers and readers, strive for neutrality. Network news, while still important, no longer dominates. We have seen the rise of cable news that aims to please not a broad demographic and ideological audience but a specific segment of the populace. Many of my young friends, however, do not even get their information from newspapers, network TV, or cable news. They turn to social media and the internet and too often follow the normal human impulse of finding stories that confirm what they already believe. I understand that.
A brief example. On a recent trip to Sicily, I visited salt pans near Trapani where I saw pink flamingoes. Someone mentioned that flamingoes become pink when they eat tiny shrimp. This sounded quirky enough that some skeptics did not buy it, but I had heard this crustacean explanation before on the Discovery or National Geographic Channel, and therefore felt it must be true. Even so, that evening I googled why flamingoes were pink; the shrimp explanation was given. That was the end of my exploration. Like many others I tend to believe something on the internet when it confirms what I already thought. I know that when my search is about something important, I should seek diverse sources, but I also know that it is all too easy not to do that. And, unfortunately, many in this land have never learned that it is important to look for relevant disconfirming information as well as confirmations.
When I search on the internet, however, I think that those responsive screens offering links to sources are somehow neutral—that we all see the same things on our devices when we enter “causes of pink flamingoes.” Not so, or at least not so for many searches. Those search engines want to please; they make more money if I continue to use them. And it pleases me to get confirming information not stuff that might cause the discomfort of challenging my beliefs. From my previous searches and clicks they have learned a lot about me. I look for information about Machu Picchu and ads for trips to Peru appear for days when I go to my computer. I may find that useful or annoying but not nefarious. However, as Michiko Kakutani points out, when I search for “stem cell,” I will get different results from those who support or those who oppose such research. The same is true for “proof of climate change” and many other fraught topics. We get different information from the same searches, and the country becomes a little more divided each time as a result. And, of course, something similar happens with the information we get through social media. Increasingly, we become more divided because we operate from different sets of “facts.”
This trend is exacerbated with the cries of “fake news.” Of course, no information source is always right, but the fake-news label is not about ferreting out good information. It is just a dismissive rejoinder. If it were more than that, it would be accompanied by careful explanations of why a piece of information was wrong and something else is right. How often have you seen that? “Fake news” just means that you may ignore something and continue to believe what you already do. It is not meant to bring about a serious exploration of the information but to continue divisions that already exist.
(continued April 29)