“communication” – the power station (1985)

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I have been feeling rather introspective lately about a lot of aspects in my life.  I’m sure I’ll cover each of those in the coming weeks but, for this blog entry, I wanted to share some recent insights I have gained about the widening divisions within our society.  Namely, the perpetuation of an Us versus Them culture.

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, and subsequently was elected president the following year, it seems that the divisions between people, no matter how small, are exaggerated and exacerbated to the point that we cannot communicate with eachother, recede within our own biases and likeminded groups, and react in ways that can foster extremism.  Basically, a sense of tribalism.

While now it seems like this communication breakdown is so prevalent in 2019, I had been feeling some inkling of dissatisfaction with public discourse for a while now.  Coincidentally, right around the time social media became an increasingly pervasive factor in all our lives.

Facebook was still rather exclusive when I started college in 2006, only allowing college students at the time, but it soon evolved to include everyone thus making it easy to collect and monetize data.  My use of social media is so much different now than how I used it then.  Throughout my collegiate years, it was commonplace to argue and debate with people writing whole dissertations that would get ignored.  All of it felt supremely unnatural and ineffective to me.  I couldn’t eloquently at the time explain why, but those kind of exchanges just felt empty.

Now, it is very rare that I’ll respond to a heated thread with an opinion.  It isn’t that I’m afraid of the reaction, but I do consider what could be misinterpreted or lost in translation, whether intentionally or not, and I just decide that it isn’t worth my time.  I no longer view social media as a soapbox as I had used It in college.  Now, it is a means for me to share with family and friends vacation photos, see how they are doing, and post book reviews.  All of this was a conscious decision to shape how I used various social media platforms as a member of the first generation to come of age with social media as a communal space.

The criticism to that viewpoint is that, as a white cisgender heterosexual male, I do not recognize the equalizing power that social media platforms offer.  To the more marginalized members of our society, it is said that social media has given a voice to the voiceless.  And with that, a sense of justice and a fair shot of contributing to and redirecting social dialogue.  It is one of the reasons why proponents of social media, oftentimes people who generate income through their interaction with it, say that social media offers more good than it does bad.  That everything can be utilized in both positive and negative ways.

All of that is true, in theory.  Social media is still a relatively new phenomenon and we have yet to understand the long-term impacts social media has on our society.  Though, that isn’t to say we have not seen immediate effects.  Ones that we are just now becoming aware of and taking time to truly understand.

During President Obama’s second term, I began to understand exactly the issue I had with social media.  I was reading articles about people who made off color or racist remarks and then would be publicly shamed online.  I don’t disagree with someone facing consequences for hate speech, but social media allowed even innocuous, or misunderstood comments, to be blown up resulting in these people’s lives being ruined.  I had read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and he explained that social media was creating “virtual stockades,” environments where people could be shamed in ways unseen by civilization since actual stockades.  This seemed wrong to me to punish people for comments, while maybe inappropriate, that didn’t actually qualify as hate speech or directly communicated a call to action for violence.  I was trying to understand this changing landscape of activism and free speech and my questioning, or even criticism, of overreactions were deemed by my fellow liberals as me being an apologist for racists.

As Donald Trump was gaining momentum during the campaign, I would even get lambasted by my fellow liberals for engaging the situation that was more nuanced than just spewing vitriolic bile online or in crowds.  I remember telling a friend in December 2015 that the only way to defeat Trump was to ignore him.  I was told I was being complicit.  Complicit about what?  I don’t know.  However, the attitude at the time reflected this liberal bubble mindset that “if we cover everything he says and put it all over the news and social media, people will see how awful Trump is.”  That did not happen and since Trump’s election, media executives like Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves have said publicly that covering Trump meant more ratings and money.  And that’s when I realized the issue I had with social media.  I realized social media was a business that commoditized our outrage and profited off the proliferation of identity politics.

