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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

The Media-Saturated World Is Warping Your Reality


When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior.Guy Debord

Introduction - How Tech Addiction Governs Our Worldviews

The rise of smartphones in recent years has created a population accustomed to constant, high-speed connection to the Internet and all it offers. Unlike before, when televisions and desktop computers were big and clunky objects of limited functionality, today's powerful devices provide connectivity that is portable, instant, everywhere, and multi-purpose.

We can now always be online, and often are so, streaming videos, playing games, perusing social media, listening to music, working, and reading. Usually, we're doing several of these at once, or at least we're trying.

But this fantastic and democratizing access to all the information in the world has come at a cost. As we dedicate more of our consciousness to the hypnotizing lure of our screens, it becomes more challenging to interpret reality.

After all, what we "experience" on the net is a deviation from the norm in some way, an extreme, an anomaly, and an emotionally manipulating hook meant to keep us watching. That's what makes the web so captivating and keeps us scrolling.

Yet I use the word "experience" loosely here since gazing at entertaining online spectacles is something different. It's all vicarious; it's content mediated by someone else with an ideological or financial agenda not aligned with our own interests. Put another way, every minute online is another spent being manipulated and thinking someone else's thoughts.

This is the media mediating our perceptions. People have opinions put there by others. They know nothing more about the world than what they've seen on a YouTube or TikTok video.

What is experienced offline counts for little compared to the extremes we encounter on our screens. Real life is dull by comparison. It can't compare. As we spend more time immersed in virtual worlds, there is less to experience the real world around us.

And so our lives become even duller.

Worse still, if all we find are algorithmically curated versions of a fragmented reality tailored to our personal tastes, then we risk concluding that our skewed version is the only true one that matters.

So there we'll remain, comfortably numb in a fake reality of our own choosing. And everyone else will do the same, birthing tens of millions of mini pseudo-worlds, all united only by their isolated and illusory nature.

Any shared communal space uniting us offline will slowly dissolve in the acid bath of petty online tribal identities. Of course, as I've addressed elsewhere, just putting away the phone and talking to each other in person can be an antidote to this toxic trend.

But that's not the direction we're heading.

Not at all.

The widespread pessimism and cynicism of the modern era result from this choice to isolate ourselves in the mediated realities of the internet. It's made us angrier, lonelier, more depressed, and anxiety-ridden. Social cohesion is weaker these days; we sense the state of affairs is much worse than it actually is. After all, that's what we see on our phones—the bad stuff.

I want to examine how we got here and what "here" looks like. This is important to understand because we're headed in a dangerous direction where the interpretations of the world we get online are beginning to drive actual behavior in the real world. This is creating an unstable dialectic between online and offline realities that threatens to tear us apart.


Walter Lippmann's Warning on Media Fragmentation

Before the Internet, there was television; before that radio, and before radio, print. Each of these mediums presented different ways of engaging with the broader world. As Marshall McLuhan preached, “The medium is the message.”[1] McLuhan believed every medium creates unique sensory extensions of ourselves that reach beyond our immediate senses, giving us access to information that would otherwise be unavailable. [2]

In the early twentieth century, Walter Lippmann argued that printed propaganda is a difficult medium to unite public opinion around since individuals reading something will interpret it in a way that may not coincide with the original intent of the propagandist. [3]

In addition, the pace of print was much slower. People had to wait for newspapers to publish; they then had to purchase and read the material when they had time. The whole reading process demanded attention and time, leaving ample room for individual interpretations.

For Lippmann, print’s tendency toward endless subjective interpretation meant the government’s role should be to produce experts in every field whose job would be to form opinions for the public based on well-researched facts. [4]

What was significant about Lippmann’s proposal is not how effective it would be in practice but the prescient notion that a pluralistic democracy risks dangerous instability when everyone has an opinion but no one is an expert.

According to Lippmann, without expert consensus, the risk was having a society governed by ideologically motivated partisans, all fighting for their version of the truth rather than one ruled by reason. Such a cacophony of subjective demagoguery would undermine the social fabric, generating fear, anxiety, and pessimism in the citizenry.

