Politics, Society and Technology: the Perils of Entitlement

October 11, 2009

As I was cruising the intertubes this morning, waiting patiently for the NFL to kick off, I came across a blog entry on Huffington Post by Jeffrey Feldman, entitled “The Outrage Pandemic“. It describes the rising tide of outrage from both the Right and the Left in regard to President Barack Obama, particularly now that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This got me to thinking about a few seemingly random things, which may not be so random.

We live now in an age where everything is instant – gratification of the need for attention, for knowledge and for fame is mere moments away for most people. Blogs for example are, or rather were, unique venues for the everyday individual who once was one of the faceless masses to be fed information to provide tasty opinionated snacks to the world (I am as guilty as anyone of checking the blog stats to see if anyone is reading what I have written, and how the ‘Kog is doing in general – I respect and admire my co-authors, and I’m glad I was invited to participate in this grand experiment). Add YouTube videos and Wikipedia to the mix, and we have unprecedented access to instant gratification, in the form of information, entertainment, or infotainment, from almost everywhere in the world.

What is problematic in the access to ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ we all enjoy is the atomization of social life – when everyone can write their own newspaper, or make their own movies, or, more tellingly, limit themselves to reading the ‘news’ from the viewpoint they prefer, shared experience becomes less… shared. The common experience of having access to a limited number of media that still existed until about 15 years ago has been lost, replaced by the ability to create a world that reflects you, and to search for others who share your views, no matter how extreme.

Add to the atomization phenomenon the usual action and interaction associated with anonymous communication, and the landscape becomes considerably more volatile. It has been said, quite rightly, that you can be literally anyone online – it’s why I don’t bother with chatrooms. The sneaking suspicion that the 18-year-old nymphet at the other end of an intertube is actually a hairy, naked trucker in a cheap hotel ruins the whole experience for me. Sometimes it is possible to know, or suspect, too much. But, that’s not the important aspect I am talking about (whew). The translation of thought into text without much usable context (the emoticon is useful, if annoying, but not foolproof) leads to misunderstanding, and the usual human interaction to perceived disagreement or outright verbal or textual attack is an emotional one, completely out of proportion with any reaction to a similar real-world situation. To borrow from theories of collective behavior, a group of individuals becomes a mob because of the combination of:

  1. A reasonably large group of people (critical mass, if you will)
  2. A precipitating or ‘trigger’ event
  3. An individual who recognizes the protection of numbers, and escalates his behavior to violence
  4. A cascade effect in which others in the collective follow the extreme behavior, losing shared or ‘normal’ morality in the crowd, as it were.

Now, imagine the same idea, translated to a single individual, who wears his cloak of anonymity granted not by a crowd, but a keyboard. There are no immediate repercussions to negative actions, at least no physical threat of incarceration or personal injury, so actions and reactions can become routinely larger than life – the internet age has created a uniquely bipolar citizen. In essence, we become our own individualized mob. How’s that for a contradiction?

To cast back a bit for the next thread in the narrative, let’s take a look at the 1970′s – not too closely, or we’ll be blinded by hairspray and huge collars. The ’70s have been referred to as the ‘me decade’ – the sexual revolution resulted in a revolutionary sense of permissiveness, and an indulgence of hedonism that has been unequaled since – thanks primarily to the negative impacts of recreational drugs and sexually transmitted disease. The ’80s were the ‘greed is good’ decade, which led to more self-indulgence, not to mention teased hair and fluorescent colours. Gratification of the need for entertainment, in particular, became more the order of the day as cable television networks grew. The most important, and potentially most negative aspect of this development is the launch of CNN in 1980. News became entertainment, the personal continued to be political, and every small development in the evolution of social life was placed under a microscope. Access to this unending stream of information, rather than being a boon to society, meant that people were getting used to having all the information they needed, all the time – there arguably never was a better time to be politically active, as information was becoming more readily available, but was still limited, to a degree. The ‘me decade’ morphed into ‘me too decade’.

The commercialization of the internet in the mid-1990s enhanced the public’s access to information – which had its’ downside in the fact that not all sources are reliable – in fact, I would venture to say that 90% of the information available on the ‘net is opinion rather than objective fact. It became too easy to find others seeking information, or willing to share information in such a way as to make it more palatable to certain tastes. The ability of bloggers to vilify politicians or other public figures because of the emotional volitility of anonymity, and the ability of readers to limit their interactions to like-minded individuals has led to the evolution of the know-nothing know-it-all, and the growth of the political rabble-rousing we see constantly around us, particularly in relation to American politics.

So, we have passed the ‘me decade’ and the ‘me too’ decade, and entered, around the turn of the century, the ‘me too, right now decade’. The failure of anyone to live up to our comfortable vision of society, cultured online, of nodding heads and reinforcement of emotionally comfortable and fiercely defended beliefs leads to the inevitable volatility of reaction. What we have is a generation of people who have grown up online, in which very few vote but almost all pontificate on the slightest outrage committeed by those who do not respect the boundaries of our own little undiscovered countries.

This is not limited to the political Right – we see now the political Left dogging the footsteps of a President with intelligence and wisdom, but who is unable, as is any human or organization, to fulfil the immediate wants and needs of everyone, all at once. Therefore, the rhetoric becomes more vehement, the outrage more emotional – those who do not agree or who do not cater to our beliefs are instantly the ‘enemy’, the ‘other’, the traitor who consorts with terrorists because they diagree with your vision of America – which in reality is limited to the boundaries of your home office or your parents’ basement. There is no longer an ‘America’ for people to be proud of, but several million Americas on every street, and sometimes more than one in every home.

Sometimes the citizens of these atomized Americas come together and share their outrage, but the emotional reaction, unmuted by people who may disagree, continues to build until the individual begets the crowd, which begets the mob. We are not, and are unable to, translate the interactive processes that are built by personal contact and childhood interaction to the internet – rather, the interactive rituals and emotional responses of the internet are being translated to real life, with dire consequences. Disagreement becomes hatred, disappointment becomes betrayal, caution becomes intolerable delay. The lure of the emotional and the instant is too strong.

President Obama has had the misfortune of becoming the leader of the free world at a time when personal interaction has degraded to black and white – the ‘for us or against us’ mentality was not limited to the inside of President Bush’s head. If Obama fulfils his promise of hope and progess, he will earn the hatred of those who benefit from the status quo, either emotionally or financially. If he fails, he will be vilified by those who feel that change is the only way to make the world better – in every way, both politically and personally. If he even achieves half of his lofty goals, he will still make enemies of people on both sides.

As has become obvious from some of my prior posts, I have high hopes for Barack Obama – I think he represents a change long overdue in American politics, as well as in global relations. My fear is that the Lyndon Johnson-esque Great Society that he envisions will be sabotaged by the millions of ‘better’ societies that live in the emotional cores of those on both sides, and that people will guard their personal borders against unwanted information or action to such a degree that co-operation in moving forward will be impossible. Those that are most highly motivated to speak are inevitably the loudest and most dogmatic on both sides, and the voices of entitlement, the shouts of the ‘me too, right now’ generation may drown out the reasoned, intelligent dialogue he offers.

The telegraph linked us on a very basic level. The telephone enabled contact with one another. Television and radio showed us, through pictures and words, the world outside our windows. Now, the internet, the great boon to mankind, has enabled us to examine, to know, and to experience, the inside of our own heads.  Will it rule us, and decide our future for us, or will we reclaim ourselves, our knowledge, and our bonds to each other? Who knows.

Make no mistake, however, the future may depend on our mastery of our tools, and of ourselves.


This is how the Democrats should approach luny bullshit

August 19, 2009

Thank you, Mr. Franks. Please let this be a lesson to other Democrats as to how far tolerance has to go. Now get on with it.


A Letter to A Neighbor

August 17, 2009

Dear America:

How are you? We’re fine up here. I’ve been looking at the news coming from your part of the world lately, and it’s beginning to trouble me a bit. As a Canadian, I, along with millions of your citizens, felt hopeful that the Obama administration would be able to pull you out of the morass you found yourselves in – a morass created by the subservience of previous administrations to the dual addictions of profit and power. I was under no illusions that November 5 would dawn on a country where everything was fixed, nor did I believe that 6 months, even a year, would be enough to enact real change. Nevertheless, I continue to keep an optimistic outlook on your future.

