Friday, January 08, 2016


One balmy night in July, Vali and Sugriva trundled up the stairs to their local cinema.

They had excitedly purchased their tickets and a bucket of popcorn large enough to wear as a crash helmet.

As the other patrons filed into the expansive theatre in Myrtle Beach, California, Vali and Sugriva took their seats.

"Should they be here?" someone asked their chaperon. "I'm not sure this movie is the right influence for them."

Other cinema-goers peered over.

"They'll be fine", replied the chaperon.

The concerned patron continued.

"I'm not sure we should be teaching them how to take over the world."

Vali and Sugrivam, you see, are chimps. Great apes, who were taken to watch 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'. The story even made 'Good Morning America'.

Slow news week, I guess.

And yet, despite all of the American goof-ball charm inherent in this kind of story, there was a strange undercurrent of paranoia.

The cinema patron, concerned that the content might gives the chimps delusions of world domination.

The Good Morning America hosts, who picked up this same theme and made an awkward 'we were all thinking the same thing' on-air joke about giving the chimps 'ideas'.

The power of perception over reality. We live in a peculiar time in that regard.

Perception has overtaken reason, logic and data as the key driver behind so much decision making. In a world saturated with information, we return to our gut instincts more than ever.

But why?

Are we so overwhelmed by the amount of evidence that is available, that we just choose to ignore it?

Or is it simply that we prefer a reality that we can easily categorise with rhetoric, past judgements, and cliches?

The Australian national broadcaster, the ABC, recently received a $254 million (over five years), funding cut. The perception put forward by the politician in charge of this decision, was that this funding reduction could be achieved through efficiency savings and back office staff reduction; with no impact on the television and radio programming the ABC provides.

The reality?

According to a leaked efficiency audit on the ABC, these cuts could only ever affect programming, because the organisation was so incredibly lean in the first place.

And yet, when asked in public, the 'perception of inefficiency' was still the explanation given to justify the funding decimation.

I wish this were the lone incidence.

According to numerous op-eds (like this, this, this and this) on child psychology, particularly in the United States, children watching violent screen content are at risk of becoming numb to violence, with a chance of displaying increased aggression themselves. This view has been enunciated for over 30 years.

And yet...
'Several scholars (e.g. Freedman, 2002; Olson, 2004; Savage, 2004) have pointed out that as media content has increased in violence in the past few decades, violent crimes among youth have declined rapidly. Although most scholars caution that this decline cannot be attributed to a causal effect, they conclude that this observation argues against causal harmful effects for media violence. A recent long-term outcome study of youth found no long-term relationship between playing violent video games or watching violent television and youth violence or bullying'

Again and again, the perception and reality gap appears around us.

The news tells us we live in a grim and violent world yet, empirically, this simply isn't the case. The review of a new book by Steven Pinker 'The Better Angels of Our Nature', encapsulates it quite nicely:

'Pinker demonstrates that long-term data trumps anecdotes. The idea that we live in an exceptionally violent time is an illusion created by the media’s relentless coverage of violence, coupled with our brain’s evolved propensity to notice and remember recent and emotionally salient events. Pinker’s thesis is that violence of all kinds—from murder, rape, and genocide to the spanking of children to the mistreatment of blacks, women, gays, and animals—has been in decline for centuries as a result of the civilizing process....

...Again—and it bears repeating—violence is on the decline, with occasional bumps along the way. Think of global warming. Yes, some years are cooler, but the overall trend is that of a warming Earth. The analogy applies to violence of all kinds. Compared with 500 or 1,000 years ago, a greater percentage of people in more places more of the time are safer, healthier, wealthier, and freer today.'

But that story wouldn't sell newspapers.

Are we devolving in that sense? Away from enlightenment?

The feat of creative imagination is a gift of evolution to humanity. This gift is what makes us capable of such incredible accomplishments, through the ability to dream and deliberately visualise something yet to exist.

Read that sentence again in your head, with the voice of an old person. Now read it again, like you are yelling the words in your mind.

How is that possible? Incredible, right?

The power of that grey mass between your ears.

Power that should be used to imagine where needed, and analyse where there is evidence and fact to guide us. Not the other way around.

We have come so far and yet, in so many ways, we're all still just apes, staring together at the screen.

Is that the best we can do?

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