Michael KreponHunting, Muting, and Filtering

Why do television ads use males acting stupidly to sell products? Why do so many people drink Bud Lite? Or worse yet, lite beers with lime flavoring? Is advertising making us dumber, not to mention unhealthy, obese, attention deficit disordered, and prone to recreational shopping? And how can I possibly connect these stray thoughts to arms control?

My favorite invention of the modern age, besides the computer and the internet, is the television mute button. Twenty years ago, Bruce Springsteen wrote the lyric “57 Channels (and Nothing On)”. My satellite TV now provides 570 channels, almost all of which clarify my divorce from popular culture. Thankfully, there are still a few channels and programs that spark my imagination and interest, make me happier, and maybe even wiser.

Selectivity is a natural consequence of sensory overload: when there is more to take in, there is necessarily more to tune out. We naturally develop filtering habits and skills. The two aren’t exactly the same, since habits can make us more narrow and tribal, while skills can help us to become more open to growth and adaptation.

Jeffrey reminded me of a meeting, years ago in Geneva, when I asked him why he was diverting his considerable talent with blog posts. I was a dinosaur at the time. Now I have tip-toed into the modern era, having adapted to blogging weekly for my mental health and hopefully to spark synapses out there in the ether. The thought occurred to me much later than it did to Jeffrey that his creation would become a far more important vehicle for learning and adaptation than the books, journals and newspapers I grew up with.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the most influential writing on the Bomb originated in academia. Lately, academic treatises on nuclear issues tilt toward theory and have far less influence on public policy. Op-eds, journal articles, and newspaper editorials mattered greatly in public debates on arms control in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Now, most op-eds, web-based musings and “should-based” articles also seem to have less influence. Maybe the profusion of opinion has something to do with growing public disinterest. Then again, meaningful op-eds are extremely rare because familiar names rarely take unfamiliar positions.

Most opinion pieces serve the essential functions of mobilizing supporters and countering opponents. They provide talking points to the committed. (I presume that social networks are also tribal, but I wouldn’t have a clue.) Op-eds are measurable inputs with immeasurable effects. They affirm why we care and what we believe. We can’t do without them, even though we seem to be addressing a shrinking audience.

Are we wiser as a result of this inundation of opinion and tribal behavior? I have my doubts. This doesn’t stop me from writing opinion pieces – including this one. But my sense is that sensory overload, the abundance of shoulds and numbingly repetitive arguments, pro and con, has diminishing returns. The impact of opinion-laden sites like ForeignPolicy.com is already fading, along with the editorials and op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The proliferation of opinion pieces, like the consumption of lite beer, tends to be less filling. We mostly advertise to our market share.

If the “op-ed agenda” (to borrow a phrase from a funder) matters less and less, but can’t be abandoned, where else can we find value? As in television viewing and web surfing, adaptation and learning require improved hunting, muting and filtering skills. Who is worth reading or hearing? Who is stating the obvious or repeating the familiar? Inquiring minds who dislike advertising and canned products will figure this out, while using the mute button and the delete key to filter out noise.

It helps to have places to visit on growth journeys. In our business, depth matters more than breadth or repetition. Jeffrey’s posts offer ACW readers a keen eye for the crucial detail. With so much topsoil depletion and overgrazing by so many media outlets, he had the foresight to create fertile ground where hunters and filterers can gather.

Comments

  1. SplashGordo (History)

    What a thoughtful and eloquent reflection. I especially appreciated the family of agricultural ecosystem metaphors that bring to life dilemmas facing today’s citizens attempting to drink from the increasingly pressurized hose of Internet and cable flotsam.

    The narrative arc of the post got me wondering about the early trajectory of Jeffrey’s intellectual development. As an intercollegiate debater, he pounded the pro/con pavement for several years as a competitor in switch-side contest rounds, then later honed his craft as a judge, asked to render lucid and even-handed reasons for decision. What’s so refreshing about his prose here is the way he is able to blend both voices, taking pointed positions, but leavening them with perspective, nuance, and respect for other viewpoints. There is perhaps no better testament to the catalytic power of this skill set than to see how ACW has bloomed, with contributors and commenters evincing the same communicative qualities.

  2. Alan (History)

    I couldn’t agree more Michael. Quality is all about primary sources these days I think. Too often op-eds refer to other op-eds that refer to other op-eds, or reported or paraphrased quotations, or “informed” assumptions or kite flying. It’s bad enough trying to interpret potential football transfers, let alone anything important.

    John Schilling’s comments on Mark Hibbs’ last thread vividly explain the dangers of some of those routes, notwithstanding the other entirely valid point he made about how to glean indicators of true policy.

    I recall enquiring here a year or two ago about the validity or otherwise of a certain dramatic piece in the Prospect from a while ago, referenced from time to time, pertaining to JFK and a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Your man quickly emerged and nailed it.

    A job well done by all.

    PS: Andre Villas-Boas has just been officially confirmed as the new manager of Chelsea, so I can take a break on that as well.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Alan, I was curious as to which thread you were referring to about John Schilling’s comments. I checked all of the Mark Hibbs blog posts here and didn’t see John posting. Can you clarify which blog / thread it was on?

  3. yousaf (History)

    As a keen reader of this blog as well as Foreign Policy, NYT, WaPo, WSJ opinion pages, I did not sense the trend that “The impact of opinion-laden sites like ForeignPolicy.com is already fading, along with the editorials and op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.”

    Alexa.com tracks the popularity of various sites (in various dimensions) — e.g. for FP:

    http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/foreignpolicy.com

    The data (apparently) indicate that such relatively intelligent opinion-laden sites are getting more and more popular.

    If anyone is aware of better web-tracking data it would be good to hear about it.

    • krepon (History)

      Yousaf:
      Popularity and impact are not one and the same.
      MK

    • yousaf (History)

      Sure, but I am wondering if your observation is anecdotal/personal or evidence based?

      Not that anything is wrong with the former but my (anecdotal and data-based — see above) sense is quite the opposite: outlets like FP, which tend to carry both sides of most debates and attract relatively intelligent commentators are getting more and more web traffic and — possibly — having a greater and greater impact.

      NYtimes.com is, indeed, probably suffering due to its new pay-site.

      In the final measure, it is not a zero-sum game between such sites and the various blogs: the information pie itself is getting larger due the web.

      That is my anecdotal sense.

  4. krepon (History)

    Yousaf:
    There’s anecdotal, evidentiary, and experiential.
    Can you name an op-ed by someone other than the Gang of Four that changed the terms of debate or impacted the outcome of New-START, the NPT Review Conference, the NPR, or your missile defense issue.
    MK

    • yousaf (History)

      Michael,
      the issues addressed by FP, NYT, WaPo, FT etc. are often more encompassing than the narrower — though more substantive — issues addressed on ACW and other blogs.

      The bigger news outlets do tend to over-simplify and lose important details.

      I am unsure how to measure impact, although academic journals do use “impact factors”. I tend to think that as NYT, WaPo etc. reach a much bigger audience than ACW that those outlets also have substantial “impact”.

      I don’t think impact can be measured solely in how many minds or policies are changed, since as we are all well-aware DC is more and more ideologically driven — regardless of sensible arguments one way or the other. Whether or not your outlet has “impact”, the policies are likely to remain the same.

      I think what is very useful about ACW is that it carves out a relatively quiet space for deep-diving into substantial issues re. arms control. Whether others in the larger world feel the impact of these important debates depends, in part, on whether more major outlets then pick up the story.

      e.g. I am still waiting for one of our more major news outlets to pick up on Jeffrey’s story from March about the DNI’s statements on the 2011 N.I.E. on Iran.

      What is very interesting to me is the interplay between the commentators and the blog posters: as these are mutually calibrated, the “quality” of the discourse can (and does) skyrocket as compared to the regular news outlets.

  5. krepon (History)

    This from Josh Pollack:

    “because familiar names rarely take unfamiliar positions”

    It turns out there’s a whole line of psychological research that backs up this observation!

    For example:
    https://msbfile03.usc.edu/digitalmeasures/priester/intellcont/2002-SOCOG
    -PettyFlemingPriesterFeinstein-1.pdf

    There’s nothing harder than influencing beliefs when battle lines are already drawn. In that context, there’s nothing quite like a major defection. I’m sure you were thinking of SPKN. That’s the canonical example of our times.

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