TMI, America

Every week or so brings another well thought out, evidence-based article somewhere about how Trump’s base is reacting to his latest stunt. This is immediately followed on social media by someone’s comment to the effect, “I know these guys; they’re not like that at all.” These observations come from the right or the left, makes no difference. My reaction is, “Really?”

Let’s see, most polls give Trump’s approval rating consistently around 35%, give or take a point or two (of which much is made, but that’s another story.) The adult population of the country is about 246 million, and this is presumably the target group of the polls. So the articles in question are making statements concerning the beliefs of approximately 86 million people, based on scientific polling. Now, you can have legitimate concerns about the validity of these polls, either on scientific grounds or past performance.

But the person who writes in a FB comment or a tweet that he or she “knows these people” is talking about an infinitessimal sample. A human being can have direct, personal knowledge of maybe 100 people, max. This has been demonstrated by several studies, but even if it’s off by an order of magnitude, it’s no serious competition for professional polling, especially since “all the people I know” is hardly a random sample.

This is just a symptom of a larger issue: we are giving each other far more information about our personal lives, our beliefs (and ipso facto our prejudices) than we can possibly process in a useful way. Add to that the fact that we have access, updated hourly, to information about hundreds or thousands of instances of tragedy and injustice anywhere in the world, and that makes it — I’ll say it — impossible to evaluate most of what gets fed into our heads each day.

I am interested in significant events in my friends’ lives, I really am, but do I need to know about every hangnail, every maddening computer glitch? As far as the news of the world is concerned, am I really ready to vet every allegation of misconduct? More than likely, the former will generate a snicker, and the latter will be incorporated into my world view to the extent it confirms what I already think. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it? If the piece doesn’t fit, out it goes. Except we can subtlely change the pieces of reality we don’t like to make them fit.

The virtue of physical newspapers was that they were limited to roughly the amount of information we could deal with. Biased? Of course, but I’ll bet we’re more neurotic now, torn by the possibility of mistaken outrage, or an injustice we can’t possibly set right.

Our knowledge of our friends’ foibles was limited by however much time we could allot to hanging out in cafes and bars, which usually entailed fewer than 5 or 6 people at a time. There were no headlines about minor domestic glitches published for all the world to see and comment upon.

Technology is racing ahead of cultural adaptation. We still give up our secrets as if we were just talking over the fence with a neighbor. And then we express outrage at our lack of privacy.

A little private note

Here we are on the internet, where we have freely given up almost any semblance of privacy, and not for some grand principle, but mere convenience. We chat blithely away on Facebook, buy whatever catches our fancy, and generally carry on without a care in the world. Our entire lives down to the length of our toenails can easily be stitched together, and private corporations own all this data, and freely pass it around to each other. We know this because when we spend 10 minutes looking at, say, nose warmers on Amazon, we’re inundated with advertising for them everywhere else we look online. We even start getting catalogs in the snail mail specializing in nose warmers. But, hey, it helps us get the best possible nose warmer, in a color we’re sure to like, so it’s worth it. Don’t protest, you know it’s true.

Of course, it makes us feel like idiots, so we complain bitterly on, you guessed it, the same forums that collect all this information and sell it in the first place. Just one more little useful piece of data to round out your online portrait. Why did you think it was free?

In a nutshell, there is enough of your data floating around in the ether to completely reconstruct another you, should the occasion arise. Oh, well, we’ve always pined for immortality.

Understandably, the government would like to have access to this information, too; who could resist? But that’s where we draw the line, by God! Let every entity on Earth have access to the minutest, most intimate detail of our blessed existence, but not the government, no sir.

Of course, we’re also outraged when they fail to detect a terrorist plot in time to do something about it.

Or when we eat our cake, and discover there’s none left.

Government loyalty

We live in fascinating times.  We are outraged by government incursions into our corner of the Grand Database, while at the same time we cheerfully surrender any and all information about ourselves for a 10% discount at Best Buy.  In fact, we seem to be outraged by almost anything the government does these days, up to and including holding public trials to determine someone’s guilt or innocence, which we now seem to be convinced are contrived and predetermined whenever they fail to conform to our own conclusions.  These conclusions, of course, are based on what information we could glean from the news media, which we firmly believe are utterly untrustworthy, with notable exceptions, which I’ll discuss momentarily..

How has it come about that we offer up the most bizarrely intimate details of our lives daily on Facebook, yet man the barricades when it transpires that some government agency might have been reading them?  Or cough up our phone numbers and email addresses on demand when checking out at Home Depot for no apparent reason?

Well of course, you say, no point in getting a loyalty card, and then clamming up about it, is there?  There’s a sacred bond involved, similar to the bond that ties us to certain news outlets, those we are sworn to believe regardless of the absurdity of their dispatches.  Therein lies a glimmer of hope for resolving this crisis of confidence.

Government loyalty cards.  Get a loyalty card, and get a discount when you present it at tax time.  Pay more taxes, get a bigger discount.  We’d even get special offers in the mail, both snail and e, for holiday sales tax rebates, or jury duty aboard a luxury cruise ship, half price if you volunteer immediately.  All of this can be easily paid for by adjusting the “normal” tax rates for those who don’t have loyalty cards.

We might believe everything the government tells us, as we do with Fox News or The Guardian, if we thought of them as our tribe.  We might even believe government policies are based on the moral code of humanitarianism.