Everything you see on this screen is a manifestation of billions of 1’s and 0’s. It is truly one of the great discoveries of mankind. If you create a large enough pool of binary inputs, and push those inputs down far enough into the most minute detailed elements of an environment, you can create complex computer programs that can do things. They can store massive amounts of information. They can talk. They can control airplanes and operate nuclear power plants. They can monitor our health. We can make programs so complex, they actually start to mimic human intelligence. But at their basic forms, they are still, 1’s and o’s. And they are entirely at the mercy of our design. Because we, as humans, have consciousness and the capacity for original thought.
Unlike the programs we create, we are not binary by nature. We are not forced into a variable of 1 or 0 by our designer. We are unlimited in our capacity to explore and wonder. Our thoughts are limitless.
If you looked at my social media stream right now though, you wouldn’t know it.
Within minutes of the San Bernardino shootings two weeks ago, threads started to appear on my Twitter feed advocating for stricter gun control laws. As soon as Syed Farook’s name was released as the shooter, the Muslim-o-phobia thread took over. Within 48 hours we had a burning debate about what was to blame.
Was it guns? Or was it Muslims?
It’s kind of an odd point-counterpoint. It’s like choosing between walking to school or taking your lunch. It’s not really a choice. But it’s how the dialogue went, and still is going weeks later. Like we have with so many other complex issues, we’ve boiled it down to a binary debate.
Black lies or All Lives. Health care or liberty. Regulation or economic growth. Abortion or privacy. It’s a thing that we do. Why, when clearly we are capable of so much more is a question.
There’s a lot that goes into why we do it. Let’s start with what it’s actually not though; our politicians. Our politicians aren’t causing the problem. They’re not helping. But they’re not why it’s happening. For the most part, politicians are stuck in a somewhat binary loop themselves that they can’t escape from as a function of who they are and what they are charged with doing. They can either be for something, or against it. They can’t be both. We may desire to try to squeeze moderation into the mix. But moderation doesn’t work right now. And it’s not their fault. There are massive headwinds to being reasonable in politics today. The reason isn’t that complicated.
As I write this the American media market is about $285 Billion. And though we may hear over and over again that the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court in 2010 is ruining our democratic process by opening up campaign fundraising to corporations and other donors that are eliminating the voice of the people, it’s not obvious that’s really what’s happening. There’s clearly a case for campaign finance reform. But campaign finance processes aren’t doing what we tend to say that they are doing. Because it’s just not big enough. It tends to exist in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Which sounds like a lot to you and me. And in a vacuum it is. When it comes to moving the needle of national consciousness though, it’s nothing.
Here’s something to consider. The National Rifle Association, that massive evil empire and ultimate antagonist to democracy, spent $28.2M on campaign contributions in 2014. In media land that’s nothing. It’s $1.8M less than the cast of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory made during the same time frame. It’s a million dollars less than the Washington Nationals paid their bullpen in 2015. Which means that more money gets spent on relief pitching in Washington then gets spent on the gun lobby. And the Nationals didn’t even make the playoffs.
If you’re going to get the attention of the media market, you don’t do it by throwing $28M at it. You do it by doing things that American people can’t stop paying attention to. You do it by driving clicks and ratings. Because that’s what makes the media work. And it’s not new. But it is bigger than any other force in our political system and producing content at a scale never seen before. And it’s sucking the oxygen out of every reasonable political thought we may have. So they die. And we’re left with what’s left. Point and counter-point. A 1 and a 0. We’re being programmed.
We are addicted to outrage and conflict. That part isn’t new. Just like computer programs, outrage and conflict work best when you can focus them on the least amount of variables. Clearly, you can’t have outrage and conflict with one perspective. You need at least two. And more than two is really hard to package. It’s why team sports work so well. It’s why we have “pairings” for pro golf tournaments on the final day. It’s why the main good guy has to kill the main bad guy in the end. It doesn’t work if the villain dies in an unfortunate cycling accident en route to the gun fight. There’s no drama in that. Conflict is delivered and consumed easiest in twos. One against the other. Good and evil…right and wrong. Conservative and liberal…It’s what we’ll watch. It’s what we’ll click on.
Here’s the problem with that. These issues we’re debating aren’t sports and entertainment. The media serves them up like they are, but they’re not. People’s lives are impacted by the issues we are spinning as entertainment. We need to demand more of ourselves.
We’ve evolved past our basic nature in many ways. When our urge for conflict was harder to feed, before the information age, when you had to go find someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about in order to engage in debate, we did this better. As a result, our political machine was less polarized and more effective. There’s good news here though. We did this once. And we can do it again. Because doing it is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is break the binary code. Break the programming.
We may not be able to solve this problem at scale. But if we do, it starts at the molecular level. With any one person and what one person can do to break the code. It can be done. But we have to use the most powerful thing that we have, that computers don’t; good old fashioned human curiosity.
The greatest force the world has ever seen is our ability to wonder about something. Wondering leads to questions. Questions are most useful when we ask them to inform what we want to know instead of consume answers to other questions that are fed to us before we ask them. When it comes to critical societal issues, there’s one great question you can ask to break the binary code. One basic infinitely powerful question.
What do I think about this issue? And why? And what do I need to learn to feel better about what I think…or don’t?
Don’t just consume the code. Write your own by asking the sorts of questions you would ask about the complicated problems you have to solve in your life, without the forces of a media market helping. In searching for those answers, we have a chance for something better.