OPINION – A friend of mine recently died alone. It was days before his death was discovered.
When my phone rang, I was surprised at who was calling. It was a classmate I had not spoken with since high school more than 30 years ago. He was calling to let me know our friend had died. We’ve bid farewell to a number of class members over the years, but this one was different. Our friend had died of natural causes … but alone, undiscovered for days.
It struck us surprisingly hard.
How, we wondered, in an era of perpetual connectivity, could such a talented, respected and well-liked person simply slip through the cracks unnoticed?
I had to reconsider how much attention I’ve been giving to things that are largely unhealthy distractions.
This isn’t so much my inner-Luddite objecting to information technology as it is a call to step back and consider whether I’m using it as wisely as I should.
How many people do you know who can’t even visit the restroom without taking along their smartphone so they can stay connected to their media feeds? Is the content of that digital media actually improving our lives or simply keeping us occupied?
More importantly, what sorts of things that truly matter are we choosing to ignore while we hyperfocus on the superficial?
There’s a clear difference between being informed about what’s happening around us and being immersed in our social media feeds. If we were to keep the equivalent of a food diary on how much social media we consume daily, I think most of us would be shocked.
It’s one thing to snack on distractions but quite another to endlessly binge on content that keeps us fearful and angry to the point that we risk destroying ourselves psychologically. We all know political obsessives who live for stories and memes that rouse their anger and anxiety.
Digital news outlets know their ad revenues depend upon generating clicks. They also understand that the stories that evoke strong emotions like anger or awe tend to be shared more widely.
In this context, it’s not surprising that anger has become one of the primary emotions driving our consumption of news – particularly in the digital realm. The online rage that characterized so much of last year is showing little sign of slowing.
Paul Rosenberg recently described how this can create online enclaves of closed circuit thinking:
Pre-polarized websites, blogs, and social media channels have proliferated; it’s now possible to enclose yourself in your chosen ideology, feasting on us/them opinions, highly-emotional public clashes, and the demonization of opponents. And it is a problem.
Rosenberg notes that, under such conditions, it’s easy to find ourselves barricaded in self-contained groups where, in order to be heard, opinions necessarily must move to the extreme.
This is where we tend to find greater satisfaction in punishing those we view as opponents than we do in living the kind of life that positively impacts the people around us.
The problem cannot be blamed on the internet. It’s found in the hearts of people who are caught up in the grasp of group polarization.
That polarization is beginning to manifest as open violence against those who are perceived as outside the chosen group. The tragedy here is that the various factions are committing the classic mistake of rejecting the individual in favor of some form of collective judgment.
It’s the twisted dynamic that allows masked antifa protesters to chant about the need for tolerance while beating individuals who have harmed no one. It’s the fear-based disconnect that causes others to regard every refugee as a potential terrorist.
Both groups have genuine – though often exaggerated – concerns, yet they are regularly manipulated by deceptive and abusive systems and leaders that promise to control and punish everyone who disagrees.
These deeply polarized attitudes are fed by the online echo chambers methodically dominating our lives and our thinking. Does this represent an advancement or a regression in terms of our individual humanity?
We each have a choice as to when and how to control access to our digital feeds or to choose which information sources we will use. Inviting government or social media giants to regulate any perceived imbalance via third party censorship isn’t the solution.
It ultimately comes down to what matters more to us.
I’m not suggesting everyone should dump their smartphone and go back to landlines and reading books at the library, but I clearly see some downsides to my own digital tether.
My mind keeps going back to that telephone conversation with my friend and the realization that, for all our information technology, we still wear blinders.
It makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and opinion columnist in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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