Helping kick off Climate Week NYC, the Lear Center's Hollywood, Health & Society program, in conjunction with WGA East, offers a unique discussion with special guest Norman Lear about the need for and uses of comedy in mobilizing citizen action on climate change. Other speakers include Rory Albanese (Showrunner, The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore; former showrunner, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Chris Albers (Writer, Borgia; writer/producer, Late Night, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and Late Show with David Letterman), Sidney Harris (Cartoonist, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal ), Lyn Lear (Environmental activist/producer) and Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication). The conversation will be co-moderated by Michael Winship (President, WGAE; senior writer, Moyers & Company ) and Marty Kaplan (Director, The Norman Lear Center). September 19th, 1-3PM, WGA East, 250 Hudson Street, NYC. This event is currently at capacity.
CGI (computer-generated imagery) rules in Hollywood, right? Not for everything, it turns out. Several top filmmakers got together with neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to compare notes on where audience members direct their gaze and what sort of tricks directors use to focus and hold onto that attention. Can you guess the two elements in action films for which CGI just doesn't cut it? (Link opens in new window; scroll down for clip of Iron Man 2 with an overlay of eye-tracking software) more>>
Afraid your new infographic-intensive presentation will bore people? What if it were turned into a game? A Dutch company has developed Metrico, which replaces traditional game narrative with infographics. more>>
Mourning Becomes Collective
The tragic passing of actor Robin Williams becomes a case-study in how social media is changing how we grieve. more>>
Museum-quality digital art...coming soon to a screen in your home. more>>
Who appear to be the new kings of Twitter, social media strategy and branding? ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, currently terrorizing large swaths of the Middle East. They've even built their own app. Where's the fail whale when you really need him? more>>
The jury is still out on the relationship between violent video games and real world violence ...but that may be about to change. A new study due later this summer finds that areas of teens' brains linked to empathy become muted by violent images when exposed to them over long periods of time. Another study, from Canada's Brock University, found that children who played violent video games for significant lengths of time were not as morally mature as other children their age. more>>
Fashion flip: designers have long been thrilled to get their clothes into movies (think Ralph Lauren and Annie Hall), but now a filmmaker is preparing to market the clothes from his new film directly to customers. Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) hopes viewers of his James Bond spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service will admire the Savile Row look of the suits in the movie enough to pay Gucci-level dollars. more>>
Who can protect Los Angeles from the next big earthquake? How about this woman? And revisit the Lear Center'sstudy about the first Great Shakeout, a mass earthquake drill which has since become an annual event. And just in case, remember it's duck, cover, and hold!
A new UPenn Annenberg Public Policy Center and Pew Research Centerstudy shows that regular viewers of the Colbert Report during the 2012 election were better educated about campaign finance law after the "Citizens United" decision than viewers of traditional news shows. Read it and weep....or laugh.
Care for an artistic interpretation of what climate change might feel like? You're welcome!
More blurring of the line between real life and entertainment: Thai protesters angry at the recent military coup are borrowing a three-fingered salute from the science-fiction hit The Hunger Games to express their resistance. Military leaders are monitoring the movement closely.
What's the relationship between science and telling ourselves stories? Closer than you think. Read this terrific article from Nautilus. about the long, complex link between scientific progress and stories we make up.
We're awash in big data now, even as we try to clearly visualize it graphically. Perhaps a look at old data visulizations can inspire us. Take a look at this absolutely beautiful Erie Railroad organizational chart from 1855. Wow.
Much Ado About Moocs...a short two years after educators and techies embraced Massive Online Open Courses as the gateway to a new golden, egalitarian age of higher education, the cursor seems to be stuck, blinking, on the screen: a new study shows that only half of those who registered for a course ever watched a lecture, and then only 4 percent completed the courses. And a joint San Jose State University-Udacity experiment has failed completely. ThisNYTimes article explains the reboot.
