Long before “fake news” entered our vernacular, the late historian and former Librarian of the Library of Congress, Daniel Boorstin wrote The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Boorstin defines pseudo-events as ones that are fabricated as opposed to those that are real. These are fabricated by press conference, surveys, press releases, interviews, and leaks that represent synthetic news that creates or foster illusions to influence how we think about specific topics. He wrote about this phenomenon in 1962 long before twitter, Facebook, blogs, social media, issue advertising, electronic news, and the 24/7 new cycles that reinforces our biases. All of these mechanisms are used to shape and reinforce our beliefs.
The supply of illusions and pseudo-events has gotten greater because the demand for them keeps increasing. Boorstin says that “we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations.” As our expectations increase but our capability to separate the real information and facts from illusions and synthetic news does not. To manage an excess supply we engage in mental triage by shutting out sources that don’t conform to our beliefs and relying on summaries and digests because we suffer information overload. Our tendency for confirmation bias has become a barrier to finding common ground as our sources push us further from the center and to binary choices.
Almost 60 years ago, Boorstin observed that consumers of information were “less interested in whether something is a fact than in whether it is convenient that it should be believed”. What would he say today? Then he concluded that we had become use to using the image to test reality, making it hard to regain the ability to test the image with reality.
In the Introduction to The Image Boorstin wrote that “To discover our illusions will not solve the problems of our world. But if we do not discover them, we will never discover our real problems.” So, what is the solution. According to Boorstin, illusory solutions are not the cure for our illusions. There is no easy answer. Each of us “must emancipate” ourselves. “Each of us must disenchant himself, must moderate his expectations, and must prepare himself to receive messages …from the outside.” Most important, “ We should seek new ways of letting messages that reach us…”.
The Image was republished in 1987 as a 25thanniversary edition. In his commentary on it, George Will wrote,”Boorstin’s book tells us how to see and listen, how to think about what we see and hear.” He also wrote, “one of the effects …has been to induce in readers a healthy skepticism. It shows readers how to stand back and squint at the world.”
The Image may be 56 years old but it is just as relevant today as it was then. Indeed, it may be more relevant. A healthy dose of skepticism and an attitude of “I’m not convinced” would go a long way in helping us see more clearly through the fog of illusions and recapturing the ability to find common ground so that once again the influence of the majority will be greater than that of extremists on the right and left.