This month I thought I’d take a detour from my usual writing on the political “military-industrial complex”. I didn’t feel like doing nuts-and-bolts campaign mechanics either. Something’s been gnawing at the edges of my mind for a time, and I wanted to draw it out. So bear with me please.
Now, it’s certainly no secret that most of us in America these days take for granted that social media is part of the very fabric of our life. Those of us in the conservative grassroots certainly realize and struggle to master the power of this relatively recent technology. The ability to amplify our voice, echo our message, to create our own personal “brand” and manage our image online has been a tremendous boon to the Tea Party movement among many others in the last few years. Not to mention what it’s done for the ties of family or friendship, or even interpersonal relationships (think Match.com).But do we really stop to think about the fundamental changes this new facet of communications has made to who we are at our core?
Plenty has been written about generational and even partisan differences in how people view “new” media: email, social networking platforms, mobile applications. What I wonder about is something a little deeper. I wonder about what living like this—with both the blessings and all the curses of current technology—says about us as individuals, as citizens.
Let’s go back first though to a time before AOL, before Al Gore, maybe before DARPA made the modern internet. About twenty years ago, a sleeper of a movie came out. “Dead Poets Society” was one of Robin Williams’s first dramatic roles, and it starred the formerly manic comedian as a subdued yet inspiring teacher, John Keating. Taking his 1950’s-era New England boarding school students aside one day, he whispers “CARPE DIEM” to them, supposedly in the now-dead voices of their pictured predecessors at the academy for boys.
It was a needed lesson. The once-staid and blazered boys now looked at their existence in a different way. They started to question the same authority they had blindly followed; they peered into the mirror to discover their innermost passions: literature, cigarettes, girls. I doubt that many viewers of this melancholy film remained unaffected by its themes, its effortless joy, or the moral of its story: “seize the day”.
But I eventually stopped taking Mr. Keating’s advice and taking stock, and real life’s fast-forward button got pressed.
Next it’s 1994, the year I sent my first email. It was a tedious thing, filled with the kind of computer jargon and IP addresses only University tech support (or older, longtime CompuServe users) could remember. Then it’s 1997, the year I signed up for my first Hotmail account. This interface is much more human, and I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time trying to come up with a clever “@” handle before finally just using my own full name. The 2000’s come. I learn Outlook at a corporate job. I also create a LinkedIn account, featuring an early resume. MySpace hits even my circle of grown friends, while MeetUp helps get local political volunteers around me organized.
Now it’s 2004, and a certain young Harvard student first sets up a tiny thing called “Facebook”. The phenomenon I previously observed via MySpace (adult friends spending hours on their profiles, uploading photographs, etc.) goes into high-gear once Facebook decides to allow even those without a college email address to join. Overnight, one’s “wall”, “status”, and “feed” are all-important. Somewhere in that same timeframe, an oddity named “Twitter” (basically, texting via computer) comes into being, and now, it seems, the only life worth living is the life displayed.
And that’s what I’m getting at. While I realize full well how many millions of Americans (heck, people everywhere) used to live Thoreau’s ‘lives of quiet desperation’, I fear we’ve gone to the other extreme in today’s society. Aaron Karo (who, ironically, writes an online journal of sorts at www.ruminations.com) talks about this, and how we’ve created a culture of ‘exhibitionists—and not in a good way’.
We’ve opened Pandora’s box (which was actually a jar I’m told). Things like humility, modesty, decorum and a sense of discretion are now unheard of (actually not even understood) by most owners of iPhones. I don’t even need to begin to list the litany of political figures undone by technology (Anthony Weiner, anyone?)
Still, somewhere , way back there…almost a speck now in our civilization’s collective rearview mirror…the life examined (not displayed; there’s a difference—and Socrates knew it), the life of delayed gratification lies. It’s a simpler, more silent approach to be sure: one that doesn’t require the constant blaring of how awesome one’s travels and experiences are. One that rarely invokes the refrain of “best day ever”, typically accompanied by a smartphone-snapped photo.
Somehow we’ve confused the Latin word for ‘seize’ for our word “share”.