There's a new tool in the struggle to get action on climate change on everyone's agenda: insurance company actuarial tables. more>>
There's no link between exposure to media violence and actual violent behavior, right? Not so fast. A new meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990 suggests that exposure to media violence is a risk factor for violent behavior, much in the same way that second-hand smoke is a risk factor for cancer. more>>
Did you ever think chocolate could be entertaining, and compellingly so? Watch what some clever Germans have devised. more>>
Fox News seems to have discovered the science behind making people distrust science. A new study explains how. more>>
Do you tweet during television shows? A new study analyzes the interesting connections between Twitter and TV. more>>
Can puffs of air be the next big thing in online entertainment interactivity? Disney Research thinks so and their new tool, Aireal, is pretty dazzling. more>>
Are you still just playing Grand Theft Auto on your Kinect? Take a gander at what a dance company and engineering firm in France have been doing with the gaming device. more>>
Since the NSA leaks were revealed, "meta data" has been all the buzz. Find out what it means and what it looks like here.
If all you've got in your paintbox are pixels, can you still be an artist? The exhibit "Into the Pixel" offers some interesting answers. more>>
A mobile game that explores Jewish cultural history? Who knew? Check out Jewish Time Jump: New York and discover how augmented reality, GPS and rich source material can put you in New York City a century ago, immersed in the world of Jewish immigration and the women's and labor movements. more>>
2015 Walter Cronkite Awards: Call for Entries
Early Bird Deadline: December 12, 2014 :: Final Entry Deadline: JANUARY 9, 2015
The Norman Lear Center is now accepting entries for the 2015 Walter Cronkite Award For Excellence in Television Political Journalism. The award encourages and showcases substantive and innovative coverage that informs viewers about their electoral choices. It recognizes television journalism that helps viewers understand who the candidates are; what the issues and ballot propositions are; how electoral choices will affect their lives; how to assess campaign information, including advertising; and how to register, vote and make their own voices heard.
The award ceremony and symposium will be held April 24 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., and will recognize work produced during the 2013-2014 mid-term election season. Read the full press release. For further information, please visit the Cronkite Awards website
The Lear Center's Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project has just released Volume 5 (Fall 2013 - Spring 2014) of the IJPC Journal. Included in this edition is a report "The Image of the Washington Journalist in Movies and Television: 1932 to 2013" as well as papers on "Washington Women Journalists: Fact vs. Fiction," "Broadway Takes on The Columnist: A Case Study with Joseph Alsop" and "Passionate and Powerful: Film Depictions of Women Journalists Working in Washington, D.C."
Also featured in this publication are contributions examining "Pseudo Newsgathering: Analyzing Journalists' Use of Pseudo-events on The Wire" and "The Participant Observer: Journalist J.B. Kendall as a Social Research Practitioner in Old Time Radio's Frontier Gentleman." You can read abstracts of all the articles here.
HH&S's Kate Folb on NPR
Kate Langrall Folb, Director of the Lear Center's Hollywood, Health & Society program, spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about the work of HH&S on the August 16th Weekend Edition. Folb explained how HH&S pairs scientific experts with television writers and producers to help bring accurate and timely health and climate change information to viewers around the world. Read the transcript or listen to the podcast here.
And as part of its outreach efforts, HH&S will honor exemplary achievements in television storylines that inform, educate and motivate viewers to make choices for healthier and safer lives at its 15th Annual Sentinel Awards on Thursday, October 9th, 2014 at a gala ceremony in Hollywood.
