Is This Really Us? 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 141

Kevin Novak
8 min readJan 5, 2024

Issue 141, January 4, 2024

If you just landed on the planet from elsewhere, or you are a student of modern media, you might believe that America is polarized, disappointed, angry, mentally ill, always dancing in front of its mobile phones, and with a chip on its shoulder.

Is this really us? Is this who we are? The issue is whether our actions, beliefs, and values are representative of who’ve always been. Or in the current fractious environment, when societal norms and decorum seem to have taken a backseat to civil discourse, are we changing and showing new colors?

Historians influence how history is interpreted and remembered by how they record it. The media is also recording our history in real-time, and to no one’s surprise, it is also highly biased and opinionated. As individuals, we can be accused as equal participants in this syndrome; we curate our feeds according to the words, images, and voices that we feel “fit” us. We self-select what we want to hear, read, or view. It’s comfortable in so many ways and confirming in many others. And guess what, as we feed more and more to the algorithms (including GenAI), sure enough, they continue to spit out more of exactly what we want. It is deterministic and could even be fatal, as T.S. Eliot said the widening gyre twists into its endgame.

So, we want to explore if we have truly become victims of media determinism and are no longer in the land of the free and the home of the brave, as we’ve been striving to be since 1776, then revised in 1865.

How We Are Recorded

Is what we read, listen to, and see determining who we are? Not just you. Not just me, your family, or friends. We mean all of society.

If you look at this American life, are we operating from deeper and deeper pockets of ingrained dissension and distrust? It is antithetical to the tenets of what built our nation to reinvent a better political and social system based on freedom. But honestly, the more we observe popular broadcasts, news feeds and social media brands, the more we become convinced that anarchy based on misinformation may be in our future. It’s hard to find any neutral reporting anywhere — even National Public Radio. Many of us feel disempowered and powerless to change the cultural conversation, believing we are being held captive on a runaway train of dissent, from all sides.

Some reports would lead us to believe we are throwing participatory government and democracy to the winds in lockstep with aligning to authoritarianism. This is an interesting conundrum in a country that seems to rebel against authoritarian governments and leaders (think China and Iran).

On the positive side, Axios reports its “misery index — the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate — is at its lowest point since the pandemic hit in March 2020. The index is ending 2023 at 6.8% — well below this century’s 8.3% average to date. Why it matters: The double whammy wrought by Covid — first a huge spike in unemployment, then a big rise in inflation — now seems to be over. Both indicators are reverting to low levels indicative of a healthy economy.”

Yes, but. There is a noticeable disconnect among many Americans between an index and their perception of their own economic health and wellbeing. Which brings us back to the point of this newsletter: Is modern media influencing us more than we are influencing it? And in a way broader context, whatever happened to free will?

But First, Book Reports

Here’s a fascinating proposition as reported by the Wall Street Journal, “Is any choice we make truly free? You might decide to answer ‘yes’ right now, just to prove the point, but is your supposedly free choice actually an inevitable result of your personality, your background, and the kind of day you’re having? If we could rewind history and repeat the moment, would you always do the same thing, as predictably as clockwork?

“Free will is an ancient philosophical question, lately refreshed by advances in science, and books from a pair of distinguished neuroscientists tackling it from opposing sides. Robert M. Sapolsky’s Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will takes the prosecution’s role with a lively and provocative account of consciousness in which free will is only an illusion. In opposition, Kevin J. Mitchell offers an eloquent defense of our common-sense understanding of the mind in Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will.”

We urge you to read these two books to see if you agree with Sapolsky who believes “The world is deterministic and there’s no free will. Consciously or unconsciously, we always act for a reason, there’s a reason for that reason, and so on — a chain of causality where chance plays no part.” To extend the thought, when we are young our experiences become the influencers for why we are who we are, why we decide or act on what we do, and how we think. According to Sapolsky, we have little if any control or will within our “control.”

