There is an old joke told by Woody Allen, “A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.” This joke seems to highlight our growing dependency on social media. As much as we seem to demonize people looking at their phones everywhere, in lines, while driving, at the dinner table- it seems that no place is safe. It seems this electronic narcissism has taken over our consciousness and has invited a response asking us to be mindful of our screen time with the Bored and Brilliant program launched by the Note to Self NPR radio program. It seems that the only true response to the galloping monopoly of our face time is to turn away completely as Allan Curtis suggests. As much as we protest this media creep, perhaps we have to either do without the eggs or admit our powerlessness before our new media god.
While looking for information on several companies I did what most people do, I read the reviews and was surprised to see that the trend for most companies was predominantly negative. Then I was reminded of a phrase of Jaron Lanier, in an interview on NPR, that “Outrage provokes engagement”. We are much more willing to complain loudly than to sing someone’s praises. Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone about how badly you were treated versus the last time you spoke about a kind or loving interaction. Whereas network news once had the rallying cry,” If it bleeds, it leads” that seems to have been replaced by the need to outrage viewers in order to stir them up, get them to tweet, comment and generally justify their existence. It seems that the purpose of media has become provocation and not communication. Twitter and the use of it by our “president” is a perfect example. While a substantive discussion of any issue would be difficult in 120 characters, it seems as though Mr. Trump seems more intent on kicking over the beehive and generating buzz (pardon the pun) rather than inviting a discussion on what needs to be done and how to get there. This is no surprise for a reality star turned politician who has learned that manipulation of the media is easier than manipulation of policy. The beast needs our attention and will do anything to get us to look at it. Perhaps our best response is to turn away from the media’s childlike tantrum and hope that it will someday realize the promises that it whispered in our ears when we allowed it in our lives.
Recently I heard about an NPR podcast how computers are now using big data to make predictions about our behavior. This may mean tracking the number of cars in a shopping center parking lot to see how it correlates with activities or sales in the mall. It seems that computers can watch what we do, make a prediction as to our behavior and market to us to satisfy our need before we know what we need or want. As soon as companies can begin to predict our behavior they will be there to market to us for profit. It seems that our only way for people to hold on to our humanity will be to be unpredictable. Our constancy seems to be something that will turn us into machines that the machines we create will understand.
While listening to public radio, my ears perked up when I heard a story about how the first MP3 was created. It seems that in 1987, Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega was the first song that was compressed into what we now know as the current MP3. It seems that to create an MP3 the file is compressed and that some of the audio data is lost in the process. While the current technology seems to give us acceptable losses, there are losses none the less. Ryan Maguire’s Ghost in the MP3 project examines this lost information and presents this lost data as an oddly beautiful piece of music, a sort of phoenix from the ashes. In addition, our cell service is regularly flattened which has the effect of removing the emotion out of the voice we are listening to while supposedly reducing background noise, it also removes some of the emotional content of the voice- possibly one of the few remaining things that we have that computers can not yet replicate.
While these losses may seem insignificant, it reminds me of the poem by Martin Niemoller, “First They Came” how one by one the Nazis purged groups until there was no one left to protest when at last they came for the author, no one was left to hear his protests. What exactly are we compressing, do we know what we loose over the thundering goosestepping of technology. While I like to think we have learned from our mistakes if we wait too long our calls of protest will be devoid of emotion content in the interest of reducing the background noise.
Having never seen “Seinfeld” it was explained once as “a show about nothing”. In a time when we can spend hours looking at Facebook or Twitter and accomplish nothing, it seems understandable how nothing can go on for nine seasons. Oddly enough I thought about this when listening to The Art of (Cyber) War on NPR. Whereas the question as to whether or not to go to war used to be based on what someone did to us, Pearl Harbor for example, now we seem to be making that judgment on the need for a preemptive strike, get them before they can get us. This gets rather complicated in the realm of cyber war as how can one prove the intent to do harm before it has been done? What constitutes “something” in intent in a cyber attack. What would be the threshold to constitute the attack and which possible attack would require retribution? Sony Pictures was hacked, something not judged to be worthy of retaliation but while the evidence mounts that the elections were tampered with, if not in actual votes but in the perception of the candidates, do we not find a response to be in our national interests? While I am not suggesting that we should rain down an electronic firestorm at the least provocation, it does seem that now is the time that we need to begin to look at these questions and set some guidelines as to how to respond. We have an idea of what would constitute an attack, isn’t it time we gave serious thought to our response or will we wait and find ourselves responding to something that could be about nothing.
Change is never easy and watching the news shows that change is necessary. The nature of this change struck me while listening to an NPR interview with the Aunt of the man killed in a police shooting in Minneapolis. She was weeping and crying saying how the police had taken something from her that she could never get back. While I was struck by her grief I was shocked by the way she added a hashtag to the conversation, not unlike the ones used by the black lives matter movement. While I do not argue with the validity of their outrage is a hashtag really the best way to vent our anger? Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”; is a hashtag or a twitter post really an outlet for our rage? Is a social media post the warm cozy blanket we wrap ourselves in to pretend that we are feeling beings, part of a community of people for whom we have a moral obligation to treat humanely? If we are mad, shouldn’t we get mad, shout from our windows, take to the streets and demand to be heard not read and reposted? What will it come to before we realize that change is often not something that can be done from a comfortable chair? Has a revolution been replaced by the retweet?
If you are not familiar with “Network” or at least this scene you owe it to yourself to see his amazing moment.
Listening to NPR the other day,I was taken by a story on how there is a movement to make wifi access available everywhere in the national parks. It seems that some people have found that the great outdoors just are not enough of a draw for them and that they feel the need to Skype, check Facebook and possibly download and watch the that episode of “The Bachelor” that they might miss. This makes me think of Marie Antoinette and the Hameau de la Reine a rustic retreat that she had built on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. There she would dress as a peasant and have local farmers help her maintain the perception of being a peasant in the country. It seems that we are creating a similar situation by allowing Wifi into national parks, we have all the trappings of wilderness but with the constant distraction of technology and media. Will we get to a point where a genuine outdoor experience with no wifi is something that we can only have on the grounds of a private estate or range possibly at a cost so that those who have this internet silence can enjoy it with others who can pay for the privilege of being truly in the wilderness?