Thursday, July 26, 2012

Regressive Progress and the Crisis of Communication

I've been observing two trends recently that are causing me to become more of a curmudgeonly hermit than I already am. The first trend is one that's been going on for years, but I feel has really snowballed in the last two or so: a shift to a culture driven--not aided--by technology. The second trend is one I've only started to feel in the past few months: a shift toward a culture of mass outrage and mass hysteria over any kind of news--good, bad, or otherwise--frequently spearheaded by informed citizens.

I had an idea for a short story the other day where a grandfather is explaining to his grandson why everyone from the older generation is so hunched over: they had all been enslaved, and their backs have become permanently bent from the positions their bodies had been in for decades. At the end of the story, the grand twist was to be that the grandfather hands the kid an ancient iPhone or BlackBerry, telling him something like, "This is what slavery looked like to us." We have become a culture not aided by our devices, but ruled by them.

It was, what, the 1950s or so when dishwashers and vacuum cleaners first arrived? I'm no historian, but everything I've read and seen about technology from the postwar years was that the United States, at least, enjoyed a few decades of increased domestic prosperity and happiness thanks to machines that made work easier, or did all the work for us. More time for leisure; less time wasted on chores. The American dream, some might say. A dream that, from my perspective, is twisting more and more into a nightmare.

I followed a link from Facebook recently to a news article about this grand invention that detects when the milk in your refrigerator is about to spoil, notifying you with a light-up display and via text message. Thank goodness for that; I've always found the expiration date on the bottle to be so hard to read. I realize we've had inventions like this for decades, but something about this one in particular caused me to pause and sigh at the state of technology in our world, or at least this country. We are creating devices that improve the quality of life by consuming more time and money than we can save without these devices.

Time and money are two things I have been especially aware of in the year and a half since I proposed to the woman who is now my wife. Weddings cost money. Planning takes time. Maintaining a home costs money. Working the job to support it takes time. Spending an evening or weekend with friends and a now-expanded family involves both time and money, whether it's gas money or snacks for your D&D session. Making YouTube videos and writing posts and articles is free, but the equipment costs money, as do the forms of entertainment that inspire the content, and the time investment to see a project through to completion can be considerable.

As the administrator of's official YouTube channel, and as a staff writer and editor for the main site, I feel it's my responsibility (and joy) to keep up with everything my comrades post. I've been finding time to catch up on a video playthrough of Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations, and was stunned to discover that the last episode in a five-episode video series contains over eight hours of video footage.

In the time it takes me to watch that one episode, I could finish off an entire anime series. And when I start thinking that way about something that only takes a handful of hours, I begin to see entire months of my life disappear when I think about following through on my crazy plan to watch through the 35 years of Saturday Night Live that are available on Netflix. This is something I'm doing both for my own enjoyment and--as with any of the crazy plans I undertake anymore--so that I can share and discuss the experience with others...but it's staggering to think of how many 15-minute YouTube videos I could make in that same amount of time. (At the current rate of recording, about three.)

Even though the dilemma of what to do with my free time is shaped in no small part by the technology available to me, Netflix in particular simply makes it easier and cheaper to view the content I want than buying everything on DVD. In my mind, this is what technology is for: that 1950s vision of a more leisurely, more efficient way to live. Virtually everything I see around me today utilizes technology to make things different, and the increasing pace of technological developments--which require money to buy and time to learn--is driving a wedge between me and the rest of the tech-savvy world.

Where lifestyle-changing technology is involved, I don't do different. I do better. I'm more than content to stay on the sidelines while I observe the impact of new technology on the world before I consider jumping on the bandwagon. I did this with online shopping. I did this with texting. I did this with Blu-ray. I did this with Facebook.

I can no longer afford to be a few years behind everyone else and still expect to fit in with the culture of this generation. If I'm more than a few months behind, I'm archaic and out of touch. Things are changing too quickly, and I don't have the time, money, or interest to discover what's truly better until something is forced on me. Unsurprisingly, I'm discovering more and more that better is whatever I had before the forced change. I am a creature of habit, but more than that, I'm only seeing technological solutions to things that were never problems for me. Telephones shortened the distance between people in ways the postal service never could. E-mail opened up an additional means of communication that has many benefits over telephones. Now we've got technology that allows us to share everything we're looking at the press of a button, effectively eliminating the need to communicate at all.

That brings me to the second trend I've noticed: In a world where opinions are expressed with a Like button, we're veering away from meaningful discussions and unleashing our thoughts and feelings on polarizing issues in 140 characters or less. As my wife pointed out, everything good we post about is the best thing ever, and everything bad is the worst thing ever. Whether we're excitedly slapping up a link to this hilarious cat video or heralding the downfall of western civilization with whatever [pick one: Obama, Romney, Chick fil-A] did today, it's increasingly rare to see well-articulated opinions that take the extremist edge off of our concise gut reactions. We blow things out of proportion, or we present our completely rational and justified responses in such a inarticulate or reactionary way that we lose friends who would have at least tolerated us if we'd taken the time to explain ourselves over a cup of tea.