The strength of your culture has always come from the “melting pot” philosophy that was the guide for the many to unite into the one – everyone, regardless of origin, was an American, dedicated to the continued prosperity of the nation. It was the best example of a shared value – an ideal, of course, never achieved but at least remaining as a spiritual goal of the country. It was shared values that brought you together in the first place, united the first thirteen colonies, and continued until America was the world’s last superpower. Much of the strength and unity that was built was a result of perceived external threats; competing ideologies like Nazism or Communism that united you in opposition to an external threat. The problem is that there is currently no external threat that can compare to entire ideologies as represented by discrete nations or united movements. In physics, it is accepted that energy doesn’t ever go away, it just goes somethere else, and that is what has happened to the once-great beacon of liberty. In the absence of unified or concrete opposition, the energy that defined by opposition had to go somewhere, and, unfortunately, it has turned inward.

The conservative element in America has always been there, and they look upon particular times in your history as ‘golden ages’, times that were better than now, primarily because America was united, was strong, and had shared values (keep in mind, however, that these were rarely, if ever, golden ages for anyone beyond white males, but it is to be expected if that is the group that is reminiscing). The population went from “Russia? We’re not like them!”, to being unable to define themselves through opposition. Who’s next on the list? The people within your own country who disagree with you: “My neighbors, I’m not like them!” It’s always easier to define something by what it is not, and American culture is no exception.

Sadly, America, your citizens are just as proficient at creating divisions as they are at justifying them, in order to create a sense of identity. They dig in their heels and refuse to hear other opinions, because it takes them outside of their comfort zone, violates their own vision of their identity, so inextricably bound up is that identity in the persona of “America the Beautiful”. For the purposes of simplification and ease of rationalization, there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘victim’ and ‘victor’. There is no grey, just the heavily fortified extremes of the emotional spectrum. When people stop listening to one another, they stop learning, when they stop learning, they stop maturing, and when they stop maturing, they feel as if their own opinions are the only ones worthy of respect. In the country of the self-centred, the most selfish man is king.

I could go on at length (and I have) about the motivating factors behind the polarized and increasingly violent culture that has evolved: religion; political ideology; profit; race; gender identity and so on, but that isn’t necessarily the important thing – zeroing in on one or two background motivations is not the purpose of this letter. What is the purpose of this is to decry the dangerous combination of a lack of respect and an extreme, almost allergic sensitivity to criticism or even simple disageement. Your media isn’t helping (I’m looking at all of you, not just picking on Fox) by feeling and acting on the ‘necessity’ to amp up the emotion in everything to the detriment of the actual sharing of information that could empower the populace and nurture debate – is it a reflection of the extreme form of the current culture, or one of the root causes? I think it’s probably best not to look too closely at that chicken/egg scenario right now, this letter is already too long as it is.

So, America, my southern cousin, what do I suggest? I thought you’d never ask.

Respect is the number one suggestion I have. It is obvious that many Americans hold opposing views on health care reform, for example, but it shouldn’t be necessary to have armed police present at town hall meetings. Everyone needs to feel as if they are being listened to, and their opinions understood and respected. As an additional benefit, this is kryptonite to the radio and television hate mongers inhabiting your airwaves – fairness and respect are difficult to criticize. Paradoxically, my other suggestion, this one to your leaders, is that they currently have the power to make things happen, to make bold and historic strides, to make your citizens healthier and more prosperous – use it. The outreach program that preached inclusion is obviously not working. Learn from others who have had the hand of conciliation slapped away enough times to understand that cooperation is neither wanted nor realistic. Listen to the concerns of the public, take note of the feelings and desires of the populace, as befits a democracy, but ultimately, you must use the mandate given to you to enact solutions that are feasible, affordable, and create the most benefit. Your leaders have already stumbled, but that shouldn’t stop you from moving forward – we are all meant to learn from our mistakes, and your leader is particularly intelligent. Do what you can, for the benefit of the majority, because you can. The political benefits can be great, but the benefits to your society will be greater and more long-lasting. In short, defuse the emotional cries with understanding, defeat the hatred with respect, but ultimately, steer the ship as your people have chosen you to do, despite stormy waters ahead.

All this, of course, is my opinion. I share it with you because I look at you and see the potential for greatness, or renewed greatness, inherent in you. I would hate to see that potential go to waste because of internal disruption or, in the worst case, catastrophic partisan violence. Yer a good country deep down, and I know you mean well, but now is the time to act before this goes any further. You have been a good neighbor so far (I’m overlooking that whole 1812 thing for now), and it makes me sad to see you in such despair.

