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Transcript for Meta Politics 019 - Gen-Z's Alternate Reality
The digital age is not just about a change in behaviour. It marks the divergence of rhetoric from solutions and one generation's analogy set from reality.
In any given political argument, it's becoming increasingly likely that the two people involved are in completely different realities. They hold completely separate core morals. What is a definite good for one is a definite evil for the other? Not only that, but the core analogies experiences and parallels that one or the other might draw are completely foreign to the other. And they live in the very same country, but is there a generation that has truly grown up, not delusional, but really in a different reality.
Hi, Hi, welcome, welcome. This is Metapol with me, Cactus, demystifying, politics, media, and culture for all who seek a rational way out.
Let's do a quick recap on what we mean by a generational divide. Of course, we've talked about many of the aspects of a defining worldview of the analogy sets, core experiences that individuals draw parallels to in trying to make sense of the world. We've talked about the influence of pivotal events. Of historical narratives in defining where someone feels a country or a political system is going. And all of these fundamental defining features are different from generation to generation. Of course, any 20 or 25 year cohort is going to vary, particularly among people born near the beginning of that age range and near the end. But the point of the separation is to show a distinct difference as time passes.
And I think that difference has never been more stark than now. It's also important not to underestimate the value of a developmental period of the growth that occurs when one is first learning about the world, when the brain is most flexible, when young adults don't necessarily have a default political setting. And so, looking at this period can unravel well, many of the mysteries that we're increasingly seeing in our world and understand why this generational divide is so damaging. A core phrase that was mentioned to me, along with others by Chris Lochhead is “digital natives”. The idea that generation Z is not only attached to the internet, but see it as their core home.
This means that instead of seeing Facebook or Instagram as a vacation from everyday life as something side that you build on top of your ordinary experiences, those social media networks are the default means of communication and of seeking social joy for a majority of gen Z. Their default is not to go out to the world and experience something, nor is it to seek something tangible in order to mark their progress.
Instead, that is considered the auxiliary branch of life. The branch of life that is built on top of their digital existence. This means that their default means of communication are going to be different. Are going to be based off of that online world, whether it be saying phrases such as LOL in real life, or whether it be using an assumption mechanism in politics, where they assume basic things based on specific traits, based on certain extreme opinions that may be more popular online.
In fact, the phrase, “Twitter is not real life” is becoming increasingly false, as the influence of Twitter opinions are becoming more and more well perceived by elected representatives at every level. And can often result in direct policy changes such as numerous changes to the Biden and Trump COVID recovery plans.
What this means is that they're not completely wrong in assigning primary importance to the internet world, many members of gen Z has significantly more influence in that realm while they may not have a lot of money or status or materials in the real world, they can nonetheless have a powerful social media influence that converts to tangible changes. That is why one should not be dismissive of the digital native strategy. This has underlying effects on the methods in which generation Z, and to a large degree, much of the millennials engage in politics and how their worldviews are formed. Take the previous example of an analogy set two episodes ago, we talked about this phenomenon in depth, but for a brief explanation and analogy set is essentially a set of core experiences that individuals try to draw parallels to in order to understand what is happening. For example, someone who has had a significant experience of grief in their childhood, the loss of a friend or a loved one will often use that in order to help themselves understand what is going on when they see someone on the news who has died, or has it been killed.
Historically, almost all of these experiences have occurred in real life. The most touching, the most emotionally impactful are typically experiences that are very visceral, are tied to people who you've had lifelong experiences with. And historically, this has meant someone who you knew in person. While there are many criticisms to be made about analogy sets, one strong benefit of this at the very least historically, is that when people are defining themselves based on these experiences, then exactly X percent of people are affected by something that has X percent impact.
For example, car crashes kill much more of the population than serial killers. This means that many more people will be impacted by car crashes. And therefore more people will have those experiences as part of their analogy set. Whereas with serial killers, very few people will feel a defining emotional connection to those experiences, simply because most people don't know anyone who's been killed by a serial killer. However, there are exemptions and these are incredibly damaging. One example is 9/11 - something that occurred near the beginning of the internet age, but was still a phenomenon largely of cable television and of other forms of communication. This tragedy punched well above its weight in terms of influencing the decisions of an entire generation. Because of the media around it, this became a pivotal turning point in the development of many people who are touched by it from this media communication, because of that things like the war on terror, soft authoritarianism, and the security state were developed and were actually approved and justified by a majority of the population, despite us now, knowing in hindsight that those programs were largely failures.
To understand the true perniciousness of the situation that generation Z has found itself in, there are two pieces of the puzzle we have to put together. The first is the “Coddling of the American Mind”, a phenomenon and title of a book by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. It describes a situation in which parents are incentivized to keep their children away from any type of harm or risk leading to extreme sensitivities and inabilities to process various differential outcomes. In short generation, Z is more likely to be sensitive to new information, less likely to be open to new ideas and more likely to seek someone else to solve their own problems. Not only that, but this has a significant impact in the ability to develop an analogy set. Data is shown by Jean Twenge in her book IGen shows that generation Z develops core experiences around three or four years later in life - things like getting a first job, becoming involved in a romantic relationship for the first time, getting their driver's license, et cetera. So many of the risks that would be fundamental in building such analogy set either occur much later or do not occur at all. However, there is something to fill that gap.
And that is the second piece of the puzzle. That is, that social media is essentially an arms race to be more addictive, to be a better and better emulation for life. There are solid statistics on this from the center for humane technology. You can read that on your own time, but to sum it up there is essentially a competing market pressure. In order to create things that simulate those base impulses that essentially grabbed your attention right away and create a realistic emotionally driving experience. And what that means is that while it takes a significant outlier, like 9/11 to become something that is compelling and emotionally affecting, while watching it through a TV screen, something 10 or a hundred times smaller in impact can still serve that same role from social media. Not only that, but a greater variety and volume of data is available. Things like video all up here, orders of magnitude more frequently, gen Z is consuming more media than any generation before it. And because of that, they're exposed to more and more of these emulations.
The outcome now should be straightforward. The analogy set becomes increasingly based on these alternate realities on these images that they're seeing online and instead of real life experiences, but why is that so bad? After all things that happen online have to happen to someone right? However, this violates the core property that we described earlier, where the number of people that are affected by an event are the ones who use that event as their core analogy with more online and more emotionally manipulative media.
That rule no longer applies more and more people are going to develop an analogy set based on events that are not actually representative of the larger population. There are several horribly damaging incentives. One is the “neurotocracy”, where those posts that get the most response are often by those who are most sensitive, who are most damaged by relatively mundane things and thus leads to an overreaction in various institutions. Coddling of the American mind describes this effect on university campuses. While you can see similar analogies in everywhere from business to government policy. One example is the horrifying response to COVID-19 in the United States, both under Trump and under Biden.
The unifying property of both of these responses is that it's not based around solving the problem itself. Instead, the policy response and the narrative around it has been centered around avoiding thinking about the problem. This is why on the Biden side, you can see simplistic one-liners like always wear a mask or keep everything shut down without actually considering differential outcomes and differential costs. In terms of things like school reopening in terms of things like mental health, the majority of the things to be considered are thrown away and the rest is summarized using a shoddy one-liner that does not even encapsulate half of the problem. Trump's response was not much better. The “herd immunity” response, trying to keep everything open once again, avoiding thinking about the problems and thinking about the individual decisions that have to be made in order to balance various benefits and costs.
Many of the Asian democracies that were more effective in dealing with this problem, as well as New Zealand used much more nuanced approaches that considered various factors, considered the economic levers, as well as the public health measures and developed a response that encouraged more thinking in complexities, encourage more processing of different situations in a way that was flexible and reacted to the situation on the ground. Instead American policy tried to over simplify on both sides of the aisle and led to catastrophic outcomes. This means of governing is not the exception any longer. It's not an outlier and is instead the default, the default is symbolism. Because of the high degree of media control by the two parties through corruption, through the revolving door and through financial incentives, and also due to this arms, race of media becoming more emotionally manipulative and attention attracting the default means of communication itself has become these types of “virtue signalings”. These symbolic decisions that do not actually solve the underlying problem. And what does this have to do with gen Z? Well, gen Z is undergoing development in a world where this is the default.
In other words, their analogy set will not be pointing back to something that affects them personally will not be pointing back to a real action and a real resolution. Instead, this worldview will seek to understand things by comparing them to internet phenomena, by comparing them to things that don't necessarily happen in real life and that are horribly unrepresentative of any type of real problem in the country. With what we know from John Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book, as well as several studies in developmental science, this can create ongoing consequences throughout the lives of each and every person in this generation, creating a politics where even those trying to present accurate solutions, statistically backed solutions. We'll then have those things analogized and compared to events that were simply misreportings that were simply viral moments, that don't actually mean a thing.
So how do we get out of this mess? One insistence that I've had is that fundamentally problem solving needs to move away from storytelling. It needs to move away from the means of communication being a narrative, which we've grown to manipulate, which we've gotten increasingly better at distorting and destroying. However, that won't fix the damage that's already occurred to the current generation. And it certainly won't be fast enough to fix the problems that we're dealing with right here.
Right now, of course, looking to the future one trivial suggestion can be to raise the next generation better, to use the quote unquote free range kids approach to allow them to take risks. To allow them to go in natural situations, such as playing with friends or exploring a natural environment without necessarily interfering with them and stopping them from getting hurt.
Other types of “common sense policies” include restrictions on social media until a certain developmental age. Of course, with this approach, there's always the problem of their peers. If your child is the only one who's going to be raised without access to social media until a certain age, then they might be missing out on some forms of communication with their other classmates or friends and that those classmates will already be adjusted to that digital environment. And that may create problems when interacting socially in real life as well. One strategy to avoid this might be forming a bubble or pod as many have done in the COVID-19 environment. In order to collect a group of kids together who are all going to follow the same protocols who are all going to follow the same restrictions and then can interact with each other without the fear of this mounting influence.
With regards to broader solutions about the internet in general, and about media accuracy, one thing to do is to create a shortening of the network. When you have a story that gets passed from person to person due to virality, that isn't necessarily representative of the entire country as a whole. That is some sort of freak one in 100 million accident. Then you can be increasingly skeptical. The more links it has been reshared it is ignoring the principle of effecting the same number of people emotionally that it actually affects in real life. One method of restricting this in the digital world is just to say, if this is something that happened to someone directly who, you know, Someone who is posting this of their own volition, then yes, you can use it as a fundamental experience because that's something that is happening to someone, you know, someone you've cared about and formed a relationship with. But if they're resharing something that they saw and was also reshared and this was repeated several times on a way from the original person, then you probably barely know the person that this is actually happening to. Of course, this isn't necessarily a trivial calculation to make in your head if you're scrolling through social media, since the media is intentionally presented in a way that is emotionally manipulative.
However, if there's more control granted over your own social media, then creating a filter to sort out a lot of these emotionally manipulative media if it's not from someone who you know directly can be one other solution.
Finally, a solution that I've tried to engage in with this podcast and I've tried to encourage all of you to engage in and that you can actively contribute to is what I call representative storytelling: accepting the state of emotionally manipulative media, and instead trying to use those tools to actively tie it back to what is statistically representative. Taking many of those stories that get undercovered things like heart disease, things like car crashes, et cetera, that are much more damaging to the population at large, but are not frequently covered and increasing the salience of those topics and re-balancing the scales by being the ones to intentionally put media out that is going to be more effective in convincing people that it's going to be more effective in gaining virality and are actually accurate predictions of the world.
This is also the purpose of understanding pathologens, of understanding the means of spread, the means of communication that actually drives these stories and putting them to a good use. In fact, you can contribute to this right now in the easiest way possible just by hitting reshare on the podcast, by linking it to a friend by talking about it just in casual conversation, because I'm sure many of these ideas are not just interesting for you. That's why you're listening, but also probably very interesting to those around you. And so even just mentioning the ideas in the podcast, not necessarily mentioning it by name, although you can do that too, can be something that helps these principles get further, that can help more people become aware of this problem and leverages the exponential growth of these network effects in a way that is beneficial to actually being accurate in the real world. You can also subscribe to the podcast. You can give us a review. All of those things help us reach more people and help leverage those network effects. Once again, if you want more, and if you want brief summaries of many of these topics, you can subscribe to cactus.substack.com.
You can also ask a question by giving a five star review on Apple podcasts or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you do any of these things, they can easily grow and become amplified through the very same properties that we were talking about earlier. You yourself can have an incredibly strong impact, not only on those around you, but on these outcomes as a whole.
And if you do that, thank you.