Saturday, November 24, 2012

Living the Dream Unknowingly

Much as I love Steven Johnson, I haven't yet read his latest book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. But if this article/excerpt is any indication, it's well worth reading:

The public sector doesn't have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet its successes. A multinational corporation invents a slightly better detergent, and it will spend a legitimate fortune to alert the world that the product is now "new and improved." But no one takes out a prime-time ad campaign to tout the remarkable decrease in air pollution that we have seen over the past few decades, even thought that success story is far more important than a trivial improvement in laundry soap.

That blind spot is compounded by the deeper lack of interest in stories of incremental progress. Curmudgeons, doomsayers, utopians and declinists all have an easier time getting our attention than opinion leaders who want to celebrate slow and steady improvement.


I suspect, in the long run, the media bias against incremental progress may be more damaging than any bias the media display toward the political left or right. The media are heavily biased toward extreme events, and they are slightly biased toward negative events -- though in their defense, that bias may just be a reflection of the human brain's propensity to focus more on negative information than positive, a trait extensively documented by neuroscience and psychology studies.


The one positive social trend that did generate a significant amount of coverage -- the extraordinary drop in the U.S. crime rate since the mid-'90s -- seems to have been roundly ignored by the general public. The violent crime rate (crimes per thousand people) dropped from 51 to 15 between 1995 and 2010, truly one of the most inspiring stories of societal progress in our lifetime. And yet according to a series of Gallup polls conducted over the past 10 years, more than two-thirds of Americans believe that crime has been getting worse, year after year.
I love that bit about the public sector lacking effective PR efforts. Aside from the funding question, I think we resist that type of effort because it smacks of Soviet propaganda.

We're Living the Dream; We Just Don't Realize It

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