A Dangerous Game of Telephone
How we talk ourselves into ignorance and peril
Something about the intensity ripping through the US gives me a vaguely disquieting association with that classic activity from sleepovers of my youth — the game of telephone.
One person starts, then we whisper a phrase excitedly down the line. And the longer the better… both in phrase and in number of stops. By the time it reaches the end, some bizarre nonsense comes out of the confused caboose’s mouth while everyone else keels over laughing.
I knew even then — in that storied time before social media and the unrelenting news cycle — it was both a cautionary tale against gossip and a fun game. But it occurs to me that we are living in a giant, infinite experiment of telephone with the way social media & news media function in 2020. It’s a grotesque enterprise in many ways. A monster with no brain. A chicken with no head. Not alive but unpredictable and swift and dangerous.
It has forced us to distill and condense our thoughts, shortening our attention span and making all kinds of implications and assumptions. With a tweet (or even a thread), we can feel we’ve gotten a good overview of a topic or viewpoint. A 5-minute segment on the news can leave us feeling outraged about something we didn’t know anything about before watching and will forget about tomorrow. An out-of-context repost can seem to say something the original author didn’t intend. It can be misconstrued or given too much weight. It can be taken seriously when it was a joke, or taken lightly when it was serious.
The reality is that most aspects of human life cannot truly be boiled down to a single take. Even a book on a subject will create more questions than answers if it’s doing its job. We do a great disservice to reality by buying in wholeheartedly to the notion that media (social or otherwise) can tell a complete story.
Problem №1: Lazy Reporting
There’s a pricey and respectable business publication in the Bay Area that recently interviewed my colleague about the state of restaurants in the Bay Area, specifically about the valuable license they need to sell alcohol. As somewhat of an expert in this niche field, I noticed several errors in the article on the reporter’s part. It was a rare article about my industry (which, granted, is not the most riveting). But to me it just seemed sloppy.
I know because of the conversations I have every day with clients how desperately confusing the world of alcohol licensing is, and I’m well-aware that this is one of the main reasons our business is even viable. So I don’t expect industry terminology necessarily. But it was interesting to observe my own disappointed critique of the article. It felt like they missed an opportunity to say something meaningful.
Maybe it was bad reporting or maybe it’s a nuanced topic and the reporter knows better what their audience wants to read, but it seemed to me like they didn’t really ask the right questions or create an honest narrative for their readers. It seemed like they just looked for quotes from us that would add more fuel to the existing industry despair. It was honestly lazy. And if they’re doing that with the not-terribly-controversial subject of liquor licensing, I can only assume they’re doing it with almost everything.
How much are we consuming that gives these lazy narratives of interesting, interrelated and contextual issues? How much are these narratives shaping public opinion? And how is that impacting our ability to thrive individually and as a culture?
Problem №2: Ignorant Consensus
I worked as a chiropractic assistant when I first moved to the Bay Area with some wonderful, vibrant chiropractors. They took me to a host of educational events and generously shared their philosophy and passion with me. I met hundreds of people who loved the care they received at our office.
I’m definitely no expert in the field, but I lived and breathed it for 18 months and continue to get chiropractic care to this day. It isn’t a perfect industry by any stretch, there’s a god complex that runs rampant and I have been in some very weird situations with chiropractors. But it is a health-oriented, non-invasive healing modality focused on human wellness, pretty much across the board of practitioners that I’ve ever met.
I still have people confidently explain to me why they don’t “believe” in chiropractic care. It’s rarely for a good, thoughtful reason. It’s always always one of the following reasons: “once you go, you have to keep going”, “I don’t like the cracks”, or “chiropractors are quacks” (the last one I once heard from a Physical Therapist). We brush our teeth regularly too, but I don’t hear people blaming dentists for that.
I don’t know which PR firm handled the anti-chiropractic sentiment in the US today, but they got their message out really well. And it’s sad, because a lot of people who could benefit from chiropractic care are not even aware of the issues it can help with. This case posted recently by a chiropractor acquaintance of mine resonated, reminding me of the frustration of dealing with a misinformed “public opinion”.
How many issues, practices, products, modalities, and stories are we ignorant of with the way we play telephone with information? We certainly don’t have time to become experts in everything before forming opinions — at least functional enough opinions to live by. But is there a better way to assess the unknowns before we charge ahead, form beliefs and spread misinformation?
How much do we need to know about something to get it “right”? How do we get enough information to even have an idea of the shape of whole subject?
Problem №3: What Experts Actually Know
In my past life as a wino, I studied the fascinating world of wine and became a Certified Specialist of Wine even. The more I learned — varietals of Chile, production methods of Champagne, classification standards of California and Italy — the more I realized how much I didn’t know. A lifetime could give you specific (mind-blowing) expertise, but to encompass all wine knowledge would be virtually impossible.
There’s varietals, climate, terroir, weather, wine growing, harvest, wine making, aging, bottling, labeling, licensing, importing, exporting, distributing, consumer sales, restaurant pairing, marketing… all nuanced for diverse markets. Even winemakers have one, maybe two, attempts per year to get a wine right. One harvest per year per hemisphere. In a long career, that’s, what, maybe 40–80 tries total?
Do you have that experience in your areas of expertise? How do you feel like the general public’s understanding of your field relates to how you understand it? How much do you actually know about what you do?
All of which is to say… we don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about most of the time.
And neither does anybody else.
I think we pick up on this subconsciously, but the deluge of opinions is so great, we develop fatigue in processing information. We become wary of people we don’t know telling us things, we don’t have good systems for differentiating well-intended experts from snake oil salesmen, we trust the viral video over something truer and better. Experts are often so entrenched in their work, even they don’t know how to communicate well to the general public.
It’s a complicated issue but we need to find ways to find good information and let that lead.
We need to learn to admit that we may not know enough to make an informed decision.
And we need to learn whose calls to pick up and whose to let ring.