Friday, August 5, 2016

Have We Lost This Revolution?

Most of us are pretty opinionated people.

We have our ideas and viewpoints about what's good and bad about our world, and we like to share our perspectives with other people.  Maybe we won't change somebody else's mind, but we can at least derive some measure of satisfaction by putting forth our view for others to hear, if not embrace.

Back in the day, opinionated people like me would take pen to hand and write a letter to the editor if we read something in our newspaper that stoked our emotions.  We'd go to city council meetings and sign up to speak in support of - or in opposition to - some proposed legislation or project.  We'd vote, and volunteer to work for political campaigns.

These days, however, social media provides a far less structured way for opinionated people to make their opinions heard.  When we wrote letters to the editor, we'd have to provide our legal name and mailing address to corroborate our identity.  When we spoke at city council meetings, we'd have to provide our street address so the council would know whether or not we were officially a resident, or an out-of-town butt-in-skee.  When we vote, we have to register and vote at our assigned precinct (except in Chicago, of course).

But with Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, YouTube, and all the other methods at our disposal today, we don't have to identify ourselves when we share our opinions.  We don't have to take personal responsibility for what we say, and how we say it.  We hide behind pseudonyms, avatars, memes, user names, and the simple "like" button.  We don't have to portray ourselves as an upstanding citizen, or a respectful neighbor, or a caring human being.

We curse, cast insults, disparage, and perpetuate negative stereotypes.  We act like school-aged bullies and swagger about cyberspace with gleeful spite and unveiled prejudices.  Yet we ourselves can mostly remain behind the veil of anonymity that most social media platforms provide.  After all, it's in the financial interests of most social media companies to allow their users to be as anonymous as possible, so their users will feel more comfortable using their products, and access their products more.  That, of course, drives up click counts and user data, which drives up advertising rates, which drives up revenue.

For all its sanctimonious disabling of user accounts when alleged bullying takes place, companies like Twitter actually benefit from social discord.  It's like blood or a train wreck.  Even if they don't post nasty things themselves, social media patrons love virtual rubbernecking.  That makes controversy good for the bottom line.  Ugly speech and demagoguery feed the machine. 

It's a machine candidates like Donald Trump exploit in unprecedented ways.  He's been able to ride a surprising tide of popularity through the Republican primary season virtually on social media attention alone.  And Trump's Twitter account burns red-hot with his incendiary tweets and bombastic self-aggrandizement.  It's the kind of stuff people with short attention spans eat up.  Indeed, most social media platforms aren't intended for deep introspection or careful analysis of complex issues.  Social media is mostly the logical extension of the sound-bite paradigm created in large part by America's mainstream media during the Reagan and Clinton administrations.  And with sound bites, truth can seem relative to the spin.  As Bill Clinton himself so absurdly yet presciently parsed, "it depends on what the definition of the word 'is' is."

Then there's this:  Social media users, whether intentionally or not, tend to construct their own individual versions of reality based on what they want to be fed through their smartphones, laptops, and digital notepads.  This election season is a perfect example of this imperfect strategy:  Hillary Clinton has been irrefutably proven to be a habitual liar, yet legions of her supporters don't hold her accountable for any of it.  Donald Trump has been irrefutably proven to be a bigoted boor, yet legions of his supporters flatly refuse to admit it.  How else can such cognitive dissonance be explained, except that such stunning allegiance has been crafted through the willful ignoring of available proofs - a deceptive environment that a preferred cluster of biased media resources is ideal for perpetuating?

In other words, we don't have to listen to opposing views if we don't want to.  We can digitally insulate ourselves from people who see the world differently than we do.  We can pretend that what we see via our self-chosen news feeds is legitimate truth, even if those news feeds are designed to retain us as customers - customers willing to suspend reality if doing so supports a viewpoint that runs contrary to reality.

It happens to both die-hard conservatives and die-hard liberals.  That's why people like Hillary and Trump can each feel good about their respective chances of winning the White House.

It also helps to explain why suddenly, it seems, our civic discourse appears to have become so ugly.  We don't appreciate how easy it's been for social media to manipulate our perspectives to the point where we're unwilling or incapable of dealing with reality like mature humanoids.  When we actually have to leave the world our preferred information sources have convinced us exists, and we discover that issues are more complex than sound bites and Facebook memes suggest, we no longer have the patience, respect, and diligence to... well, be patient with reality, respectful of people with whom we disagree, and diligent in learning the legitimate truth behind an issue.

We've always had biases.  We've always had opinions.  We've never particularly liked having to listen to people whose opinions differ from ours.  To varying degrees, we've always been selfish, racist, impatient, greedy, and ambivalent towards facts we either can't easily digest or that don't fit easily into our worldview.  But now, at this point in our civic evolution, social media appears to have stripped us of our ability to forge ahead as a society with some sort of common objective in mind.  We seem less able than any time in recent memory to grapple with difficult topics and dilemmas in ways that lend dignity to ourselves - and others - in the process.

It's not that political correctness is a virtue, but kindness still is.  Isn't it?

Meanwhile, among all of the revolutions that have been waged within our society, we've been forced to undergo this technological revolution; all these devices and all this Internet-cloud-computing-digital-information-overload stuff.  It's easy to forget how much has changed since this revolution began in earnest in the 1990's.

Today, in America's 2016 presidential election, it appears we have a winner in that particular revolution...  and it's not us.

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