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Navigating the Information Age
The loss of single sources of truth
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The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
Ordinary people used to wake up, commute to work, come home, have dinner, and then unwind with some television; choosing from the same finite selection of channels as their peers. Before the ability to record shows and long before the advent of streaming, TV schedules were part of a household’s social calendar. Scheduled programming resulted in scheduled behaviours. Conversations at work would be initiated by; “Did you see that thing on the news last night?” or “Did you happen to see the final of Masterchef?”. Because the selection of viewing was limited and the ephemeral nature of TV shows, the nation’s attention could be captured by something aired on TV the night before.
Shows like Squid Games, Wednesday, Stranger Things, Inventing Anna, Game of Thrones, and The Jeffrey Dahmer Story break the mould because they reach such a critical mass of discussion that people feel compelled to watch them shortly after their airing. Elsewhere in the streamingverse, shows and movies linger around waiting for someone to conclude their 30-minute search for what they want to watch that evening.
We are free to choose when and what we watch, so people are relying less on scheduled programming. For instance, the share of people getting their news from TV is dying a slow death. In 2000, Pew Research reported that the number of Americans tuning into the nightly news broadcasts had dipped below 50% for the first time. Just five years earlier, the figure stood at 65%. At the time, Pew concluded that “the rise of the Internet as a news source is only one of several difficult challenges confronting broadcast news organizations”. Fast forward to 2022, and just 33% of Americans claim that TV is their preferred source of news compared to 53% for digital devices, 7% for radio, and 5% for print. Of those who prefer digital devices, the percentage who regularly get their news from social media is now 50%. For Americans aged 18-29, it’s considerably higher at 76%.
No More Single Sources of Truth
Nowadays people’s information diet is spread so widely. We are no longer reading from the same hymn sheet. While news networks are present on social media, people are increasingly getting their news from secondary sources. The age of the celebrity is still here, but they have given up share to ordinary citizens. Regular people, through the power of social media and the internet, can muster up their own followings and become known as an idol on their desired topic. This is great because it opens up the world to more perspectives. But it fractures the infrastructure of our decision pool; what was once a small bucket of choices is now awash with the views of thousands of others. There is no longer a single source of truth.
Because anyone can share online, regular people now have the power to amplify their voice to the same volume as an entire news production team once had. They can become celebrities, come to be known as experts in their field, and create a platform; a power once reserved for a select few. This can be beautiful. There is an abundance of talented, inspiring, and deserving individuals out there. Chris Broad started YouTube in 2012; documenting his life as an English teacher in Japan. A decade later, his accumulated knowledge of cinematography and investments in camera equipment and editing has resulted in documentary-style videos about living and travelling in Japan that are educational, fun, and binge-worthy. He broadcasts regularly to his 2.8 million subscribers in a style that would not look out of place on a TV network or Netflix dashboard. Mr Beast, who began in the same year has amassed an incredible 156 million subscribers and has had videos reach as many as 400 million views. For context, the Last of Us averaged ~30 million views per episode. Joe Wicks, a British Fitness coach, started out recording jovial Instagram videos where he’d create easy “Lean in 15” recipes for his audience. Tens of millions of followers, A Lululemon ambassador deal, and several books later, he has become a voice that people trust on the topic of food and fitness.
These are regular people, who worked tirelessly and captured the attention of millions and are generally net positives to society. The dark side of this phenomenon, however, is that bad actors can also create a platform. I don’t wish to create a list of these actors, garnering them more attention, but you get the idea.
"When everyone thinks alike, no one is thinking very much."
In the past, there was a single source of truth for most information. This was usually a government or a major news organization. However, in the age of the internet, there are now many different sources of information and this can make it difficult to know what to believe. Take macroeconomic data as an example. The central bank will release data, reports, as well as their commentary on the economy’s health. Then the news productions will rehydrate that data on our screens and sprinkle in their own opinions. Following that, a plethora of creators, retail investors, funds, newsletter authors, politicians, and columnists will do the same. A twenty-two-year-old investor with a newsletter or a YouTube channel, having lived through exactly zero market cycles is able to capture the attention of tens of thousands, or millions, of others and influence their perception of the data. In other cases, professionals who know better, but favour impressions over substance will interpret news in a way that maximises engagement from the uninformed and those who are triggered by the alarming lack of context they provide. Chose your information diet wisely.