Lippmann concluded, in retrospect, perhaps naively: “The value of expert mediation is not that it sets up opinion to coerce the partisans, but that it disintegrates partisanship.” [5]

That would be nice, wouldn't it? But it doesn't work that way. We know now partisans can also deploy convincing “experts” to offer cherry-picked arguments, sowing confusion among the undecided and entrenching the positions of fellow like-minded individuals.

Lippmann’s quest for a democratic society run by objective reason, where facts were unassailable and vetted by professionals in their respective fields, became much more challenging to achieve because the kinds of technologies that followed print were particularly susceptible to partisan propaganda.


The Rise of Radio and Television

Each new technology sped up the dissemination of information, and this increased tempo bombarded people with more info than they could cope with. Daniel Bell noted the differences between television and print.

The print media allow for self-pacing and dialogue in comprehending an argument or in reflecting on an image. Print not only emphasizes the cognitive and the symbolic, but is also, most importantly, the necessary mode for conceptual thought. The visual media – I mean here film and television – impose their pace on the viewer and, in emphasizing images rather than words, invite not conceptualization but dramatization.” [6]

First launched in the 1940s, television soon dominated the media landscape. The number of households with a TV set skyrocketed from 2.3% in 1948 to 71.8% by 1956. [7] By 1960, this percentage would reach 90%, with viewers already spending 3 to 3.5 hours per day watching the tele. [8]

By 2005, the average American home would have a television on for at least 8 hours daily, with access to hundreds of entertainment channels and 24-hour news. [9] Television’s dominance as a medium remained unchallenged until the advent of the Internet in the 1990s and remains influential today.

Neil Postman viewed it as a transformative new medium focused primarily on entertaining viewers.

But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable.” [10]

At first, it offered limited options, especially regarding news programming. As a result, people everywhere had access to the same reporting from just a few outlets.

During the 1960s and 1970s, 35-38% of households viewed the evening news on one of the limited broadcast channels. [11] Even if they still sorted themselves into ideological groups afterward, the initial sources were few and relatively homogenous. Television, as opposed to print, further democratized the spread of information by becoming accessible to the less educated and literate members of society. [12]

In America, families gathered in front of the tube every night to watch the nightly news from one of the three big channels (CBS, NBC, and ABC). In the U.K., the BBC fulfilled this role. Partisan behavior still existed, but the minimal nature of the media landscape meant people consumed the same content.


The Rise of Polarization and Echo Chambers

Markus Pryor notes, however, that cable TV and the Internet altered this dynamic. Cable brought an increased menu of options. No longer did viewers have to settle for a handful of programming options.

Not only did the options for news sources expand dramatically, but those for entertainment did as well. Cable accelerated the polarization of public opinion by offering hundreds of channels and numerous 24-hour news networks; the Internet would soon raise this level of choice by orders of magnitude.

Instead of five or six cable news channels like CNN, MSNBC, Fox, the BBC, or others, people could find thousands of websites catering to every ideological inclination. In this environment, political partisans, already more engaged than moderates, became more so.

Nevertheless, those with only a moderate interest in politics, whom Pryor calls "Switchers," began opting more for cable TV's many entertainment options like sitcoms, gameshows, and sports. This happened at the expense of political participation. These Switchers disengaged and left politics to their more opinionated fellow citizens. This trend led to a more polarized electorate as cable news and high-speed Internet went mainstream. [13]

Pryor, however, is careful not to blame partisan outlets like Fox and MSNBC since the polarizing trend he found pre-dates it by over a decade. According to him, this polarization results from vastly increased viewing options, not only with news but entertainment as well. [14] Instead of the limited programming menu of television's golden age, people could indulge their inclinations to either minutely follow the news or escape into vapid entertainment.

