Has Fractionalization Distorted Our Decision Making?

Sixty years ago, Newton Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously called television “a vast wasteland.” This was at a time when there were a total of three networks. On any given night, you could choose between the offerings on CBS, NBC or ABC. Period. Candid Camera host, Peter Funt, recently asked Mr. Minow his thoughts on the seemingly unlimited choices now presently available. I found his response rather insightful.

“Fractionalization of the audience provides more choice,” he said, “but we pay a big price. Our country now is much more divided because we don’t share the same news or believe the same facts. I used to think that providing more choice was in the public interest. But I’m not sure today.”

In other words, part of society’s present polarization is being caused by a population that no longer shares common interests based on media. Thirty years ago, for instance, people watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Then they discussed his monologue the next morning at the office. Now, on any given night, you can choose between more than a dozen late-night talk shows, all of which that have hosts projecting partisan political viewpoints, something Johnny was careful not to do.

Another television phenomenon of thirty years ago was “Who killed JR?” from the night-time drama, Dallas. People spent weeks arguing about who pulled the trigger. Why? Because millions were watching the show every Friday night. In essence, it created a sense of community. You could get on an elevator and ask the stranger next to you, “Who do you think shot J.R.?” and they would immediately get the reference. Today, there are so many choices from which to choose, we have balkanized ourselves into micro affinity groups. So, the chances of the elevator stranger watching the same thing you did last night are remote. Besides, we don’t talk to strangers. We bury our heads in our smart phones.

This fractionalization is not limited to today’s media. The same thing is true with pretty much every product, topic or issue. As a result, we have not just become fractionalized, but hyper-fractionalized. Without shared experiences, it becomes so much easier to hide behind the beliefs with which we feel comfortable. We seek out others who share those beliefs and avoid those who might have a different point of view. Digital algorithms enable all this, feeding us links and suggestions based on our past browser use, unless we periodically clear our cache and history.

The problem with this, of course, is that when we all retreat to our individual corners, we lose the perspective to make truly informed decisions. This is reinforced by the highly partisan politicians, activists, media and colleagues who choose to press their beliefs on others without remaining open to alternative points of view. The best decision-makers accept that their beliefs are not the only ones out there. They ask questions, knowing that the answers or opinions they receive in response may not be to their liking. But they accept that colleagues, friends and strangers can have diverging beliefs without being evil, hateful, stupid, or any one of a number of other invectives. Effective decision-making is the result of seeking out the best information, opening yourself to thoughtful discussion and acting knowing that you might be proven wrong.

Without discourse, we lose the freedom of speech upon which this nation was founded.