To make matters worse, social media platforms are designed to show people content that they are likely to agree with. Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders, used to refer to Twitter as the “town square” for the internet. And he’s correct. Twitter is essentially a few hundred million people standing in a circle and yelling their innermost thoughts into the void. Previously you’d only get exposed to this volume of opinion at events or family dinners. Another year rolls around and you get to hear Aunt Agnes’s borderline racist views about immigration, or Uncle Norris’ latest conspiracy about big pharma. On Twitter, you have an extended family of bothersome aunts and uncles.
It’s human nature to want to block out views contrary to our own. If you’re a huge fan of Breaking Bad, Elton John, sparkling water (me), coffee, Apple products, or Android products… then you are more likely to be uninterested in what dissenters have to say. In the extreme, you will begin to resent the vehicle through which those opinions flow from. When you consider this, it’s not hard to understand why politics has become so polarising.
The term ‘reality’ literally refers to the state of things as they actually exist, but what goes unsaid is that we actually perceive reality as our own idealistic or notional interpretation. Most assume that we all live and breathe the same reality, but in essence, each human constructs their own version of it; like a series of unique lenses through which the world is viewed. On the whole, people tend to be oblivious to reality; only seeing what they want to see.
As we are conditioned to bask in the warmth of confirmation bias, it results in echo chamber dwellers; those who are only exposed to information that confirms their existing beliefs. The lack of a single source of truth can make it difficult to make informed decisions. I assume everyone has suffered from decision fatigue when it comes to scrolling through Netflix. There are so many choices and what often happens is you find a promising film, but because there are so many other potential choices you set aside this promising film in an intangible ‘maybe pile’ while you look for others. Parallels can be made in the dating market. Previously we would be limited to either the workplace, recreational leisure, or through friends. But the places we meet potential mates have changed. Online dating is great, but we are mired by the same forces that muddy our film selection abilities. We like keeping our options open because there is so much choice. So much perceived freedom; when in reality decision fatigue can sometimes imprison us.
"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
There is an abundance of positives from not relying on a single source of truth, however. It can force people to think critically about the information they consume and lead to more diversity of thought. The crux of the scientific method is to be curious. Observe, research, hypothesise, experiment, analyse, conclude, and question. This sequence of events is cyclical. Perhaps more individuals would benefit if they adopted this practice. Taking time to reflect on why they hold the opinions they do. Most often, you will find that the opinions you hold are borrowed from your mediators of desire; the people who we respect or want to emulate in our deepest subconscious. For instance, there are masses of individuals who worship at the altar of Berkshire every day and construct their investing style from its preachers; Warren and Charlie.
We already call people who mediate desire for certain clothes or styles by their true name: “models.”
Their purpose is not to model the physical articles of clothing but the desire to wear the clothes. Their purpose is to make us want what they have. What you actually want is their face, their body, their withering stare - which don’t come with the clothes.
There will be investors who tell you diversification is for the ignorant. There will be others who say concentration is the best way to blow up a portfolio. Most investors occupy themselves discerning which ideology is correct; which is hard because both can provide a compelling case for themself. The real importance is figuring out which strategy sits well with you; your goals, your bandwidth, your ability to sleep well, and your risk tolerance. In the end, it is up to each individual to decide how to deal with the lack of a single source of truth. There is no easy answer. However, it is important to be aware of the problem and to be critical of the information you consume. Today, people are so reliant on the opinions of others; stock tips, movie reviews, and even the opinions of the everyday citizens-turned-celebrities I referred to earlier.
It doesn’t hurt to take the plunge and attempt to experience something for yourself first; an act which is considered bold in today’s society. Charlie Munger used to say “Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome”. There is a phrase in the investing world, “talking your book”, which indicates they share superficial perspectives based on the assets they own. This phrase can be translated into other walks of life. If you scratch just a little beneath the surface, you’ll understand there is always a reason why someone illustrates or interprets data the way they do. Whether its a monetary incentive or an infliction of unrecognised bias, it helps to understand the catalyst so that you can make more informed decisions.
Thanks for reading,
It’s hard to imagine now, but if you missed a show back then you would have to hope for a rerun. You might even purchase a DVD box set to catch up on old shows.
There are times when this is done thoughtfully, and I think Joseph Politano and Kyla Scanlon do a great job. Further, I don’t necessarily think it matters what age someone is, so long as they are thorough and competent.