Last night I watched a very competitive and engaging Super Bowl along with 100 million other Americans. As a group we watched the same commercials, taxed our neighborhood water infrastructure at the same moments and screamed at the TV at the same time. It struck me as I was watching the game that the Super Bowl was one of the few events all Americans experience in the same way. It is rare because we exist in a world of ever increasing narrow casting. As technology allows us to receive information that is valued in large part by how it reinforces our world view, experiences where there is a collective frame of reference become fewer and fewer.
Let me give you a sense of what I mean. Let’s suppose that last night’s game was covered the way that most political and economic events are described these days. Here are some hypothetical headlines and story lines that we could be reading today:
- “Super Bowl Ravens Bring Lombardi Trophy Home to Brighten Working Class Neighborhoods Decimated by Continued High Unemployment.”
- “Super Bowl Power Outage Results From Inadequate Post Katrina Repairs – Contractor with contacts with Obama Administration questioned.”
- “Questionable Timing – Mysterious Power Outage Changes Game – Concern that Communist Chinese teenager hacked power grid ‘to help 49ers win.’”
- “Faithful Ravens Carry Super Bowl – Prayer during game turns tide.”
- “Power Failure Could Have Been Due to Cyber Terror Attack – Rapid denial adds to concern of State Department cover-up.”
- “NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement Challenged by MVP Award – Financial success of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will be restricted due to union rules.”
- “NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement Reinforced by Ravens Win – Collective bargaining creates shared benefit and reinforces team spirit of both Super Bowl teams.”
- “Forget Disney World; I am going to Heaven.”
- “Lights Go Out But Fans Stay Calm – Second Amendment works again.”
- ”Sandy Hook Child Actors Sing – Actors Equity card found on Superdome field after game.”
- “Beyoncé Hip Syncs Through Performance.”
See what I mean? You could imagine each of them, couldn’t you? This is my point. And, why I am concerned. A number of years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked in a debate, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not his own facts.” What he was getting at was the importance in any political or economic discussion of protagonists having a shared sense of a situation. Put another way – without some sort of common frame of reference a negotiation or building of consensus is impossible. A conversation of opinion without a sharing of common facts can never result in true communication – there is no common frame of reference.
I try very hard to gather information about economics and politics from distinct sources, and am constantly struck by the distinctively different frame of reference of our media, bloggers and my Facebook/Twitter feed, as some examples. I see wildly divergent opinions and facts being recited and shared in reaction to the same core event. I also regularly see a substantially different framing of these facts – or the ignoring of facts of others – to reinforce or reflect an expressed opinion. A great example of this is the current discussion on entitlement reform and the budget deficit. You can find credible opinions (and supporting facts) on the web and in the media that state emphatically there is no actual crisis in government spending, and elsewhere you can find credible opinions that state exactly the otherwise. These cycles of contrary opinions (and facts) are everywhere these days.
I am not suggesting that there should only be one way to discuss events. However, the state of our current society is far from that. As we narrow cast ourselves and our information sources into self-referential echo chambers, America is losing something extremely important. We are losing the ability to communicate and clearly share the same reality and context. This is a problem for two reasons.
The first is that a democracy requires an informed populace – or at least a populace that has a shared sense of context to function. The intellectual history of the US, based as it is on the concept of authority being granted to the government by the consent of society and its people, depends upon democratic principles. Without a shared sense of context, democracy becomes difficult and the nation ungovernable.
The second is that any society has a collective consciousness. The US is no different. It is why, for example, most of the readers of this blog think that democracy, equality, freedom of expression and entrepreneurship are core values of our culture. Society subtly and not so subtly passes from generation to generation the memes of what it means to be an America (or an Englishman or Japanese). There are just things you “know” by being part of a society and sharing a place and identity with others around you. Consider, for example, the pervasiveness of the frontier and the cowboy, and how rugged individualism and the image of riding on the range play out in many distinct parts of American society.
As the underpinnings of our collective experience are eroded away, and challenged by a narrow cast world view, something significant is occurring. As we lose our collective sense of what we share, and we define ourselves by smaller groups of like-minded people, those that don’t agree become alien and threatening. Go to downtown DC and sit in a Congressional committee room if you don’t get what I mean.
At least a portion of the phenomenon of narrow casting is caused by the technology of interconnectivity and segmentation that entrepreneurs have created and are diligently working to expand. Twitter, Facebook, Google, and changes in media ownership have all played their part. And, thousands of new startups and emerging technologies are going to come on line and accelerate this trend. The trend of connectivity and the narrowing of data appear inexorable.
The challenge that we face as a society, as citizens and as entrepreneurs is how to take advantage of the benefits of a more connected culture technologically without disconnecting ourselves as citizens. All entrepreneurs should remember that we all benefit from a society with rules that promote our ability to be entrepreneurs, and reinforces our ability to benefit from and retain the fruits of our individual labors. Perhaps we should all take the lead on committing ourselves to looking past the nonsense headlines that bombard us because we have the most to gain from the continuation of American democracy. I’d recommend that each day we take a few moments to read past the story lines of those that we look towards and challenge our viewpoints with facts and data from other sources. We don’t have to agree, but it would be helpful if we understood each other a bit better.