As part of my journey to understand why Donald Trump won the presidency, I had to understand how every side contributed.  I did not feel analyses blaming white people or racists or Russians were satisfactory at explaining his victory.  I began to think about how democrats and the left, my groups, contributed.  This led me to the realization that the left suffers from the narcissism of small differences, the idea that likeminded individuals are more likely to engage in feuds of minutiae. I found all of this so frustrating.  I kept thinking that since we are all on the same side, we should be more unified.  Instead, there were moments I received vitriolic feedback for have an opinion that was generally in the same ballpark, but still didn’t exactly align with the militancy that has been driving social activism.

I’ve been reading two books lately that have really opened my eyes on this subject.  Irshad Manji, a Muslim lesbian, wrote a book called Don’t Label Me, an analysis on how labels are weaponized in ways that dehumanize us and further the divide between Us and Them. She tackles modern social justice philosophies concerning privilege, power dynamics, multiculturism, and cultural appropriation and exposes the flaws inherent in each of those to showcase how people become isolated and gravitate towards extremes; places they can go and be reaffirmed for their beliefs by people who won’t berate and belittle them.

In the book, Manji is quite tough on leftist social activists for commoditizing marginalized people and using them as props to fulfill specific goals. She also stresses that people are more than their perceived labels, that we are plurals with unique backstories that defy the expectations or stereotypes of our labels.  I’m sure my fellow liberals have heard, or even conveyed, that people who voted for Trump are racists.  I have never believed that, though sometimes I found myself wavering when pressured or when Trump said something that really boiled my blood.  Yes, there are some truly vile people in his camp.  However, I have challenged this by telling people that all Trump voters are not bad.  The usual response is that they are complicit with Trump’s actions, or that I am.

Manji’s point is that in order to change hearts and minds, you must listen with the intent to understand as opposed with the intent to win.  As a result, you build a personal connection and are taken more seriously.  This potentially allows them to think on their own values and work on compromise that enforces a more unified outcome.  Telling someone they are wrong and stupid is only going to make them retreat which can develop into extremism.

The other book I have been reading is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown.  The concept of emergent strategy comes from Octavia Butler, an African-American science fiction writer, and essentially means that large systemic changes can be made through simple interactions.  By developing personal relationships and, as Manji stated, listening with the intent to understand, we can bridge the gap between Us and Them.  It all boils down to building relationships with people with different views in order to achieve a mutually beneficial result.  We gain nothing from isolating people when we assume so much of them based on labels that restrict them and their individuality.

I am vocal about this because I do not Trump to win again in 2020.  And, the way I understand things as they are now, the left is doubling down on failed practices from 2016.  In essence, many of the left are acting exactly like Trump.  Trump claims he is a victim and mobilizes his base to attack the other.  The left, a lot of the times, victimizes themselves and acts in a way that is not proactive in achieving actual results.  In essence, we have look inward to facilitate change if we expect change within our problematic systems.  We cannot ask to be heard if we are not willing to hear.  Achieving honest diversity is about communication and dialogue.

The third single from the Power Station’s debut album, “Communication” is a fun pop rock song from 1985 about, obviously, the need to communicate.  In the song, Robert Palmer is asking someone to stay in touch though things are crazy hectic, and we are all on the move.  He’s urging this person to keep their lines open and exchanges facts through contact, but he just cannot get through.

I know it is a bit of a stretch to connect this song with the main thesis of this blog, but it adds to my point.  Remember when I was talking social media? Our interactions with people online are commoditized, and it shapes how we behave in the offline world. We’re being programmed to not have honest dialogue, but instead focus on whatever is quick and easy to consume because we’re always on the move looking for the next thing, the next click. We have to slow down and put emphasis on listening to each other and not become subjects to corporate mechanisms that generate revenue from our conflicts and anxiety.  Reach out.  I am here.  I will listen.

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“are you lost in the world like me?” – moby & the void pacific choir (2016)

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On Saturday, I went to the Music Box Theatre in Chicago to check out the 70mm presentation of Ready Player One. Based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg brings Cline’s nostalgia-driven techno dystopia world to life. In the story, Wade Watts is a teenage kid who lives in a ravaged future version of Columbus, Ohio in 2045. The world really sucks as constant wars, economic fallouts, and environmental disasters have turned society into a near-apocalyptic nightmare. However, there is an escape for those who can afford it. The Oasis, a virtual reality game where players can fully immerse themselves in worlds or scenarios within the limits of their imagination, offers a reprieve from the harshness of reality. As long as you got the funds, you can stay in the Oasis forever as you can do everything there with the exception of sleeping, eating, and using the restroom.

The Oasis was the brainchild of James Halliday, a brilliant and eccentric computer programming geek. The Oasis was his brainchild for those who wanted to be around the things they loved all the time and within their own terms. Halliday grew up in the 1980s and remained obsessed with 80s pop culture and chic through the end of his life. Prior to his death, he hid three Easter eggs (secret items) in the game. If you found all three of the Easter eggs, you inherited his entire fortune and full control of the Oasis. With the real world being so awful, it is easy to see how appealing the Oasis can be. Depending on your intentions, you can try to profit off your endeavors or you can just keep playing to avoid the drudgery of everyday life. Either way, it is extremely popular.

With all the random pop culture throwbacks to various film, music, and video game intellectual properties from the 1980s, it easy to forget just how depressing the world Wade Watts lives in. Watts, and those around him, live in a dystopian nightmare where people don’t engage with each other in reality. They prefer contact and connection in the Oasis where they can adopt new looks and personalities that better fit who they think they are or whatever they’re trying to convey. Not only is the world of the Oasis not real, neither are the people from a certain point of view. You don’t know if the avatar you’re looking at is an attractive woman or some fat guy living in his mom’s basement.

[SPOILER ALERT]

In the world of Ready Player One, the real human connection is a lost art form. When Watts finds all three of the Easter eggs and gains control of the Oasis, he makes the decision as its new owner to shut it down a few days of the week so people can log off and enjoy each other in reality. Watts does this so he can spend time making out with the girl he met in the Oasis, but his intentions of elevating societal realities is pure at heart.

[/SPOILER ALERT]

We don’t live in the same world as Watts quite yet. We have video games, virtual reality, and other technocratic distractions that don’t require other human beings in the flesh. However, we still live in a society that has an ever-increasing reliance on technology that distracts us and mediates our interactions with people. And our inability to control that has adverse effects on our lives on an individual and communal basis

Social media has done more to increase the physical distance between people in their everyday lives than any other technological platform. It creates a convenient area where one can keep up with the lives of their friends and family without leaving their home. Social media has been around for a little over a decade, but we don’t fully realize the effects it has on our psychology.

I’m not someone who is against social media and advocates it as an evil. I use social media for personal and business reasons. It is a tool and source of entertainment for me. While I am an active user, I still can recognize the problems it causing in our society.

On a macro level, social media has created recent problems in our society. The United States presidential election was inarguably tampered with by a foreign agent using social media. And they succeeded. Nearly two years on and our government is still trying to fully assess what happened and how to prevent the undermining of our democracy from happening again.

Specifically, in recent news, Facebook has been under fire. Facebook is the largest social media platform and one of the biggest tech companies in the world. Facebook had provided data on millions of its users to Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting company that uses data mining to influence strategic communication, under the assumption that the company would delete the data. They did not and the information was used to elevate Donald Trump’s election campaign.

While the recent data mining news has been troubling, social media has been criticized for devaluing human interaction for years. People are just glued to their phones too much. I hate situations where I’m having a conversation with someone and they look at their phone without warning. And when I was single, going out to bars was terrible. You couldn’t meet a stranger in an organic setting because everyone just sits there and stares at their phone. It is kind of maddening.

Social media does a lot of good though. As mentioned, I use it for various purposes. I promote events or projects I’m working on. I live in a city where I don’t have any family, so it is nice to see family post pictures of what is going on in their lives. I have friends I see frequently in person, but we’ll also stay in touch virtually. And for those who date, social media like Tinder is a great way to maintain control NS filter people who don’t set off red flags for you.

