We continue to access much content for free, or at least at prices much cheaper than before. Upon a second glance, however, our vast options have not-so-hidden prices. Our attention grows scarce, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert A. Simon and Vienna-based social researcher Georg Franck observed years ago. Once we have too many, our options morph into what American psychologist Barry Schwartz deems the “tyranny of choice.” Economists have long praised the “rational ignorance” of publics, providing a rather insightful explanation for lack of involvement in politics or lengthy newspaper reading habits of young people.
Yet recently, this strain of rational ignorance seems to have become something more like ignorant irrationality – a development which behavioral economists investigating the limits of human rationality view as confirmation of their theories. Where ever one looks, protest degenerates into ego-centrism. At the least, it’s difficult to argue why Germany’s Greens demonstrate against Stuttgart 21 – a project designed to improve public transport in a region suffering from car traffic, also aimed at transforming large inner-city railroad areas into parks and housing projects. And the rioting of young people in France against the increased retirement age is difficult to view as an expression of rational behavior – as it will be they who must generate pension payments from their own future incomes.
What is rational happens to be the calculus of the media, in particular of TV managers, predicting that imagery of the demonstrations and riots will increase audience ratings. Thus, once again the journalists do their jobs with the cameras and protests stay alive – thanks in part to media hype. And the damage caused to society? We can only hope to find out – if at all – much later, no doubt in small print, without assigning responsibility to the media.
Published in Die Furche, November 18, 2010