Wanting bad news may be a biological imperative

02 Apr
WALL-E: a great movie, but a terrible indictment of humanity's technological future.

WALL-E: a great movie, but a terrible indictment of humanity’s technological future.

In yesterday’s post, I briefly touched on negativity in the media, particularly as it pertains to technology coverage. I got to thinking about the topic again during a conversation with Tor Nørretranders, an author and former journalist in Denmark, when I visited him a few weeks ago.

As a veteran science and technology writer who has dealt with the issue as a reporter, editor and academic, he had some insightful views on it. As I mentioned yesterday, Nørretranders feels the media tends to focus too much on technology’s side effects, rather than its actual effects.

I understood perfectly what he meant. In my previous job, I remember front section editors asking me to report on a story about children in Ontario supposedly getting sick from the wi-fi in their schools. The story flew against all science on the matter and it was rare that the front section – also known as the mainstream – asked me for anything. Unfortunately, when they did, it was usually for a negative, even baseless story like that one. Never mind the countless actual benefits of wi-fi – those were either implicit or people simply didn’t want to hear about them.

It wasn’t just my imagination that this was and is something of a trend. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that the top technology-related “news” story of the year was about texting while driving, with the media virtually ignoring major actual issues such as net neutrality and broadband access. And so it continues… just yesterday, news outlets were reporting on how children are vulnerable to phone and tablet addiction.

The problem isn’t exactly new. Nørretranders recalls that when he was an editor at a Danish science magazine back in the 1970s, the staff there lost a lot of reader support when they came out in favour of things such as nuclear power and biotechnology. It was popular at the time to worry about irradiation and “playing god,” so the magazine’s stance on trying to understand the benefits of such technologies did not sit well with many.

He experienced it again in the late 1990s when he wrote a book that considered the potentially liberating power of Web 2.0 (before it was actually known as that). Like just about anyone who’s ever written a positive technology story, Nørretranders was accused of being naive for overestimating the effects and understating the potential negatives.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, the public (and media) looked on technology with wonderment and the hope of the better future it represented. But a few high-profile catastrophes in the intervening decades – space shuttle explosions, mad cow disease, to name just two – combined with a deepening mistrust of authorities outside of technology (blame Watergate) have made everyone decidedly more cynical. I juxtaposed the two views a few years ago in my TEDx talk by comparing a pair of cartoons: The Jetsons, which in the 1960s proposed a Utopian future of flying cars and robot maids, to WALL-E, the 2008 Oscar-nominated film that had humans reduced by technology to useless blobs unable to walk. It’s amazing how much views have changed.

It’s happening not just in technology but in the general Western psychology, if the happiness surveys that originally took me to Denmark are to be believed. The public’s trust in its institutions and authorities, as well as each other, is a major factor in determining overall happiness and satisfaction levels. As a small country, Denmark rates much better than most developed nations in this regard, but it too is seeing an erosion in that trust, Nørretranders says.

There doesn’t seem to be any way around it: the public and the media have become conditioned to expect and want bad news. The question is why?

There are many theories, with Nørretranders offering up at least two as far as technology is concerned. One is that it’s much easier to talk about the downsides, since they’re relatively easy to see and diagnose. The upsides, however, are harder to measure and pin down and they require knowledge, foresight and wisdom, which is something the media usually doesn’t have the patience for.

“There’s this constant discussion over side effects instead of the effects of technology,” he says. “It’s easy to discuss. It’s not intellectually or morally as demanding to discuss.”

His other theory, a biological one, is equally as intriguing: “It’s like your body. You get bad news from your body in the form of pain. You don’t get happy news that your liver is actually functioning as normal. You don’t get that because you don’t want to pay attention to be being happy all the time.” Are we thus somehow organically wired to want and expect bad news?


Posted by on April 2, 2013 in media


4 responses to “Wanting bad news may be a biological imperative

  1. Marc Venot

    April 2, 2013 at 7:07 am

    If the situation was examined like a product with its plus and minus this question will not apply. On the other hand it can be too much as for example in the USA with negative political ads where they focus on absurd aspects.

  2. Marc Venot

    April 2, 2013 at 7:42 am

    It’s called the Calimero complex.

  3. J. Van L

    April 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    We all have a strong bias towards information that affirms what we believe, right or wrong.

    In short… we see the world as WE are.

    This ‘biased assimilation’ accounts for most of the negativity, polarization and paralysis in our politics and public discourse today:

    The futures we create for ourselves, individually and collectively, reflect our confidence in our abilities to meet whatever challenges we face.

    We are considerably less mature and confident in ourselves today than adults in the 50s and 60s.

    This lamentable condition is directly reflected in the weakness of character that prevails in our commerce, politics and mainstream media.

    Many (most?) of us believe ourselves too weak to meet the challenges now facing us, and we are receptive to information that affirms this.

    This is just one unwelcome legacy of a generation (or two) that never managed to grow up.

    Being grown up means making sacrifices in the present to protect the future, and there is nothing ‘fun’ about making sacrifices.

    There is only delayed (but enduring) reward. This likely explains why ‘fun’ is yet another dominant theme in our commerce and mainstream media.

    WALL-E is fundamentally a story about human weakness, which ends with a deeply ironic statement of hope.

    Life will prevail, in spite of the failings of human beings.

    We will all have lots of fun, eat lots of yummy food and get really fat in our magical cities in the sky.

    And we will never again be faced with the real-life hardships and challenges that we failed to meet here on Earth.

    Technology will save us, from ourselves.

    It seems we have finally had enough of this childish zeitgeist, and we are now moving back towards a culture of maturity and hope.

    Cynicism is slowly giving way to hope and optimism, and this time it’s not technology that we are putting our faith in.

    This time we are putting faith in ourselves, and our ability to put technology to constructive use.

    We have a lot more knowledge than we had half a century ago, and far better access to it.

    We have also recently developed magical abilties to learn, communicate and collaborate, and I’m pretty excited to see what we can do with these new abilities.

    Hopefully, we’ll find a way to make it more rewarding (even fun) to make necessary personal sacrifices.

    That would be a really good thing.

    • Peter Nowak

      April 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm

      Thanks for what may be the best comment that’s ever appeared on my blog!

%d bloggers like this: