People are talking about this Washington Post article, which embeds its reporter in the life of a Trump voter named Melanie Austin from western Pennsylvania.
It’s a fascinating piece, most notably for its unflinching portraiture of somebody who buys in 100% to the Infowars Obama Muslim gay agenda Sandy Hook truther mindset. We mock Alex Jones and his spittle-sprinkler ilk a lot, but there is a dedicated voting bloc that considers him a reliable source of factual information.
There have been a few rebuttals to it (this one is particularly worth reading) dealing with the inherent classism of a reporter coming to an economically ravaged town and profiling a woman with obvious mental problems.
However, I think that many of these responses miss a bigger point, in that Austin’s views and behaviors can’t entirely be credited to her mental illness. I posit that she is simply excessively symptomatic of a larger condition that is affecting the American psyche as a whole.
The concept of “information sickness” was coined by science fiction novelist Ted Mooney in his 1981 Easy Travel To Other Planets. The disease is caused by the massive amounts of content produced by human civilization, with symptoms including the inability to “tell where one thing left off and the next began.” Mooney’s book isn’t necessarily a Criswell prediction (the main plot is about a lady who fucks a dolphin), but there’s something very familiar in his pre-Internet ideas of data being presented in amounts our brains can’t cope with.
Human beings consume more words, more sounds, more pictures, more ideas now than at any time in history. In a given day, you can read the views of hundreds or thousands of individuals across the globe. Our ancestors just a few generations ago were lucky to read a newspaper a day, a novel a month. And the ideas in that media were presented patiently, calmly, by professionals. Now they’re fragmented, repeated, drilled in. Yowled and yawped from computers and cell phones clutched in the hands of geniuses and maniacs alike. Inescapable.
Melanie Austin is 51 years old. Her education certainly didn’t include any discussions of media literacy, of inherent bias, of the Dunning-Kruger effect. While she earnestly decries the one-sidedness of CNN and the New York Times, she’s unable to parse the idea that Infowars and Breitbart are equally skewed, if not more so.
Even if she were trained to consume media critically by the best liberal arts departments in the Ivy League, the question still stands as to how effective it would be. Inherent bias is constantly reinforced by our peers both online and offline. And this isn’t limited to the right — the Left is more than capable of constructing howling echo chambers of its own. Courtesy of the Balkanization of audiences, the data sources you self-select will probably work tirelessly to reinforce your existing beliefs.
Information used to be rigidly hierarchical — or at least we thought it was. But the strongest systems are self-perpetuating, and the media quickly learned that “truth” is a secondary motive to survival. The content game is all about volume now — both auditory and the amount of space it occupies. We have to keep talking or else the audience will stop listening.
Pundits and observers are continually unable to wrap their heads around how Trump voters can so steadfastly ignore the facts about their candidate — his philandering, overt lying and functionally incoherent policy proposals. But lies are just another form of information, and stripped of all context they’re equivalent to truths. And when the scaffolding of belief is pulled away, it’s just words. Why shouldn’t the words yelled by Alex Jones be as believable, as “truthful” as the words painstakingly researched and cross-referenced by a reporter? For Melanie Austin’s life, they have equal impact.
In Easy Travel To Other Planets, one of the symptoms of information sickness is an obsessive desire to “touch everything.” In 2016, we’re touching everything, and it’s killing us.