Cass Sunstein was another who wrote about how modern media technologies amplified group polarization. While Pryor believed additional choices stoked polarization among partisans, Sunstein concluded that social networks, especially online, tended to generate echo chambers. “If people on the Internet are deliberating mostly with like-minded others, their views will not merely be reinforced; they will instead be shifted to more extreme points.” [15]


Technology's Role in Tribal Behavior and Cognitive Bias

In such a rich and diverse programming environment, people can gravitate toward those with the same views. After finding a like-minded group, they tend to reject dissenting opinions as absurd while reinforcing their ingroup’s ideology.

Worse yet, they'll see themselves as distinct members of a small minority with an inside track to the truth that other "blue-pilled normies" are blind to. This coincides with earlier research by Emily Pronin, Carolyn Puccio, and Less Ross. They argued that “People…are inclined to hold the misguided conviction that they somehow see the world, and evaluate divisive issues, in a uniquely clear, unbiased, and unmediated fashion.” [16] The Internet and cable television are prone to this kind of egocentric bias.

Most people tacitly understand that others interpret the world differently, so they adapt their understanding of reality to accommodate these differences. Many also have strong partisan inclinations in one way or another but have difficulty expressing those views. For such people, this lack of confidence and inability to articulate a belief coherently tends to moderate the outward expression of those opinions.

However, cable television and the Internet are effective at short-circuiting this accommodating tendency by offering articulate hyper-partisan interlocutors skilled at expressing partisan talking points in simplified and understandable ways. Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, and innumerable others play this role daily, deploying their charismatic rhetoric to the detriment of their supporters' ability to think critically.

The Internet thus provides an additional way for inarticulate partisans to find information corroborating their views and gives them a toolbox of canned talking points to confidently deploy when challenged. In this way, someone who denies climate change can explore professional-looking websites with sophisticated arguments reinforcing their bias; likewise, those against vaccines can immunize themselves from scientific consensus by only reading from other online sources validating what they already (inarticulately) believe.

Take any partisan issue, and you can observe this tendency of hyper-partisans serving up little more than bumper sticker-deep ideas repeated endlessly by their preferred talking head champions. Most haven't engaged critically on the subject - few of us ever do - but are happy enough to have a handful of simple ideas to parrot. Those ideas aren't their own, yet they feel intuitively correct. That's good enough.

Yet this is corrosive to social cohesion, with competing echo chambers vehemently opposed to one another. The members of these echo chambers are all convinced their side owns a more valid version of the truth; every group is thus better able to marshal sophisticated-sounding arguments to reinforce its beliefs.

But they hardly talk to each other anymore.

Given all this, is anyone surprised at the hyper-polarization we're experiencing today?


The Social Consequences of Media Polarization

McLuhan was correct when he argued that each new information technology brings a different way for people to interact with the world by taking older technologies and refashioning them in unpredictable ways. However, as McLuhan knew, this can lead to unforeseen outcomes. [17] As content expanded to offer a broader array of choices, people sorted out by ideology and inclination. Whereas before, in the broadcast news era, everyone had access to the same limited options, homogenizing views to a certain extent, political junkies today can feast on a never-ending stream of political content 24 hours a day.

Likewise, entertainment fans find escape in immersive video games or binge programming on Netflix, leaving the political arena to the partisans. Either way, our modern media landscape lends itself to ideological fragmentation, encouraging more pessimistic worldviews.

For partisans, it means constant culture wars fed by partisan content, which fosters “us versus them” mentalities.

For example, highly online liberals often believe that the “other side” wants to "deny" trans people rights. Anyone one degree to the right of center on the political spectrum is a fascist. Overt masculinity is toxic. Trauma and victimhood are virtues. Organized religion is evil. Capitalism is too. I could go on.

But then, extremely online conservatives are no better. They've learned to fear any social welfare program as somehow the first step down a slippery slope toward Soviet communism. School teachers are pedo groomers who want to indoctrinate their kids to be queer. Inner cities are crime-ridden hellscapes where poor people do little more than rob drug stores unmolested by the defunded police. The Deep State is calling the shots. Secularism is evil. And socialism too. Here too, I could go on.

Partisan media does not lend itself to nuanced discussion.