The Fray: Introducing A New Media Impact Project Feature
The Lear Center's Media Impact Project has launched a new website element, The Fray, which offers current thinking about media impact debated by industry, academic and metrics experts. First up, a note on "engaged minutes" from Richard J. Tofel, president of ProPublica:
"The widespread desire to find simple and powerful metrics for measuring the impact of journalism has recently sparked a boomlet for "engaged minutes," a purported critical indicator of reader engagement. The leading champions of this new metric range from the measurement service Chartbeat to mass publisher Upworthy [Note 1, below] to the elite Financial Times [Note 2] (which will soon move from selling impressions to minutes). And engagement is increasingly touted as the critical measure of impact, especially for for-profit digital publishing." Read More
The latest edition of Hollywood, Health & Society's Real to Reel newsletter features riveting, real-life stories about the effect of the growing drought in the Southwest on ranchers and farmers, connecting to an autistic child through Disney movies, the truth behind "human lab rats" and the big business of finding a cure for cancer. Real to Reel is a free story shop resource for content creators in Hollywood and around the world. Download the Summer 2014 issue.
Dana Chinn, Media Analytics Strategist, Named Director of the Lear Center's Media Impact Project
Dana Chinn, a longtime faculty member at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, with more than two decades of experience researching and teaching analytics for content- and mission-based organizations, has been named Director of the Lear Center's Media Impact Project (MIP).
"Dana brings to MIP her incredible passion for reading the digital tea leaves, hunting for the kinds of insights that help media organizations reach target audiences efficiently and optimize impact," said Lear Center Managing Director and Director of Research Johanna Blakley.
Lear Center Director Marty Kaplan was part of NPR's story on the recently refurbished Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Built in 1928 with the guidance and funding of movie moguls Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Carl Laemmle, and the Warner brothers, the building, grand in scale and decoration, was a symbol, that though assimilated, Los Angeles Jews were determined to be a civic, cultural and religious force in the community. Kaplan pays special tribute to Harry Warner's determination to tell the truth about what was happening in Germany in the early 1940s, when no other studio would risk harming their earnings. Revisit our Warners' War project to learn more about this courageous Hollywood legend.
I was asked recently to speak at a symposium on Media Choices at Drexel University. The event drew a fascinating array of scholars who were studying things like Internet addiction, online dating, and political polarization in media consumption.
When someone mentions "media choice" to me, I automatically start thinking about the algorithms that have been developed to help shape that choice.
I have followed avidly the growing use of recommendation systems that you see on sites like Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. I saw these mechanisms as a significant move away from demographic marketing (which I find deeply flawed) to marketing based on customer taste.
I did have my reservations though. I was very moved by Eli Pariser's TED talk about the danger of "filter bubbles," which effectively insulate us from opinions and content that we don't understand or like. His talk really resonated with me because of the deeply divided ideological and taste communities that the Lear Center found in a major survey research project on the correlation between entertainment preferences and political ideology (spoiler: they are even more deeply connected than you might think.)
But, when I conducted further research about collaborative filtering systems, I made some rather counter-intuitive discoveries. YouTube, for instance,
What brand doesn't belong on this list? Amazon, Uber, Yelp, Hillary.
It's a trick question. They all belong. In recent days, they've all been making it harder for their fans to love them.
I loved Amazon at first sight. Later, when it killed Borders, I forgave it, and called it creative destruction. I vowed to patronize independent bookstores more. I said I'd be glad to pay a premium for knowledgeable staff. Here's how that worked out: I'd call to see if they had something, and almost always they didn't, but said it sounds like a terrific book, they'd be more than happy to order it, shouldn't take much more than a week. And, meanwhile, there, on my screen, calling to me, was Amazon, one click and one day away. Almost always, I did click. It felt like a secret vice.
What's hurting my relationship with Amazon's brand now is its price war with publisher Hachette. In May, Jeff Bezos decided that only a few e-books would retail on Amazon for more than $9.99. Hachette said, sorry, you can't tell us what to do, we set our own e-book prices. Amazon retaliated by preventing pre-orders of books from Hachette authors such as J.K. Rowling and John Patterson, and by slow-walking fulfillment of orders for Hachette books. Suddenly, it's two weeks instead of tomorrow.
I want to make excuses for Amazon. I want to believe that tactics like these are ordinary in any modern market. Instead, I'm asking myself why I'm in a relationship with a bully.
