The shortcut to the bottom of the barrel

Let me ask you a quick question: “Someone offers to sell you a bat and ball for $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Most people will quickly answer that the ball costs ten cents (hint: it doesn’t), revealing an interesting phenomenon that shapes the decision making process defining the public sphere. When answering the question, most people will avoid the mental arithmetic, and simply resort to a mental shortcut, by using what they know near instinctively (that $1.10 minus $1 is ten cents). People apply this mental shortcutting process to most of their decisions, thereby making assumptions and defaulting “to the answer that requires the least mental effort.” (Lehrer, 2012) The public sphere is no more immune to this than any other facet of our lives. McGuigan (2005) describes the concept of uncritical populism, which states that consumers aren’t just “passively manipulated recipients of commodity culture”. Rather, the content that we consume is a reflection of what we want. And as the mental shortcutting principle shows, what we want (for the most part) is a public sphere that grants us improved knowledge and understanding of the world with minimal mental effort. Given the choice of a public sphere dominated by mentally and ethically challenging discussions, versus a public sphere dominated by easily-digestible sound bites and celebrity stories, its little surprise that the general public chooses to engage with the latter. When a consumer limits their ‘world’ to celebrity gossip, breaking news and sports successes, they are simply using a mental shortcut to satisfy their desire for understanding. The mainstream media, recognising the consumers’ desire for an easy-to-understand worldview, has adapted – simplifying complex issues, sensationalising popular issues and ignoring the issues that may lead to unwanted mental effort by the consumer. Combined with undue influences by those in power (i.e. the media owners), this propensity for shortcuts is taking us further and further down the road to a trivialised culture, as portrayed in Stuart McMillen’s comic “Huxley vs Orwell”. huxley-orwell-amusing-ourselves-to-death Are we shortcutting ourselves to the bottom of the barrel; to a world in which true public discourse is drowned in a sea of irrelevance?


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