Daniel Bell saw this back in the nineties as cable television and the Internet began to gain momentum. “Ideologically, the country is being polarized. To those on the Right, we are two nations: the moral and the immoral, the traditional culture against the counterculture. To those on the liberal Left, the United States is a society that is increasingly being riven by the rising inequalities of wealth and income in which the poor, black and white, are being left behind by the lack of economic opportunity.”[18]

Does this still sound familiar in 2023?

Compare those well-worn narratives Bell witnessed in the 90s with those of today. The message is the same, but the medium by which it is delivered is now in our back pockets, always available to an ever-connected populace, always pumping our minds full of mediated messages targeting our biases.

Nevertheless, this pessimism does not only stem from the social, political, and ideological differences offered by cable television and the Internet, although those do play important roles. The adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” takes on a different meaning when everyone is constantly engaging with screen-based technologies. We can now seek it out and find it in infinite supply online.

With the average American spending just under ten hours a day connected to electronic media (computers, mobile devices, television), it is unsurprising how perceptions of reality vis-à-vis the world have begun to diverge from personal reality. [19]

In our info-saturated society, sensational news is front and center. This is not a new phenomenon. Print and broadcast news did the same and had the ability in the 1960s and 1970s to shift opinions and cause pessimism about the state of affairs. [20]

The difference is today people are spending so much more time saturated by information. Neil Postman calls this a peek-a-boo world, “…where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again.” [21]

Anyone who has watched cable news or surfed the Internet understands how this works. A plane crash in China, a police chase in Los Angeles, a school shooting in Colorado, an outbreak in Brazil; each of these and more hits the viewer in quick succession and often in the span of minutes. According to Postman, our exposure to this kind of content induces the existential anxiety that we live in a world out of control and beyond our control.

When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.” [22]

The more shocking the story, the more it can be spun by partisans. The result is a public space that's even more Balkanized and atomized.

Natalie Stroud’s research indicates that agenda-motivated content in today’s ideologically fragmented media landscape drives opinions and perceptions. She writes, “In a fragmented media system audiences can develop divergent impressions of the most important problems facing the nation. There is some evidence that this occurs based on differences in the issue emphases and reporting in partisan media coverage.” [23]

Over time, this creates a dissonance between how we view the world beyond our daily experience and the one of our direct experience. Two incompatible and contradictory realities emerge.


Two Versions of Reality: Pessimism vs. Optimism

First, people have a conception of their immediate, day-to-day, realities. Call this the realm of the five senses; this is a directly experienced reality existing with or without us; it's the non-technological reality of direct, unmediated experience in the world. This is the life of the everyday and mundane, of the routine and banal.

Second, there is another mode of perception, one mediated through digital technologies. To borrow McLuhan’s terminology, this is the realm of the extended senses; it's what exists outside our heads and beyond our immediate perceptions. It's a world of shock, drama, extremes, and titillations. The question then becomes, where do people spend most of their waking hours? In reality, or virtual reality? The answer to that question will largely determine how one sees the world.

The result is that the technologically-mediated individual endures a daily barrage of war, terror, natural disaster, crime, corruption, and other mayhem, all delivered at a constant fever pitch and often with a (or not) subtle ideological bias. The more time people spend living in this technologically mediated reality, these days generated with great sophistication by platforms aggressively competing for our attention, the more skewed our view of reality becomes.

Thus, to perceive the wider world, we rely on filtered content based on subjective interpretations from profit-driven strangers. We can look at this content, or not, but all of it is pre-selected for us when we do look. In other words, when we consume media content, we choose what someone else chose for us! There is still some limited personal agency here, I guess, but less than you might think.

There is evidence of a widening gap between these two kinds of perceptions. Mediated worldviews are more pessimistic than unmediated ones. Surveys hint at how this has changed over time. From 1959 to 1997, for example, Gallup surveyed the public’s general level of optimism. Using an eleven-point scale, with eleven representing maximum optimism and one maximum pessimism, Gallup asked the public to score how they viewed their own situations in the present and how they anticipated they would be in the next five years.