I loved Uber at first, too. You tap, they come right away, you never have to reach for your wallet, calculate a tip or sign a slip, and compared to valet parking in Los Angeles, it can be a bargain. I didn't mind that Uber had the taxi industry in its crosshairs. How about the regulated taxi industry getting its own digital act together? Why not compete to deliver the best consumer experience instead of going after them in lawsuits and taxi commissions?
But reports about Uber's competition with Lyft have dampened my ardor. Lyft's systems have been gummed up by thousands of car requests from Uber minions who either don't show up or who ride for just a few blocks and try to recruit the Lyft driver to Uber for a $500-a-head bounty. So much for the romance of the sharing economy. I can't be the only fanboy wondering whether Uber is still cool.
I had a crush on Yelp, too. I liked how it gave independent consumers a voice and opened up word-of-mouth to everyone. Everyone knows to take Yelp ratings with a grain of salt. Friends, family and employees are always trying to rig the comments. I thought Yelp's algorithms would intercept some of that, and that my personal jerk detector would help me figure out the real wisdom of the crowd. I'd heard charges that rigging was being done by Yelp itself -- that it shakes down the businesses it rates to buy ads on their site, threating that their reviews will tank if they balk. But I'd dismissed those complaints as sour grapes and paranoia.
On Sept. 4, a federal appeals court threw out a case against Yelp alleging economic extortion. When I heard one of the plaintiffs on the radio, my gut told me he was the real deal. The more I heard from him and others, the more I believed them. In my ruling, Yelp runs a pay-to-play shop. But in her ruling, Judge Marsha S. Berzon said the plaintiffs hadn't proven economic extortion. Here's the killer in the ruling: Even if owners who refused to buy ads had actually proven that Yelp withheld positive reviews, it wouldn't matter, because Yelp "has no obligation" to publish them. "It is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence ... reviews." Yelp is a business. It has no greater obligation to live up to my fantasies about fairness and accuracy than does Fox News.
The same day the Yelp decision came down, the Washington Post published Hillary Rodham Clinton's review of Henry Kissinger's new book, "World Order." In it she calls him "a friend," vouches for his "astute observations" and notes that they share "a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order."
I have been her fan since she was the first lady of Arkansas. This tribute to Kissinger won't be the only test of my fidelity, but I'm not ready to write this one off as a one-off. Actually, I can think of a few different words to describe him than she did. Gasbag, narcissist and war criminal come to mind.
We now know that when Kissinger was Lyndon Johnson's adviser to Vietnam peace talks, he secretly leaked to Richard Nixon that a truce was imminent. This enabled Nixon to torpedo the treaty, telling the Thieu government of South Vietnam that Nixon would give him a better deal than Johnson. Thieu pulled out of the talks, and Nixon, running as the peace candidate, arguably won the 1968 presidential election because of Kissinger's sabotage. Before the war would end, 20,000 more American troops would die, 100,000 would be wounded, and more than a million Vietnamese would be killed. We also now know that the "just and liberal order" that Clinton and Kissinger agree on didn't prevent him from backing the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected but inconveniently socialist president of Chile, or from making common cause with murderous despots from Argentina to East Timor.
I get why she calls him a friend. They were both secretaries of state. Members of that club don't blow the whistle on one another. I also get that the book review is meant to burnish her hawk credentials. It does. Unfortunately, what it also does is remind us that she is, after all, a politician.
By now we should know better than to believe any politician is driven more by ideals than by interests. Even so, there are plenty of competing interests for a candidate to pick from. I'd like to believe that if Clinton becomes a candidate for president, when she weighs plutocrats' interests against the human costs of their wealth, the exigencies of fundraising won't have a thumb on that scale, just as I'd like to believe that her valentine to Kissinger is just an effort to pre-empt whining from John McCain and Lindsay Graham. But if recent years have taught us anything, it's that loving any brand is a losing proposition, in politics no less than in commerce. Unfortunately, the business that brands are in is persuading us to confuse their power with our love.
