We live in a world where the improbable happens every day and it’s recorded on camera and curated by people and algorithms to dominate our perception.
The improbable consists of more than just accidents. The internets are also brimming with improbable feats of performance — someone who can run up a side of a building, or slide down suburban roof tops, or stack up cups faster than you can blink. Not just humans, but pets open doors, ride scooters, and paint pictures. The improbable also includes extraordinary levels of super human achievements: people doing astonishing memory tasks, or imitating all the accents of the world. In these extreme feats we see the super in humans.Kevin Kelly, The Improbable is the New Normal
There are approximately 330 million people residing inside the United States. The CDC estimates that the probability of being struck by lightning in any given year is 1 in 500,000. If more than half of these yearly lightning strikes were recorded by a cell phone and uploaded online and posted to a, hopefully hypothetical, subreddit /r/AmericanLightningRods, you could watch a new American get struck by lightning every single day.
My only hope in sharing that example was to play on the cliché about the rarity of lightning strikes. There’s the tension between its statistical likelihood and what our perception might be if we were active users of the aforementioned subreddit. Furthermore, assuming the approximation would hold, globally (with ~7.8 billion humans alive) we would expect to see ~42 people being struck by lightning every day. As the internet further globalizes, the improbable and outliers will dominate more and more in the winner-take-most game of internet content.
The good news is that we haven’t allocated more of our waking hours over the last year to consuming this kind of horrific lightning-based ‘content’. And instead maybe we’ve consumed too many clips of people making elaborate Rube-Goldberg machines (many of these recordings take hours and hours of attempts, you just see the 20 seconds of success). The bad news is that our perceptions of the world are being influenced by these same probabilistic realities and content curation incentives in other, more affective ways.
My own combination of selection biases and algorithmically-curated feeds has at times left me feeling below-average and even like I’m being “left behind”. On LinkedIn, I see a stream of successes from my friends who have rapidly risen through the ranks of corporate America in highly competitive roles in tech, consulting, and finance.
On Twitter (and now in my Substack inbox), I am confronted by an awesome deluge of genius and expertise. Many people who I’ve not only discovered on the platform but developed friendships with seem to be not-yet-sung polymaths. Not only is the depths of their knowledge on niche topics of shared interest: nuclear energy, public policy, Bitcoin, etc. more expansive, but they’re also technically competent and have robust jobs or successful companies in growing fields.
The key to managing this kind of warped perspective is to reframe in a way that is helpful and productive. I am not in a zero-sum competition with my former classmates, or these, often pseudonymous, polymaths. Instead of despairing, I can find inspiration and optimism in their achievements and work ethic. The excellence of my friends, yourselves included, is not a problem but part of the solution to the many problems that we face.
In what other ways are our perceptions warped as our media consumption transforms the extraordinary into the ordinary?
With this in mind, how can you mitigate the harm caused by unrealistic expectations or other negative consequences?
This post was initially sent via Substack on February 9th, 2021.