For most of human history, the natural state of people was to be uninformed about the doings of the great and powerful. Amenemhet the Stone Carver could easily have spent his life chipping glyphs into stones, without ever knowing why or what they were supposed to mean. He was just one of many assigned to work on the latest project commission by Pharaoh. More important, he probably did not care. He had a good job chipping glyphs into stones, which let him have a nice house and send the boy off to chariot school.
For his part, the Pharaoh was not all that concerned that Amenemhet was indifferent to the doings of the state. He wanted his people to do his bidding and remain loyal, but that mostly meant maintaining the grain supply, defending the borders and holding religious festivals where the people were reminded that the Pharaoh was a god. In other words, Pharaoh did not have to invest a lot of time bullshitting his people. Even if wanted to, it was simply not practical, so it was never a part of the ruling toolkit.
Writing the post the other day on millennials, it occurred to me that they are the first mass media generation. In my grandfather’s youth, for example, having a radio was a toy for rich people. He got his first TV in the 50’s. My parents grew up on movie theaters and then later television, but they got their first TV in their late teens, I think. I had TV as a kid, of course, but I also had outdoors. With just three channels, TV could not compete with outside for the attention of a boy, so I did not spend much time in front of it.
Young people are floating in a sea of mass media and they have never known any other way. It’s perhaps why millennials are so demanding and entitled. Watching TV is a passive exercise. It is up to the show or movie to entertain you, the viewer. There’s no reward for loyalty to a channel, a show or a personality, so there is no loyalty. Consuming mass media is a purely transactional exercise. With so many channels competing for your attention, you have every right to be demanding. Kids raised on TV are certain to be transactional in their daily human relations.
The thing is, our mass media culture is mostly fabricated nonsense. Most of what the news people “report” is made up. As soon as you see the word “sources” you know what follows is invented. Even when someone is named as a source, nine times out of ten we learn that the named source did not actually say what he was claimed to have said. The other day, the news people were claiming Trump got in a fight with a baby at one of his events. It turns out he made some harmless jokes about a crying baby.
It’s tempting to think it is just the ideological bias of the media and that certainly plays a role, but even sporting news is often made up nonsense. Sites like Bleacher Report and SB Nation exist to pump out made up news from writers who never leave their couch. The “legitimate” sporting news is similarly riddled with tales where the word “sources” is featured prominently. The people in the business have to know everyone is just making stuff up, but no one ever says anything. It’s just the way it is.
The question that comes to mind is what this does to the culture. The passive cynicism of the millennials may simply be a result of living in a world of fiction. If most of what you see and hear is bullshit, you’re going to assume everything is bullshit. It is also impossible to have trust in people that lie all the time, so this sea of mass media is self-defeating as a propaganda tool. The Russians during the Soviet era assumed everything told to them was a lie, which made an already cynical people into the first no-trust society.
Something similar may be happening in America as the people producing media feverishly try to break through the noise with ever more outlandish nonsense. Sites like Gawker are simply the logical end point of all mass media. Consumers of mass media are not seeking to be informed, because they assume it is all nonsense. They just want to be entertained. It’s probably why Trump is one nominee and Clinton is the other. Everyone is looking forward to the brash bully tearing into the corrupt old cow. It may be awful for the country, but it will make good TV.
The dynamic since the advent of participatory government has been to increase the number of informed citizens while increasing the franchise. That’s not where we have ended up. The franchise has been expanded to the point where we are now handing ballots to foreigners, but the public is probably less informed than at any time in our history. In fact, it is close to impossible be well informed. That makes popular government nothing more than an entertaining roll of the dice. The characters best able to keep the public’s attention wins, even if she is a sociopath, who kills people.