Though the size of Warren Bennis's obituary in the New York Times was epic - all six columns across, filling most of the space above the fold on the back page of the A section - its text made no mention of something about him I always thought inextricable from who he was and the success he achieved.
There was room in the obit to note some of the top business executives he had mentored, and the four U.S. presidents who sought his advice. There was space to call him the father of leadership studies, with an influence comparable to Peter Drucker's on management. There were generous quotes from his books, articles and interviews, and there were telling details about his own leadership, like this: At age 19, when he was shipped off to Europe toward the end of the Battle of the Bulge, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was one of the youngest platoon leaders in the Army.
But there was one word - one outstanding quality he possessed - that apparently dared not be spoken in the obit of record.
Was it too shallow to acknowledge? A couple of weeks earlier, in James Garner's Times obituary, the word was right up there in the headline. If it could be said about an actor, why not also say it about an academic?
The word is handsome. Warren Bennis was one handsome dude.
I guess there's a taboo about admitting that this matters for a man unless his profession involves paying to look at him or running for office. Fortunately, the Times obit included two recent pictures of Warren. Until the very end, age didn't take away his dash.
When I visited Warren a couple of weeks before he died, at 89, he was busy planning. What he most wanted to talk about was a book he was going to write -- not his next book, but the book after that, which would be his 37th -- about political courage. His body was clearly failing. I knew this was likely to be the last time I'd see him, and I think he knew it, too, yet our conversation contained no goodbyes. I know: Men are stupid about feelings. But both of us were less afraid to talk about one kind of courage than another.
He told me how bothersome it was that he'd fallen behind on his three-newspapers-a-day regime, but I still found him as current on Washington as anyone. He played with the idea that President Obama's troubles with Congress originated in his life as a young man, which he thought might make a good case study for the book. He confided that he was thinking about retiring from his professorship at the University of Southern California when he turned 90 next March, and cutting back a bit then on his calendar, but he said that wouldn't preclude him from spending a couple of days a week on campus with students. He asked me to consider writing the book with him, and co-teaching a course based on it. I didn't have to answer on the spot - it was just something to tuck away.
The reason all this talk about the future didn't break my heart was Warren's undiminished charm, and his coltish take on the topic, and the autumnal persistence of a matinee-idol handsomeness that disarmed any reservations about his powers. Over the 40 years I'd known him, his looks had made him pop out of every picture and room he appeared in. I knew this from personal experience. When I met him, I was a Stanford graduate student spending the summer interning at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, and he was president of the University of Cincinnati. The first time I laid eyes on him, his white hair and blue eyes were set off by a deep tan (we didn't know any better then), and the tennis whites and gleaming smile he wore made him almost impossibly dazzling.
He appreciated, and wore well, subtly beautiful clothes. He knew what a good blue shirt could do for him. Warren was the only man who ever looked me up and down, appraising my wardrobe and grooming, neither of which much interested me back then, but a couple of decades later, when he was still grading me on how I was turned out, it finally dawned on me that he was patiently trying to teach me that a dollop of vanity could help anyone go a long way.
Warren knew how good he looked, which I loved him for, and he understood the authority it lent to his own leadership. Men and women alike wanted him to notice them, befriend them, to bask in his vitality. Movie stars can make people a little crazy like that. But it never went to Warren's head. He was warm and kind, and he had an enduring empathy for - as Philo of Alexandria, whom he loved to cite, put it - the great drama going on within every person we meet on our journey.
