We are currently living in an age of considerable political upheaval. The established order is creaking and our world seems blanketed in uncertainty. Chaos, irrationality, hate, disasters and a lack of civility abound. Sometimes it can feel like the end times, the Weimar Republic with talk radio and tweets. At the same time, this is the safest time in history to be a human being. We are likely to live longer, be healthier and have easier lives than ever before. With more free time and more wealth and more things. With increased access to water, electricity, communication, sanitation, food and education this age affords us now more opportunities than any other. There are fewer wars and fewer deaths from crime than at any time before. Even for the several billion of us left behind, who have tenuous access to basic necessities such as drinking water and medical aid, this age is more secure than previous eras. Government accountability has on the whole improved and rebel wars that killed millions across the ’60s through the 2010s have subsided. There are still famines, wars and rebellions but direct conflict between nations has been reduced. Syria and Iraq are still disastrous with perhaps a million people in the region killed over the past decade. Our world has many problems but on the whole it is still the best time ever to be a human being. It doesn’t feel like that though doesn’t it?
2017 kind of seems like we should all be flying our cars to work. Shouldn’t we all have second homes on the moon by now and have eliminated all disease? When I grew up there were movies with 2015 and 2020 with idyllic futures filled with doors that go “psssst” and societies without poverty. Or there were dystopian futures taking place around now, with corporate controlled police states and tracking chips in your head. What has happened to these dreams and nightmares? How can we live in a world that is much worse than techno utopias but somehow a boring semi-dystopia? Not a robot-Nazi hell but not paradise, we sleepwalk through a future that could have been something. Our time is like a very boring poorly filmed car crash. It’s scary but somehow very low rent in a B movie “yawn” cheap explosion type of way. It’s sad that our armageddon could not even muster a proper Armageddon a la Michael Bay.Do the Right Thing
Fundamentally the internet, satellites and mobile phones have given many of us the ability to instantly communicate globally. We can each publish worldwide as well potentially reaching an audience of millions. Your next online utterance or selfie could reach two billion people. Just get that angle right and do the right thing and you’ll be one of the most famous people in history. Do the right thing. Used to be something you did for your community, your city, your nation, your tribe of a sort. In an age where we can so easily say so much to each other however “do the right thing” for yourself seems to be the norm. Reality television, government spying, Idiocracy, cultural battles over words, ever present hedonism, selfishness and technology. Years ago one could idly wonder if George Orwell or Aldous Huxley would get the future right. Somehow they both have.
A confusing world
To the average connected denizen of our spinning watery ball, our times are confusing above all else. News cycles shorten as bits and bytes spit at and pit our brains at higher speeds. Each day filled with new disasters and things to worry about. Screaming on the TV and angry voices on the radio. YouTube comments within a line or two become hate fests. The filter bubble phenomenon has already been broadly discussed. Well…if the filter bubble idea was correctly explained inside your filter bubble that is. Due to the fragmentation of audience sizes and the proliferation of news media for small interest groups we can all be exposed only to the information and biases we choose to be exposed to. This entrenches us in predefined worlds and means that we may experience major global events completely differently depending on our bubbles.
Ever more information, ever more badly curated
Worse still we are bombarded by noise posing as signals. We face hundreds of lies each day. With media fighting for visits and in a frantic battle for eyeballs top ten lists are replacing investigative pieces. The money is simply not there to conduct investigative journalism. With our attention spans shortening, who has the time really to read it anyway? Who would expose Watergate today? Buzzfeed? Top ten reasons the president should be impeached? Look at what these teenagers think of the president? The other day, I swear this is real, I saw a Wall Street Journal video of some staff testing tacos blindfolded. Blindfolded taco testing. Srsly? This being the staid Journal however, the staff were blindfolded by ties. We spent billions of hours looking at a gold/blue colored dress last year and coloring books are now popular for adults. The pinnacle of human civilization.
No arbiter of truth
The Journal may as well do taco testing. They and papers like them are no longer the central arbiters of Truth. The term paper of record is antiquated. They are just one voice out of many. Their existence and pronouncements have been politicized. No one is above the fray. Everyone is assumed to be playing a sly game for a particular opposing side. There’s no Nelson Mandela or Times of Anywhere that could now get through to all of us with one defined truth. Not only do we all not see the same news or get the same slanted interpretation of it or experience things collectively much, we also do not come together. Major sporting events aside there is little attempt by anyone to mix and talk with “the other side” anymore. We are content to hate, mistrust and entertain while being lied to by our own.
Everything is politicized and open to interpretation: Truth under siege
Especially in the United States just about anything is politicized. Depending on how you vote you will have a pre-established opinion about that thing. This opinion will be immutable and reflexive. We’ve now gone as far as to politicize terms such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and seem to be trying to solicit predefined notions to emerge with now loaded terms such as healthcare. The transient truth is irrelevant. If you lie you may get caught out but if you lie with such rapidity that you create your own news and leave more lies in your wake you could become president someday. Truth is also under attack. The idea that science which is a method to, as best we can, explain our world is increasingly in doubt. It is now OK, if science contradicts your beliefs, to ignore it. There are tens of thousands of people worldwide who are endangering the lives of their children because they choose to believe that vaccinations cause autism. Science is no match for the opinion of someone whose main claim to fame is that she used to get with that guy from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. These people think that it is much more likely for the entire scientific community to be conspiring against them in a vast cover-up than that they are being told what is science’s best evidence-based explanation. Their conspiracy theory then seems to them to reinforce their own truth. They then conclude that it would be better to have a dead kid than an autistic kid, and choose not to vaccinate. There is a group of people worldwide right now who believe that the entire scientific community is lying to them to cover up a vast conspiracy that vaccines cause a disease that may turn their little Timmy into an annoying difficult to raise child so they then decide to expose their child to an increased risk of contracting many deadly and debilitating diseases. I love Timmy, but I’d rather have a dead kid than a difficult one. The whole idea that scientific consensus is somehow meaningful is under siege. The Global Warming Debate consists again of the entire scientific community on one side and a few fringe researchers on the other. Science is our way of trying to reduce doubt. But, if someone chooses to doubt science, their position and the scientific consensus are presented side by side as if they were equally valid. Many people worldwide choose not to believe in evolution. They then ask for their children to be excused from learning about it. “Please could you excuse Mary from attending the lessons on the Second World War, we’re very worried that once she learns about this, she’ll invade Poland.” On multiple fronts the entire idea of science being the best way to explain our world is being questioned. When it is convenient for the powerful to mislead the sheep to disregard science PR and disinformation are used to discredit the notion of science as being correct. The idea that science is humanity’s best evidentiary explanation for natural phenomena is being diminished.
There is very little outrage about this. There is also very little outrage about the 15,000 children who will starve to death today. There is generally however a lot of outrage about many other things. Outrage about people using the wrong words to describe things. Outrage about someone saying something about someone else’s beliefs. Outrage due to being criticized. Outrage at the other for having a dissimilar opinion. As the infowars spread beyond politics to education, popular music, comedy and our every conversation, so does outrage. Technically outrage was a last resort something big and huge and important reserved for the worst of things. Or in a debate outrage was the rhetorical equivalent of a boxer slumping in the ropes. Now outrage is a quick reflexive way to make your displeasure about something known. Your outrage about X, is news in and of itself. Outrage abounds but there is no search for consensus or common ground.
See Part Two of this thought piece here.