The sooner you all realize that your goal, a greater and more prosperous America, is the same, and you can all agree that the benefits of peace are more deireable than those of conflict, the easier it will be to bring America closer to her ideal. Naive? Probably, but sometimes things just need to be said. I feel better for having gotten this off my chest. I’m looking forward to continuing our friendship for a long time to come.

All the best,

Flash

P.S.: Stop picking on our health care. Seriously, it’s really pissing some of us off. It’s not perfect, but it’s ours, and for the most part, it works. Knock it off.


What’s the point?

September 17, 2008

In these pages and elsewhere, there has been much discussion about the strangely close presidential election south of our border. Given the choice between a motivating, exciting, and urgent young candidate and a do-nothing hundred-year-old that has been either openly crooked or quietly in the back pocket of big business for thirty years representing the party that has started two unfinished wars, broken the economy and sits with thumb up ass three years after New Orleans sank, this should not even be close at this point in the race. Obama should be leading by 20% or more, but he’s not.

 

Why?

 

Because he’s running for the Democrats, the party of weak-kneed mealy-mouthed pansies that have once again folded in front of a Republican minority (minority!) and have okayed a bill to allow drilling for offshore oil even though every economist worth his or her salt has already said it will do nothing for fuel prices for tens of years.

 

As lean as the choices are this time north of the border, I don’t envy the dedicated lefty to the south.

-kvd out


Hillary, John McCain’s balls, and a bowlful of Vermont sorrow

May 5, 2008

It seems to be all but official now – the Clinton campaign is going to use what HuffPo calls the “nuclear option” and will try to reinstate Florida’s and Michigan’s delegates. If there was ever any doubt that Hillary would do whatever it takes to win it is now settled.

She has drank beer with the dirty, called her opponent (who was *not* born into money) an elitist, lied about snipers, threatened to nuke Iran, promised a gas-tax holiday that no sane person thinks would do anything positive and now she has thrown down the gauntlet and threatens to tear the party in half over a procedural vote that will destroy any goodwill that might have come out of a more positive campaign. If successful, it might be enough to put her in the seat at the top of the smoking ruins of her party, but if not, her plaintive whine about “the residents of Michigan and Florida not getting the vote” will suck the wind of the respective state organizing committees, making the Republicans job easier in two states that the Dems really need to win in November.

The next time you see John McCain’s shit-eating grin you’ll know the truth – John Stewart was right, he’s spending his evenings soaking his aching balls in a bowl of Howard Dean’s chilled tears.

(Edited to remove a stupid-ass mistake pointed out in the comments. Thanks.)


Give paw, give paw… There, that’s a good Democrat

November 7, 2007

The Democrats have formally rolled over for Michael Mukasey and assented to Bush’s pick for Attorney General even after he refused to give a straight answer on whether waterboarding is torture, whether there are any limits to executive power during time of war, or whether indeed the sky is blue. They must have been impressed with his openness and honesty.

Apparently, Democrats feel that Mukasey is the best they are going to get from Bush, showing again that they are absolute pussies. I have to wonder what would be so wrong with rejecting him outright and having Bush send in another, and then, if he/she is not suitable send him/her back and demand another, and so on. This is exactly what the Republicans would do if the tables were reversed, though it appears the Democrats are more terrified of being called “obstructionist” than actually showing that they’ve got a pair.

I don’t envy the choices the American Left are forced to make again and again…


Some things are beyond doubt…

November 2, 2007

If there was any remaining doubt about whether the American Democratic Party was a knot of absolute pussies, they were quelled today when critical support was given to an Attorney General nominee who isn’t sure waterboarding is torture.

What can be said but “holy fuck”? Wholly fucked?


The sun might just be rising…

May 23, 2007

Is is possible that one of the contenders for the Democratic leadership actually can find his with only one hand and perhaps without the aid of cartographic support? I am parsing this little CNN report that indicates John Edwards has not swallowed the “war on terror” BS that BushCo has promoted lo these past six years. To quote Mr. Edwards:

By framing this as a war, we have walked right into the trap the terrorists have set — that we are engaged in some kind of clash of civilizations and a war on Islam.

Unfortunately, the article continues, the real front-runners, Clinton and Obama, have in fact eaten of the GWOT loaf and therefore promise little change in real direction should they “win” the election in ’08.


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