Likewise, the poll asked the same question about how the public perceived the nation's direction at the moment, and also in the coming five years. Curiously, Americans have remained optimistic about their personal prospects for the future, scoring themselves at around 7.7 out of 11.0 in 1959, and 7.6 out of 11.0 in 1997, the last year for this survey. In contrast, between 1959 and 1997, when rating their optimism for the nation’s future, this number dropped from an optimistic 7.4 in 1959 to a much more pessimistic 5.7 in 1997. [24]

Subsequent research since 1997 confirms that the gap between personal and national optimism remains. In a 2013 survey, only 34% of Americans were optimistic that subsequent generations would have it better than the present one, while 64% were optimistic about their own children’s prospects.

Interestingly, post-Covid, after large swathes of America stayed at home and stared at their screens for the better part of 18 months, the numbers are even less optimistic. According to Gallup, only 42% of Americans believe the next generation will have it better than the current one. This is the lowest level of optimism for the future since Gallup started polling this question in 1995.

Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center notes: “On balance it seems that the closer one gets to home, the more positive people are about their children’s prospects. The country’s kids will not do so well, but my own kids will at least match me or do better.” [25]

Indeed! In other words, people acknowledge, perhaps only subconsciously, a difference between the realities of their personal lives and the realities presented to them in the media. Polls show Americans remain upbeat about their own futures, even as they become more skeptical about the direction the nation is headed.



Guy Debord once wrote, “When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior.” [26] This has turned out to be the case regarding how we interact with our technology.

As we spend ever more of our time connected to a world of “mere images,” created to demand our attention so that our attention demands their creation, it should come as no surprise that the line between the real world and this one of images begins to blur. This blurring forces the media-saturated individual to maintain two realities: the reality of the day-to-day, and the reality of images.

The danger comes when a majority believes that the images on their screens represent the way the world truly is, rather than understanding it for what it is: a never-ending catalog of mediated content meant to push our emotional buttons and make those who are doing it wealthy.

When that happens, when distorted perception comes to govern actual behavior, the risk is people will eventually begin seeking solutions from this realm, and not from Lippmann’s pool of experts, or even their own relevant direct experience. In this case, people will seek out solace by sorting themselves into partisan groups that don't threaten their worldviews and protect them from competing ones.

Or perhaps they will turn to a charismatic reality television star for president because he tells them what they want to hear and they can no longer tell the difference between realities on and off-screen. Perhaps they'll end up storming the American Capitol because of a Big Lie they believed from this warped media reality. And so, the virtual reality where people live drives their behavior in the real world with devastating effects. This will only continue.

As Neil Postman aptly put it: “We all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.” [27] This may become the epitaph of our civilization: we're trying to live in them. Likewise, the more time we spend experiencing the world as it appears on our screens, and reacting to it with fear and pessimism, or perhaps withdrawal and anger, the less time we have to enjoy the actual world and all the real beauty that surrounds us.


Supplementary Material


Works Cited

[1] Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003), 13.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Minneapolis: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC, 2007), 189.

[4] Ibid., 367.

[5] Lippmann, Public Opinion, 371.

[6] Daniel Bell. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 108.

[7] Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 124.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] Markus Pryor. Post-broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2.

[10] Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 2006), 87.

[11] Pryor. Post-broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, 71.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Pryor. Post-broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, 245.

[14] Ibid., 248.

[15] Cass R Sunstein. Going to Extremes: How like Minds Unite and Divide. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 81.

[16] Thomas Gilovitch, Dale Griffin, and Daniel Kahneman. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 641.

[17] McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 13, 31.

[18] Bell. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 320.


[20] "The Optimism Gap Grows." Pew Research Center RSS. January 17, 1997.

[21] Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public, 70.

[22] Ibid., 73.

[23] Natalie Stroud. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 164.

[24] "The Optimism Gap Grows." Pew Research Center RSS. January 17, 1997.

[25] Andrew Kohut. "What Will Become of America’s Kids?" Pew Research Center RSS.

May 22, 2014.

[26] Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle; Trans. by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 6.

[27] Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public, 77.


P. Wilke

Paris, France, October 2019

Updated, October 2023


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