Or do you take Mitchell’s position that argues, “Evolution has shaped living creatures such that we can push back when the physical world impinges upon us. The motions of nonliving things — air, rocks, planets, stars — are entirely governed by physical forces; they move where they are pushed. Our ability to push back allows increasingly complex creatures to function as agents that can make real choices, not choices that are predetermined by the flux of atoms. Human beings do not escape the laws of nature, so any and all of our choices have been predetermined from the beginning of the universe,” as reported by Reason.com.

Maybe that’s a lot to ask for a new year’s reading assignment. But their arguments do relate to the subject at hand. Are we consciously or subconsciously influencing modern media more than it is influencing us?

Influencers: Legacy Broadcast Media

There are basically two camps in the country right now: Fox News and all its clones, and everyone else. Maybe oversimplified, but we are amazed by how fervent viewers are allied to their broadcast brands. By preaching to the choir and getting all riled up by strident voices and commentators, it’s a wonder we all still speak to each other. The constant reinforcement of political persuasions looks to have an automaton effect on viewers. The noise often obfuscates the news of the world, or worse, gives it a slant that supports the brand position. If fans were to switch gears and watch the opposite shows, they would truly think they live in a different world. Polarization aside, this is self-selective media determinism only deepens the divides among generations and differing views. What we need is a sanctuary, a neutral safe place to debate that is free from biased affiliations.

Biased: Print Media

Like broadcast brands, media makes headlines to attract readers which then translates into advertising revenues. The more lurid the headlines, the more buzz and attention the media gets. And like broadcast, most people read their news sources of choice that conform to their opinions and outlooks. With GenAI rearing its irresistible talons, the news you read may be written based on what you want to read, not necessarily what’s news. Of course, it’s the role for the majors to be the sources of record, but beyond the op-eds, a biased perspective is always under the surface. The more you read a Murdoch paper, the more you are convinced your position about national and world events is spot on. Likewise, the more you read the Washington Post, New York Times, and other surviving legacy brands, the more your views are supported. Not to be repetitive, but what is shaping whom? Are we victims of media determinism without realizing it? Or again, the deeper question is whether this is who we really are.

Anarchy: Social Media

What started as an inventive way to connect people online has evolved into one of the most dangerous media platforms we have. We’ve all read reports about shaming, bullying and suicides. We’ve been deluged with reports that Gen Z turns to Elon Musk’s X to get its news. We’ve experienced the power of influencers who are nothing more than paid product schillers. Political factions gather on social and mobilize their constituents. Bad behavior is commonplace. But what’s most egregious is the level of misinformation and lack of a “truth police force” to ensure that social is not just a propaganda tool. Among all modern media, it is the most dramatic case of media determinism. People write the content that appears on social. Bots that we as human beings have created rework and amplify that content. Then we as human beings change our behaviors based on what we follow on social. As we shape social as content engineers, the social platforms are shaping our opinions and actions — determined by the media messaging This syndrome is the side effect of technological determinism, which we have covered more extensively in our book, The Truth About Transformation.

Chaos: The Internet

Is it really us when we get online product offers, we haven’t searched for? Is the “if you like that, you’ll love this” school of marketing a service or a scam? Cookies may be opt-out, but it’s an ongoing hassle to manage them. So, your personal journeys are still an open road to third-party interlopers. And what to believe? If social and legacy media brands are suspect, the internet is misinformation overload on steroids. It is exhausting to separate fact from fiction, particularly for at-risk audiences who may not have the best judgment skills. The influence of influencers and recruiting sites to jack up impressionable young men has been widely reported. This brings us full circle about the exercise of free will and media determinism.

The Brave March Forward

We certainly don’t advocate censorship, but we do advocate (as always) critical thinking and the ability to acknowledge our conscious and subconscious biases in being well-informed decision-makers. Our society is at a scary time in our society when it’s hard to figure out if this is really us. Who we are really? Are we continually being manipulated?

It is our collective responsibility to protect our rights, work to improve the quality of life, petition for what we believe in, and try to see all sides of a problem or situation. We bring these cautionary tales to the forefront as believers in free will and the ability to make choices that matter. Welcome to 2024; our work is cut out for us.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut