When I was younger, I distinctly remember being amazed by feats of mathemagic. I would sit for hours and watch individuals (mostly men) perform incredible feats of mental gymnastics as they manipulated numbers in a whole host of ways. It was only later that I would come to see that what these individuals were doing was not “magic” (at least not in the traditional sense of the term, although the feats were no less amazing because of this) but instead employing a heretofore invisible set of rules that instructed them on how to proceed.
Interest in heuristics, then, was a natural progression for as I came to study Social Psychology. Here, in front of me was an entire set of rules—mental shortcuts to be specific—that governed behavior. Not just content to understand how we interacted with our world, I was driven to understand why. Why did we make mental leaps that sometimes led to errors in judgment? Why did we draw the correlations that we did? Why was some information thought of as more pertinent in certain situations than others? Sure, Evolutionary Psychology provided some answers but I had been schooled in a diathesis-stress model and was never satisfied to attribute the phenomena that I observed to biology (although I certainly did not discount it as a factor, either).
Popularized in books like Blink, heuristics have again entered into our consciousness as we have increasingly come to examine rapid decision-making processes and judgment under pressure (or lack of it). The answer to “What were they thinking?!” might very well be that “they” might not have been thinking anything—well, at least not consciously. More accurately, subjects were engaged in cognitive processes but simply not aware of it.
And we are seeing a close cousin of this thought process play out in the world of technology, computing, and algorithms. Although the execution is not entirely the same, we witness a scenario in which machines follow a set of rules (as they are wont to do) without regard for the implications of their actions as they realize a more sophisticated form of Turing machine, for code is law. Ultimately, as Science Fiction occasionally comments, our creations outlast us, running amok as they continue to abide by instructions intended for a world that has long since passed. In these worst-case scenarios, action has become divorced from meaning.
But it is not only machines that are subject to this fallacy, for humans are equally susceptible to over-reliance on stable structures like laws. Although usually pro-social, we tend to encounter problems when we fail to continually evaluate ordinances in the context of an ever-changing world: just because things have always done a certain way does not necessarily mean that they should be. Our refusal to engage in the various processes that act to shape our worldviews—of which television/media is just one—means that we allow someone else to dictate our reality to us. I believe that heuristics play a valuable role in our lives as they reduce cognitive processing time and perhaps allow us to react in time to save our lives, but also that the absence of critical reflection on these structures leads to things like the formation of stereotypes, susceptibility to manipulative advertising, and inflexible adherence to religious doctrine. Ultimately, we need to re-engage with our world and be willing to puzzle over the ways in which it affects us and in which we affect it, for it is unacceptable to play the victim card and say that media like television corrupt our minds if we are unwilling or unable to demand better from it. Education in the form of media literacy is not sufficient to prevent processes like Cultivation Theory from having an effect on us (even theorists are subject to it!), but it is a crucial first step.
September 9, 2011 | Categories: Media, Science Fiction, Technology | Tags: Algorithms, Cultivation Theory, Digital Media Literacy, Evolutionary Psychology, Heuristics, Lawrence Lessig, Mathemagic, Social Psychology, Turing Machine | 1 Comment