However, social media can be an outright obsession for some people. For some, the number of likes, comments, and clicks their posts get is somehow an indicator of their own worth. These addicts will post and share hoping to get enough likes to feel validated. It happens to everyone. I’ll be surprised when a particular post gets an unusual amount of attention and it gets exciting to see how many likes you can get. I recently posted a picture of a dog I saw to a dog group and it got over 1,800 likes because it was funny. Admittedly, while exciting, I also kept checking my phone too much because this was such a rare occurrence.

I do think I look at my phone too much. However, I don’t believe it keeps me from enjoying my life and reality. I read physical books, I see friends in person, and I maintain hobbies that keep me away from my phone. I’m not disconnected from reality so I don’t fear living in a world where something like the Oasis can happen.

The reason why I think I look at my phone too much is that, sometimes, I’ll get caught up in the negative aspects of social media. I love seeing what my friends and family are up to. However, the whole experience can be extremely isolating. Whenever I see my friend count go down, I spend too much time thinking about who it was and why. Did I do something to offend them? Do they not like me anymore? Did someone actually defriend me or did they just delete it (given the Cambridge Analytica news, some people are quitting Facebook in protest)?

I want to know and I feel like I need to know. Everyone likes to be liked and I’m no different. Sure, I don’t give a shit if certain people don’t like me. But everyone, on a general level, wants to be liked. It is a really silly situation and I feel silly for thinking that way. A lot of people do feel that way, though. You can curate and build your own world on social media. You can filter what you want, achieve confirmation bias, and be reassured through the site’s analytics that what you think matters and you’ll be affirmed by people who love you. The tools inherent in these systems force us to care what people think about us because if a negative piece of information gets through, it is jarring and we have to regain control.

I don’t think how much people use social media is the problem. I think it is what they do with it that is. It is a great tool to stay in touch with the world around you. I get urges to quit all the time. It can be an energy drainer and just something to do when you’re bored. For me, I have offline activities I can engage with but those came from a specific effort to find those. For those who don’t put forth that effort, social media can be a black hole of wasted time.

Whenever I think about quitting, I realize it is a silly thing to do. Just as I like to keep up with friends and family, my friends and family want to keep up with me. They care about me and want to engage with some aspect of my life if they can’t be physically present. That’s the beauty of connectivity that social media offers and quitting because I allow myself to feel bad due is just kind of ridiculous.

While quitting under those circumstances (doing so due to data mining is another issue) doesn’t solve the root cause, I do believe resets are important. Like what Watts did with the Oasis, not engaging once in a while can be mentally, physically and psychologically healthy.

In 2016, Moby addresses smartphone and social media addiction with the single “Are You Lost In The World Like Me?” Joined by the Void Pacific Choir for the studio album These Systems Are Failing, Moby pontificates if the person he is seeing to is free or if they are lost when the systems fail. Lyrically, the song is just ok. However, the video is striking and reinforces the song’s narrative. Animated by Steve Cutts, this Max Fleischer-inspired animation starkly depicts a world where people are hypnotized by their smartphone and because oblivious of the world around them. Though quite an extreme metaphor, it does speak some truth.

I’m leaving for a trip tomorrow where I will have zero cellular and web access. It is a little concerning because of how much I rely on technology in my own life (map for example). However, being disconnected from social media pressures and not having wireless signals bounce all over me will be good for me. I’m using this as an opportunity to start seriously changing how I interact and use social media. I want to still use those platforms, but not do so in a way that makes me feel bad about myself. It can get too easy to look up or engage with toxic people or become too focused on why your friend list went from 836 to 835.

I do remember life before social media, but it has been a huge influence on my world. Within a few years, I’ll get to a point where social media will have been present in half my life. It isn’t going anywhere. It is a burden on younger generations who don’t have much, or zero, frame of reference of life without it there. I can’t quit using it because there is value there, but I can change how it uses me. Periodic resets will be great until I can learn not to put so much stock in it. Life is great and I don’t need that validated for me in the form of an emoji. I’m ready for an Internet cleanse.