Fifteen years after I met him, Warren floored me by turning my career transition from Washington to Hollywood into a case study in what became his best-selling and still classic work, "On Becoming a Leader." To this day, if someone I meet says they know who I am, chances are it's from that. I never did get to collaborate with him on a book or a course, but three years ago, I interviewed him for an hour on the topic of creativity and collaboration in front of a packed house at USC. I was sometimes challenged to keep him on topic - in his ninth decade, his anecdotes could be discursive, and nested like the tales of Sheherazade - but I needn't have worried about holding the audience. What he said about everyone from Stephen Sondheim to Steve Jobs held the audience rapt, but as an insurance policy he'd also worn some awesome striped cashmere socks that kept any listener's attention from wandering.
His daughter Kate told me that after he died, she sat at his desk, surrounded by his stuff, looking through his glasses, wrapping herself in his cardigan, trying to imagine being him. She saw that his calendar was open to July, and it was packed with appointments, visitors, reminders and deadlines. One of those visits was mine, when all he wanted to talk about was the future. He died on July 31. When she turned the page to August, it was blank.
It is not widely known that Norman Lear and I have the same mother.
Norman once called his mother in Bridgeport, Conn., and said, "Mother, I just got this call. The Television Academy is forming a Hall of Fame. And the first inductees are going to be General Sarnoff and Edward R. Murrow and William Paley and Milton Berle and Paddy Chayefsky and Lucille Ball -- and me."
There was about a two-second beat, and she said, "Listen, if that's what they want to do, who am I to say?"
My brother and I once sent our parents a silver bowl from Tiffany's, engraved, "For our Mom and Dad on their Silver Wedding Anniversary. With Love from David and Martin." We didn't hear anything, so I called.
"Mom, did a package come for you and Dad?"
"Yes, son, it did."
"I hope you like it. Jill helped us pick it out."
Jill was my college roommate's girlfriend, who lived in New York. I didn't know from Tiffany silver bowls, except that this was the best present my brother and I could think of to make them feel special. I had asked Jill, who did know from such things, to go to Tiffany's and tell me the classiest bowl we could afford.
"Do you like it, Mom?"
There was about a two-second beat, and she said, "Listen, I'm sure Jill's parents would know how to appreciate it."
When I heard Norman tell that story about his mother, I was thrilled to find out I'm not the only kid who grew up thinking that sado-narcissism is normal motherly love. My father, unlike Norman's, did not go to jail. But when Norman tells how a 9-year old feels when his father is sent to prison for three years for fraud, those feelings are mine.
Over the past few weeks, for many hours a day, aloud, Norman has been telling painful, hilarious stories about our (OK, his) mother and father, and about many others in his life, from Frank Sinatra and Mary Hartman to Jerry Falwell and Maya Angelou. He's just finished recording the audio version of his autobiography, which is coming out in October. Its title is "Even This I Get to Experience," a sentiment he's considered engraving on his tombstone.
A guy who'd say that is a guy who doesn't forget to savor life. Norman turns 92 on Sunday, and today he's as creative, smart, busy and passionate as ever. If that's what 92 looks like - and 94, too, which is what the inexhaustible Deborah Szekely turned in May - then I'll have what they're having.
Whether you read or listen to it, you will love Norman Lear's book. It's beautiful writing, rich and raw. He's a gifted storyteller, and he's led a helluva life. I know: You'd expect me to say something like that. So full disclosure: I love Norman Lear. (For a second opinion: Kirkus -- the publishing industry's pre-publication tip sheet -- also loves him; they just gave him a starred review, the best they can award, calling the book "engrossing and entertaining," a "bighearted, richly detailed chronicle of comedy, commitment and a long life lived fully.")
Some people, however, do not love Norman Lear. His liberalism and iconoclasm long ago made him a bête noire of the right: Richard Nixon put him on his enemies list. Today he makes Rush Limbaugh and Fox News sputter and rant. (He often listens to Rush in the car, one master entertainer sizing up another's shtick.)
