Why the Law of Unintended Consequences always catches up in the end
Reality is highly complex, whereas our brains are hardwired for simplicity. During most of our evolutionary history, calories were scarce and uncertain. As the human brain consumes up to 30% of the body’s blood glucose while working hard and thus consumes precious calories that were often needed to power muscles in order to escape from predators or forage for food, it’s not surprising that we evolved to do as little hard thinking as possible and instead rely on simple heuristics.
Furthermore, studies over the last forty years have revealed that we mostly act on a preconscious level and then immediately afterward our brains create “explanations” for why we’ve just done something, in order to ensure we continue to maintain the illusion that we’re in control of our actions.
Not surprisingly, while this paradigm worked well for the hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in the African savanna and the primordial forests of Eurasia, it creates something of a mismatch now that we live in entirely different circumstances.
The problems created by this are legion, but for the purposes of this article we need focus only on the consequences of the fundamental mismatch between our limited cognition and the basic rules of cause-and-effect.
Before we proceed, however, it’s worth looking at a general case of “the law of unintended consequences” in order to illuminate how the cause-and-effect chain can produce outcomes that no one in the chain is seeking.
Let’s consider a simplified ecosystem in which there are foxes and rabbits. As we all know, rabbits eat grass and foxes eat rabbits. This creates an interplay between the two, but it is an interplay that proceeds without either the foxes or the rabbits being aware of the dynamics involved.
When we begin our scenario there are 100 rabbits and 10 foxes. As rabbits are relatively easy for foxes to catch, the foxes naturally catch and eat rabbits and, having plenty of food, begin to breed. Soon there are 20 foxes and 90 rabbits. As rabbits breed faster than foxes, the net percentage decrease of rabbits is smaller than the net percentage increase of foxes, at least initially. So the scenario continues. Some time later there are 30 foxes and 80 rabbits. We can see that the trend isn’t biased towards stability so we’re not surprised when later still we find 40 foxes and 50 rabbits. Now the decline kicks into high gear and soon we find 50 very hungry foxes and only 10 remaining rabbits.
Not surprisingly, many foxes now starve to death. As they do so, the rabbit population can very slowly begin to increase once again. Provided the rabbits continue to breed quickly (there’s a reason we have the phrase “breeding like rabbits”…) we’ll eventually return to the starting point of 100 rabbits and 10 foxes, at which point the cycle of decline will recommence.
So much, so obvious. But what if the foxes somehow became slightly more successful at catching rabbits? What if the foxes suddenly evolved the ability to chase rabbits into their burrows, thus eliminating the rabbits’ only method of temporarily avoiding the foxes?
It’s clear that if even quite a small change is introduced, the foxes — guided only by instinctual hunger and incapable of seeing the consequences of their actions — will eventually eat the last rabbit and then all the foxes will starve to death also, leaving behind a barren ecosystem containing neither foxes nor rabbits (assuming repopulation by neighboring creatures is impossible).
What has this got to do with homo sapiens? Well, we’re like heedless foxes. That’s why we’ve driven countless species to extinction in pursuit of short-term benefits. It’s why the abundant waters of Northern California, which a mere hundred years ago were teeming with sardines, are now entirely empty of a single sardine. It’s why we’re denuding the oceans and cutting or burning down the last remaining patches of tropical rainforest. There is sadly no end to the examples of human-induced rapid species extinction in the pursuit of short-term gains.
But that’s not the focus of this article, though it is a devastating indictment against our species.
The focus of this article is far narrower: the relationship between the mass media and society.
For over a century the mass media has been the fox and we’ve been the rabbits. Early newspapers discovered that sensationalism was the way to shift product, and companies were eager to advertise their wares by presenting ads within the newspapers. Thus a dangerous alliance was born that carried on through the days of radio and into the era of television and up to the present day of Internet-everywhere. The symbiotic relationship between media and advertising is why today everywhere we go on the Internet we will be “served” ads.
The problem is that most people aren’t interested in thoughtful and context-rich content. We just want to nibble the juicy grass of sensation. Editors have known this for a century, which is why the old newspaper adage was “if it bleeds, it leads.” Over the last thirty years or so the advertising industry has learned from innumerable psychological studies how better and better to manipulate us in order to generate ever-greater revenues. This increased sophistication has for the last decade been coupled to an ever-growing consumption of media everywhere, via our tablets and smartphones as well as our TVs and laptops. As such, the typical US citizen now sees around 10,000 ad impressions per day.
Even a mere thirty years ago, we weren’t constantly bombarded by sensationalism. We’d set aside our newspaper. We’d leave the room in which the TV was blaring its lowest-common-denominator content. We’d turn off the car radio when the reception was too poor to deliver adequate sound quality. We had moments of respite from the messages the mass media was pushing on us.
That’s one of the reasons why the world didn’t go into mass hysteria back in the early 1980s when the HIV virus genuinely seemed to herald a much darker future. Unlike today’s coronavirus, the fatality rate from HIV was nearly 100% and no one knew precisely how the infection was spread.
Yet we didn’t lock down the world back in the 1980s even though the threat seemed far greater. That’s because, to use our earlier scenario, the foxes hadn’t evolved the ability to follow us down into our burrows. We had moments of respite. We couldn’t easily be stampeded into mindless terror because the media couldn’t reach us everywhere at all times of the day and night. Nor were its messages so carefully crafted as today; the media could make us fearful but it didn’t yet know how to make us terrified beyond all reason.
Today, the media knows far more about how to manipulate us than it did back in the days of HIV and we have screens in front of us every second of our waking lives. We’ve invited the foxes into our burrows and, not surprisingly, they are very happy to be in there with us.
That is why today’s mass hysteria and political flailing is so different from the early 1980s. Just like the foxes follow their hunger to a nice juicy meal, the mass media creates sensationalism in order to generate nice juicy ad revenues. Just like the foxes, media people have no conception of the ecosystem within which they exist. They have no thought for the consequences of their actions. There is no future, merely a continuous present in which ad revenues are the only goal.
Ironically the mass media is now so effective and omnipresent that it’s reached the point where it’s heedless actions have resulted in self-harm, just as the foxes’ appetite for rabbits ultimately leads a great many of them to starvation.
For decades it seemed that no matter how sensationalist the mass media was, life carried on more or less as normal. But in 2016 this equation shifted dramatically.
Back in 2016 two important events occurred: the British were asked to vote on whether or not to remain within the European Union, and Donald Trump decided to pretend he was running for President of the USA in order to bolster flagging viewing figures for his trash TV show.
Because the Brexiteers were prepared to lie outrageously and say all manner of foolish things, the British press gave the Brexit position unqualified coverage, repeating and amplifying the lies and false promises while giving little coverage to the opposing side. This was because the Brexit position was sensational and thus attracted more eyeballs and thus was much better for ad revenue generation than the boring old “let’s keep holding on to a very good thing” message from the Remain camp.
Because Donald Trump was basically a one-man freak show, saying astonishingly stupid and repellent things every time he opened his fatuous little mouth, the mass media gave him 85% coverage, more or less ignoring every other Republican candidate in the Primaries and thereafter ignoring Clinton (aside from the supposed scandal of her private email server) in the election itself. Trump was a gift the mass media couldn’t turn down: every time they gave him exposure their ad revenues jumped.
We know what happened next: Brexit was voted through on a narrow majority and Trump became 45th President of the USA.
These two events of enormous self-harm occurred largely thanks to a sensation-addicted mass media giving a sensation-addicted public what they wanted.
The important thing to note here is that for the most part, those in the media ended up guaranteeing the victory of those they opposed. Few in the British media wanted Brexit to happen because they knew how disastrous it would be. Few in the US media (with the notable exception of the right-wing propaganda channel Fox News) wanted Trump as President because they knew how disastrous it would be. But their default mode of operation guaranteed the triumph of the very things they personally didn’t want to succeed.
Now, four years later, the situation is even more interesting.
As we all know, the world’s citizens have been stampeded into mass hysteria over covid-19 and the world’s politicians have responded to this hysteria by imposing a wide range of ill-considered measures, many of which are self-defeating and most of which are actually causing more harm than the virus itself. As a result nearly two billion people are in a condition of lockdown and the global economy has ground to a halt.
This is the ultimate triumph of mass media sensationalism. The ad-revenue-driven model has reached its apotheosis. Context-free fear-mongering now rules the world.
But, oh dear, that unfortunate old Law Of Unintended Consequences has kicked in.
Just as foxes eat rabbits heedless of what it means for the future, so the mass media consumed us all with its sensationalism but never once thought about the consequences.
Here’s what’s happening today: ad revenues are plummeting. Because the media was so successful in creating mass hysteria and because politicians always react to mob sentiment (can’t afford to lose votes by appearing indifferent, can we?), the global economy has ground to a halt.
But without a functioning economy, there’s no one to buy ad slots.
Oh dear. Oops.
Now that so many have lost their jobs and so many are trapped in their homes, consumption has plummeted. No more air travel, no more cruise ships, no more frivolous purchases at the local shopping mall.
As companies watch their revenues collapse, the very last thing they need is to spend money on advertising.
Which means the nice juicy ad revenues are drying up faster than a watering hole in the Kalahari desert during summer.
The foxes were so successful at following us down into our burrows and eating us as we sat gawping endlessly at our screens that they destroyed their own revenue stream.
No amount of high-minded concern over the toxic influence of sensationalist media could have achieved what the sensationalist media has itself achieved: the semi-destruction of its own food supply.
Unfortunately this situation won’t last for long. Sooner or later even the most stupid politicians are going to realize the current strategy can’t be sustained for very long and they will begin to look for face-saving ways to roll back the present restrictions. Eventually the data will show that the impact of covid-19 was in reality far less sensational than context-free reportage made it appear. Eventually factories will restart, supply chains will somewhat recover, and slowly the unemployed will return to work, albeit impoverished beyond recovery.
Slowly the old sensationalist ad-driven model will reassert itself.
No one will learn anything from the experience, any more than foxes can learn not to over-eat the rabbit population.
But the general outcome is now clear: our civilization will ultimately destroy itself due to our inability to alter our hardwired behaviors. We’re always going to remain focused on the short-term and ignore the longer-term consequences. It’s how evolution has blindly shaped us.
The bathos of destroying ourselves for the sake of ad revenue will not be lost on historians in the far-distant future.