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We Regret to Be Informed by You

Lots of data, little wisdom.

Hi,

Years ago, I did a TV hit with a prominent Democratic comms guy who’d recently gone into the private sector as a “new media” consultant. As we walked out of the studio afterward, he told me a story. His firm had recently met with the CEO and a dozen other top executives of a very large corporation to discuss an internet strategy for his brick and mortar company. The internet, then still powered by a massive network of hamster wheels, was a newish and exciting thing as opposed to what is today: an acceptable answer to the question, “Why is everyone miserable?”

Anyway, at the end of the meeting, during the chit-chat portion, the CEO said something like, “Hey, I have a question for you guys. What’s with all the penis enlargement ads on the internet? I mean, every site I go to seems to be running ads for this stuff. You’d think the Washington Post could get classier advertisers.”

Everyone in the room—or at least everyone in the room who understood how cookies and programmatic advertising work—looked at their feet. No one wanted to explain to him that he was getting ads based on his search activity.

If this were a podcast, I’d now say, “And that’s why you should use Express VPN …”

Speaking of podcasts, let me tell you something else.

Every time you participate in our economy—say, when you’re buying the severed and bronzed toe of an 1890s prospector, a 30-gallon drum of Army surplus post-expiration-date rice pudding, or maybe a papier-mâché recreation of the head of Alfredo Garcia—you might feel a bit guilty about the carbon footprint of your purchases.

Or maybe you wouldn’t. I don’t care. 

I offer this hypothetical because I heard something funny on the “Sunday Read” edition of the New York Times podcast, The Daily. The Sunday Read offers audio versions of long form magazine articles, in this case an investigation into the effort—both real and alleged—to plant 1 trillion trees to fight climate change. The author of the piece begins the narration thus:

“Every time you participate in our economy by, say, ordering some CBD oil, or a yoga mat, or a wood burning pizza oven, you might feel a bit guilty about the carbon footprint of your purchases.”

Now, I may be the only person who thought this was funny or even remotely interesting (“That’s a safe bet”—The Couch). But this just struck me as an interesting selection of purchases to highlight. Traditionally, when we talk about purchases that might—or should—arouse carbon footprint guilt, it’s Hummers or some other thirsty gulper of petrochemical Gaia poison. Not yoga mats, CBD oils, or even wood burning pizza ovens. If climate poohbah John Kerry skipped the private jets and loaded up on yoga mats, I don’t think anyone would be shouting, “Hypocrite!” at him.

But here’s the thing. As a general rule, the people who buy Hummers don’t really care about their carbon footprint. Indeed, for a significant number of buyers, the whole point is to telegraph that you don’t care about your carbon footprint. Just as buying a Tesla for many people is a kind of virtue signaling, buying a Hummer is a kind of vice signaling. Of course, it’s also a form of conspicuous consumption, not just for the price tag, but for the ability to say, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about gas prices” without actually saying it.

In other words, the New York Times knows its audience. The listeners who tend toward climate change guilt (which I’m going to neologize and translate into a German compound word  just to entertain myself), aka Klimawandelschuldgefühl, would take offense at the suggestion that they’d ever buy a (non-electric) Hummer in the first place. But they very well might have felt the sting of carbon dioxide footprint guilt, or kohlendioxidfußabdruckschuldgefühl, over their new yoga mat.

I bring this up because I’ve been reading Chris Stirewalt’s excellent new book Broken News, and he writes a lot about how what some call “narrowcasting” has replaced broadcasting.  “Broadcast” enters the language not as a 1940s Hollywood term for getting some swell dames to try out for a movie, but as an 18th century term for just flinging seed upon the ground, as opposed to more targeted planting. It took on the modern meaning with the invention of radio. Unlike the telephone or the telegraph, radio broadcasts were intended to be heard by strangers—as many of them as possible. Unlike newspapers and magazines, you didn’t have to buy anything to get the content (except the radio itself). But newspapers and TV in the pre-cable era also targeted very large audiences. Even small newspapers and TV stations targeted very large audiences in the sense that they wanted to get everyone in their market to read or subscribe.

One of the advantages of this arrangement was that broadcasters—including the big newspapers—were constrained by the opaqueness of their customer base. They didn’t really know who was listening, watching, or reading, but they had good reason to believe it was Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, poor, middle class, and wealthy. In other words, they couldn’t play favorites too egregiously without losing money. This created both an editorial and business incentive to play things fairly straight for fear of alienating the audience or the advertisers. As Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

I sometimes think of it this way. When I do public speaking, I try to tailor my remarks to the audience. This doesn’t mean saying stuff I don’t believe, it just means respecting the audience.  In the old days, when conservative groups invited me to speak, I’d sometimes offer so much red meat, some folks would need bypass surgery afterward. But if I was talking to a more diverse group, I’d speak in a way that wouldn’t offend people needlessly. This was doubly so if I was debating a left-winger. Part of the point of public speaking is to entertain and inform, but another part is to persuade.

Knowing too much.

I’ve come to believe that one of the problems with modern society—across the media, the market, politics, etc.—is that it has become too democratic. I don’t mean in the sense of voting—I’m in favor of elections and all that. I mean that leaders, in the broadest sense, know too much about their audiences, customers, and voters. They take the temperature of their “bases”—again, in the broadest sense—and tailor their policies and products to them. The story of government for the last 2,000 years has been one of making the population more “legible,” as James C. Scott puts it in his book, Seeing Like a State. With the rise of the internet we’ve gone from analog to digital legibility. We used to have a good sense that 30 percent of the country liked rocky road ice cream. Now we know that John Hornblower of 512 Main Street, Everytown, USA, buys nine pints of rocky road every 30 days. 

Let me try this a different way. You know John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance?” I’ve written about it a bunch. This is the thought experiment that asks people to imagine they live in some sort of limbo as a disembodied soul waiting to be born. You don’t know if you’ll be born rich or poor, white or black, gay or straight, male or female, healthy or sick, smart or dumb. How would you want society to be organized to maximize your chances of a fulfilling life? I have many problems with this thought experiment, but I also think it has its uses. If you knew you’d be born as a genius or a great athlete or a member of a wealthy family—or all of the above—you might want one kind of society. If you knew you’d be born an impoverished klutz with a low IQ, you might want a different set of rules. But not knowing encourages a certain amount of restraint and humility in how you’d set things up. You’d want to hedge your bets on both the risk and reward side.

For a long time, the media—but also our political institutions—resided not behind a complete veil of ignorance about what customers, voters, et al. wanted or expected, but behind an opaque shroud, with maybe a few holes in it, that gave decision-makers a partial view of the other side. Polls, surveys, ratings, focus groups, letters to the editor, profits, and, of course, election results offered snapshots and murky impressions about the public. But there was room to maneuver.

Imagine if polls didn’t exist and focus groups were banned. Indeed, imagine if the American public were entirely invisible to politicians. No purchasing histories, no cookies, no user data of any kind. The only way to test the salience of your positions would be to walk out on the public stage and state them and defend them. Do you think most politicians would still talk the way they do? If you were running for president, would you take a gamble on what your “base” thinks if you could only find that out by talking to a wide cross-section of Americans and taking a tally of who nods and who shakes their head?

The problem with data driven democratization is that it creates an incentive structure for leaders to be led by their followers, to be captured by their markets. We learn what the audience wants to hear and say it to them and then we call that leadership. Worse, like the blind men with the elephant, leaders get feedback from their slice of the public and confuse it for the public itself.

As I write this, Joe Biden is announcing a bunch of student debt forgiveness, an obsession of a Very Online slice of the Democratic coalition. I haven’t looked at the specifics, but in general I think it’s terrible policy and terrible politics from every angle. But it strikes me as a perfect example of audience capture. It’s the equivalent of yoga mat buyers telling him that “everybody” wants a yoga mat subsidy. I have no problem in principle with politicians, businesses, or media outlets catering to segments of the electorate or the market. That’s wholly natural and normal. But it’s a problem when you think that slice of the public is the public and start acting that way. That’s how you get politicians claiming that “the people” or “real Americans” think X when really only one constituency thinks X. And it’s how supposedly mainstream media outlets begin treating fringe ideas and fads as if they’re also mainstream.

The digital revolution has generated massive increases in information, more modest increases in knowledge, and a huge deficit in wisdom.

Jonah Goldberg's Headshot

Jonah Goldberg

Editor in chief & co-founder of The Dispatch and Remnant podcast host. A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an L.A. Times columnist, CNN commentator, and author of three NYT bestsellers. Goldberg worked at National Review for two decades.