But Norman's book, like his life, is as patriotic as the Fourth of July. Who knew that he flew more than 50 bombing missions in World War II? For "I Love Liberty," a 1982 two-hour ABC special, he got Barry Goldwater, John Wayne and Jane Fonda onto the same stage. In 2011, Nancy Reagan asked him to accompany her to the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Library. He bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence made the night of July 4, 1776. He thought people shouldn't have to travel to see their country's birth certificate -- it should travel to see them -- so he put it on a nine-year tour to all 50 states. He loves America, he has often said, like his grandfather -- who regularly wrote letters to the White House beginning "My dearest darling Mr. President" -- loved Roosevelt. (In the book, he says that letter story is actually about someone else's grandfather, and cops to appropriating it.)
Though I spoke to Norman on the phone a couple of times when I worked in the Carter White House, I first met him in the flesh at a big black tie New Year's Eve party at the home of Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Sally Quinn. I was at the party solo. At midnight, as everyone kissed and toasted 1984, I found myself standing next to Norman, who seemed to be the only other person who had come alone. Without a word between us, to the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," we fell into each other's arms. Norman kissed me on the lips. I wiped a tear from my cheek. We hugged. He looked deep into my eyes for a two-second beat, and he said, "Listen, I don't want to hurt you, but you know this can't go on." (OK, I cop to adding that "listen.")
I didn't know three things at that moment. One was that just a few hours earlier, at my Mondale campaign desk, I had met for the first time the future mother of my children. Another was that Norman would become my blood brother and soul mate. The third was that he was as miserably sad that New Year's Eve as he'd ever been in his life. I was oblivious of that until I read his pages about his marriage to Frances Lear. In the manuscript, when he wrote about that night, I wasn't even in the story.
Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." Norman's book captures the bittersweet comedy of hindsight insight, the way life forces us to revise the running Story of Me we're always telling ourselves in order to make its twists and turns keep making sense. We're lucky Mr. Lear waited to write the Book of Norman until he had so much life to understand backwards.
I can't wait to find out what he's figured out when he's 120.
What do you call it when media try to manipulate your feelings without first asking for informed consent?
Example: The average Facebook user sees only 20 percent of the 1,500 stories per day that could have shown up in their news feed. The posts you receive are determined by algorithms whose bottom line is Facebook's bottom line. The company is constantly adjusting all kinds of dials, quietly looking for the optimal mix to make us spend more of our time and money on Facebook. Of course the more we're on Facebook, the more information they have about us to fine-tune their formulas for picking ads to show us. That's their business model: We create and give Facebook, for free, the content they use and the data they mine to hold our attention, which Facebook in turn sells to advertisers.
Those are the terms of service that everyone, without reading, clicks "I Agree to" - and not just for Facebook. We make comparable mindless contracts all the time with Gmail, Yahoo, Twitter, Amazon, Siri, Yelp, Pandora and tons of other apps, retailers and advertiser-supported news and entertainment. If you're online, if you use a smartphone, you're an experimental subject in proprietary research studies of how best to target, engage and monetize you. They're always testing content, design, headlines, graphics, prices, promotions, profiling tools, you name it, and you've opted in whether you realize it or not.
Many of these experiments hinge on our feelings, because much of what makes us come, stay, buy, like, share, comment and come back is emotional, not rational. So it should surprise no one that Facebook wants to know what makes its users happier. But when they acknowledged last month that they had tested - on 700,000 people, for one week - whether increasing the fraction of upbeat posts in their news feeds made them feel more upbeat (it did), a firestorm broke out.
The charge: People are being treated like guinea pigs without their consent. Unaccountable corporations are secretly manipulating our emotions. This is the slippery slope to "Brave New World."
So what else is new? Neil Postman first warned us about Amusing Ourselves to Death - the name of his book - in 1984, before the Web was spun. But that didn't stop entertainment, which is exquisitely attuned to the marketplace, from making its long march through our institutions. Today, politics is all about unaccountable corporations manipulating our emotions; they're constantly testing and targeting their paid messages to voters, none of whom are asked for informed consent. The news industry is all about the audience, and much of its content has long been driven by the primal power of danger, sex and novelty to trap our attention, but there's no clamor for shows and sites to warn us we're lab chimps.
