For most of human history, life was painful, violent, and short. The goal was survival. Food and fire were luxuries, and the small number of stable societies that did exist were filled with brutality. This was the norm for around 200,000 years.
Now, in 2023, the US has so much food we end up throwing it away. Clean water, effective medicine, accessible information, safe transportation, and powerful technologies are part of daily reality for most of us. We can harness the power of the sun to generate clean, low-cost electricity that powers our cars. We collected all of humanity’s knowledge in a single place, created 2 billion devices capable of accessing it, and recently released not one but two silicon super-intelligences capable of curating that information in real time.
All of this would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. Some of it was even unthinkable a decade ago. Yet, we sit on a plane, 40,000 feet above ground, and complain when the wifi won’t work.
Perhaps this is because we don’t hear much of a positive spin on anything because the media is biased toward cynicism. As the old journalism adage goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Today this is made worse by algorithms that are biased toward cynicism, negativity, and conflict.
There are 2.5 million electric cars on American roads, each an incredible achievement, but the media draws attention to this one. There have probably been tens of millions of Bing AI searches, but the media tells us about the rare instances of its odd behavior.
We’re not just hating on the media. As Swedish-American physicist, Max Tegmark said this is really a problem about what drives us as humans. “Bad news sells because it is a reliable indicator of danger, which has been key to our survival as a species. Good news is nice to hear but doesn’t spark the same urgency.”
It’s also part of the media’s job to draw attention to problems and hold people accountable. The free press has been called the fourth branch of government because of its ability to speak truth to power. But an equally important part of its duty is to put those problems into proper context. When media outlets poke holes in a canvas without telling us what the entire painting looks like, it runs the risk of distorting people’s worldviews.
As we’ve written, our cognitive machinery is innately ill-equipped to put anecdotal facts in their proper contest. Stories carry persuasive impact but less information, while statistics carry more information but less persuasive impact.
If all we hear about are the mishaps and the misfires, we might end up thinking that’s all there is, and we might miss the miraculous achievements all around us.
Frances Perkins (1880-1965) served as the 4th Secretary of Labor, chair of the President’s Committee on Economic Security, and was the first female cabinet member in US history. During her 12-year tenure overseeing the Department of Labor (longer than any other), Perkins was instrumental in crafting several important pieces of legislation including the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Civilian Conservation Corps Act. Even though her ideas were sometimes met with opposition and disapproval, many of the social programs and policies she helped shape continue to benefit Americans today.