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Politics, Society and Technology: the Perils of Entitlement

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.

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