John Kenneth Galbraith called advertising "the management of specific demand." Ads tell us stories, which are all variants of: If you buy this, you'll be happy. Their words and images were tested on audiences even before Don Draper was a boy, and now digital analytics gives marketers new attention management techniques to use on us. Today, every tweet, every YouTube or blog post aspires to be viral, and when that happens, no one complains that some cat or cute kid or Kardashian has used Orwellian mind-control to manipulate our mood.
I'll give the Facebook freakout this: University partners did the research using Facebook's data, and the academic vetting process could have gone the other way and nixed the project. But even if that had happened, Facebook could still have conducted this experiment, just as they and Google and plenty of other companies no doubt continue to adjust algorithms, run randomized trials of content and design (known as A/B tests) and discover the many economic, political and cultural micro-tribes we consumers belong to. Academic committees called Institutional Review Boards rule on what professors can do to research subjects, but informed consent in Silicon Valley is basically what someone can get away with, which is what's been true for commerce, politics and the content industries since at least the 1980s.
In fact, ever since people first gathered around the fire, storytellers have perfected their skills by studying the data in their audiences' eyes. Today, we may think that our media savvy and B.S. detectors protect us from being played like piccolos, but people have always believed that thinking could reliably prevent their emotions from running away with them, and they've always been wrong. Neuroscience now shows what happens: Our emotions are faster than our reason, which we then use to reverse engineer some rationalization for our actions.
Is there any way to protect people from the hidden persuaders, as Vance Packard called an earlier era's desire wizards? After all, the arts and technologies of manipulation are only going to get more powerful. Consumer protection is only going to grow weaker. Mass education's ability to turn out critical thinkers is hardly going to spike upward. The best plan Plato could come up with to protect future leaders from being enslaved by their appetites was to exile the most powerful manipulators of his time - the poets, who whipped crowds into frenzies with their artifice and illusions.
But banishment is an authoritarian solution. More speech, not less, is the democratic answer to assaults on freedom and agency. Open-source research, with methods and tools freely available, can serve the public interest. (We're up to that at the Norman Lear Center's Media Impact Project.) And the place where countervailing speech really wants to get heard is in the media, whose industrial success, like Facebook's, depends on monetizing our attention. I've seen a lot of stories about Facebook fiddling with the happiness of our feeds. The irony is that I encountered all of them on media whose owners are just as determined to push my buttons as Mark Zuckerberg.
Participant approached the Lear Center because of its academic expertise in measuring the impact of educational messages embedded in entertainment content. The Center's Hollywood, Health & Society program has partnered with the CDC for the last 14 years to look at how health storylines in popular TV shows affect viewers' knowledge, attitudes and behavior. The survey component of TPI includes a combination of questions that have become standard in entertainment education evaluation: the "transportation scale" identifies the type of emotional involvement that the entertainment content triggered and the outcome questions indicate what real-world actions a subject has taken after exposure to the content. TPI combines these two measures to create a score for each piece of video content in the study.
In a separate research project, Participant Media asked the Lear Center to evaluate the impact of three of their films: the documentaries Food, Inc. and Waiting for Superman, and Steven Soderbergh's feature film, Contagion. The Lear Center adapted propensity score matching techniques used in clinical research to address the key problem of "selection bias" among movie viewers: only certain people choose to see certain films, making it very difficult for researchers to expose people randomly to a movie and to determine the actual impact of the film. A propensity score methodology - not used in TPI so far - enables researchers to create a detailed profile of likely viewers of a film, and to compare very similar viewers who saw the film with those who did not. Unlike typical survey research, this method allows researchers to construct something similar to a classic study design where individuals are randomly assigned to a treatment group and a control group.
We are excited to see for-profit companies like Participant Media devote significant resources and time to measuring the impact of media. We hope that many others will follow in their path.