The trouble isn't just on an individual level, though: news travels fast through our social media-oriented culture, and our enthusiasm or outrage over something we post prompts someone else to retweet or repost the same content, adding their own enthusiasm or outrage. Repeat, ad nauseum. Now, instead of one person who's ecstatic or upset, everyone you know is ecstatic or upset. We are now statistics: X number of people think this way about animal testing, while X number of people think that way about it. There may be actual conversations that stem from the initial posts, but a quick skim through your feed tells you who you real friends are. In our solidarity, we have lost our individuality, along with our relative objectivity.

It has been unbearable to be around social media in the wake of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 dead and 58 wounded. Unbearable to think about the loss of life, the suffering of the victims and their families, and how something so terrible could happen at all. Unbearable to think about it every hour of every day as new details emerge that encroach upon the personal privacy of the victims. Unbearable to have a flicker of concern about seeing The Dark Knight Rises on opening weekend because "midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises" was almost more prominent in the media's first news reports than the shooting itself. Unbearable because, from the perspective of someone who was not following the news and only seeing the headlines and snippets of coverage, the entire tragedy had spiraled into a nationwide Kickstarter campaign for actor Christian Bale to pay a visit to the victims in the hospital.

It seemed to me a surreal cause where the American people could demand the involvement of a celebrity whose only connection to the tragedy--as far as I knew from headlines and the one or two articles I'd read--was that he starred in the movie that was playing at the time. I know there's more to it than that. But my gut reaction to such a horrific event has given way to media fatigue and a sort of irrational indignation over how the whole country seems to be rallying behind a community that lost twelve people, while we remain silent on how, say, suicide is claiming almost eight times that many people a day in the U.S. Without understanding the full story, I'm just looking at the headlines and the numbers and the secondhand information, and forming opinions that make me sound like a bad person if you don't agree, and a worse person if you don't have the context of the rest of this post behind you.

So you can understand why I don't post things like this on Facebook. I couldn't even condense my feelings into a punchy blurb if I tried--but, as my wife points out, a punchy blurb is all we have to catch anyone's attention anymore. By the time you've written a thoughtful response, the Next Big Thing is here, and people have already forgotten what you're talking about. Yet writing brings clarity, and spilling my thoughts out on paper (or the electronic equivalent) allows me to sort through those gut reactions and come to a conclusion about why I feel as I do. Sometimes I need to say the wrong thing before I can get to the heart of why I said it. Sometimes I'm right, and "the wrong thing" is merely an unpopular, but valid, opinion. Sometimes I truly am wrong, which is why the door is always open for a civilized rebuttal.

My heart goes out to the victims in Aurora, and their friends and families. That there has been such a compassionate and supportive response speaks volumes about our culture. That I have mixed feelings about that response has me concerned. My willful ignorance of the full story, and my perception that social media and news media have inadvertently engineered such a massive response by skewing the story to keep Batman in the spotlight, make me worry that I'm becoming cynical in the face of something that clearly demands my sympathy. There's no question that we should care, but I worry that the media has needlessly emphasized the wrong information to draw out our genuine compassion for the right cause.

If someone on the sidelines can feel so conflicted about something so universally clear-cut, it's no wonder the people in the thick of debates about unclear issues such as politics and ethics can be so vitriolic toward those who disagree--they're probably all cynical, because people like me sound like idiots when they're firing off their gut reaction to an issue they're only partially informed about on their way to the hilarious cat video someone posted below you.

I think we'd all be happier if we started having real conversations again with each other, and started using modern technology the way it was meant to be used:

1 comment:

JoeReviewer said...

Regressive Progress, oxymoron if I ever heard one.

Man, this post was so chock full of thoughtful information I had to read it twice just to respond. I think more people nowadays have become less concerned with time and money and more concerned with effort. "It may take more time to go through a crowded drive through and more money (to pay for the fuel that keeps your car going while you wait), but as long as I don't have to get out of my car and walk into the restaurant, it's better." People don't want benefit and efficiency, they want ease, despite the sometimes ridiculous cost. Sometimes this want of ease even keeps people from thinking about what is truly better, and just simply accepting something different as better, they don't want to be bothered to figure it out for themselves. This could also be applied to social media. "I don't want to put forth the effort to figure out which information I want my friends/ family/ the entire world to see, I'll just show everyone everything so that I know they'll see the parts I want them to."

Though what to I know? I'm just another teenager on the internet who thinks he knows what he's talking about despite the lack of much life experience and situations of complete independence. :P