Sense-making in the 21st Century: understanding the incommensurateness between perceived danger and actual danger in contemporary First World societies

First it should be acknowledge that real danger exists and I am blessed that I can write this altogether and that I don’t have to write it in a warzone or in abject poverty. As an adjunct philosophy instructor, I can say that I have some experience of this condition as long as I am joking. I was moved to reflect on this question for the sake of clarity around sense-making in the 21st century.

Information can be disseminated with a scalability that is virtually limitless. Our concrete interactions, on the other hand, are always delimited by our embodiment. Both of these things have widened over the last centuries. The semantic-cognitive-emotional field that we survey through the media has burgeoned through innovations in broadcasting, multimedia, and information technology. The fields of relation within the concrete environment that we participate in through our bodies has also expanded in a certain sense through urbanization and through innovations in locomotive technology. 

But if both of these increases were plotted on a graph, the first would have to represent a logarithmic function relative to the second to be accurate—both in terms of its absolute scope and also in terms of its rate of expansion over the last centuries. The reason for this ratio is that communication through multimedia is, in principle, unconstrained by locality or physical proximity. The scope of our physical interactions, on the contrary, is furnished by our bodies with a definite upper boundary. You can travel faster with a horse than by foot, and faster still with a dogsled, a truck, or an airplane. But no matter how fast you travel, you will still never succeed in being in two places at one time (in respect to one inertial frame of reference). But you will have no difficulty in following headlines of a first-grader being abducted in Missouri from your smartphone in Alaska. 

Why does this matter? Because when we are assessing the danger that our physical environment poses to us, we draw on cues from both the purely sensory-physical as well as the total semantic fields to do this. Hence, actual danger can decline while perceived danger can ratchet up and up and up. This is a trend we have been able to observe over recent history.

One hallmark of a good theory is its ability to make accurate predictions. (I say this somewhat tongue in cheek because I am predicting the continuation of a trend that is already manifest.) In Hallowe’en 2021, it will be just as unusual to see a child trick-or-treating without a chaperone as it was in 1991 to see a child with one. The same discrepancy between the sources of information on which we draw in order to gauge threat and the concrete interactions from which any actual threat would necessarily spring can account for what to many appeared as an incommensurate response by many societies to the Coronavirus pandemic.

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