Our persistent cultural tic

The more we know, the less we know. And, as Frank Rich suggests, the real question is whether "we really want to know." The knowledge in question is, of course, what Rich calls "the bad news" of the economic collapse. And, as he says, Americans excel, are true world-beaters, in their inability to absorb reality:

One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century isAmericans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly “changed everything,” slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable.

Shocked by the foreseeable. Exactly. So what accounts for our "persistent cultural tic"? And why, I wonder, is this condition so much more salient now, in the early 21st century, than it was during the Great Depression, when Americans were much more able to both absorb and prepare for bad news? The answer, I suspect, can be found in "Beyond Wisteria Lane", an excellent piece in this week's Economist which, borrowing from Herbert Gans' classic The Levittowners, compares the "changing mindset" of America's "new middle classes" with the working-class culture of the early 20th century.

In “The Levittowners”, Gans claimed that America’s new middle classes were thinking and acting very differently from the working-class communities in which most of them had grown up. Those traditional communities had been (to use terms popular at the time) “peer-group-directed”, taking their values and their outlook from people in their immediate circle, such as family and co-workers. By contrast, Gans argued, the middle classes were “other-directed”, taking their cues not only from family and friends but from managers in distant offices or from contemporaries they had heard about through other means, such as the mass media.

I also suspect that one reason Americans have become so bad at absorbing reality is that they are deriving "values" and "outlook" from people outside their immediate community, particularly from those in the mass media of television and the Internet. Bad news articulated through the mass is distant and malleable; the fragmentation of peer-group-directed communities, therefore, has undermined our ability to grasp reality. So is the peer-group revolution of social media a cure to our inability to digest bad news? Not according to leading British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield who, in a speech to the House of Lords, yesterday, argued that social media is actually compounding what Gans called "the other-directed" way in which we consume knowledge. As the Guardian reported Greenfield's speech:

She told the House of Lords that children's experiences on social networking sites "are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity".

Greenfield, therefore, unravels the Frank Rich paradox (if paradoxes can indeed be unraveled) that the more plugged in we are, the less we are able to grasp reality. For Baroness Greenfield, social media is turning us all into  identity-lite unsympathetic infants with short attention spans and a predilection for sensationalism. Shocking, eh? And, I'm afraid, entirely foreseeable.