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Much has been written about the tendency of smartphones to isolate us rather than connect us, as you might expect. You may be sitting with friends in a restaurant, but you can be conversing digitally, and thus more emotionally connected to, someone on Instagram or a blog. Someone you’ve never met, perhaps. While your friend, sitting next to you, is also involved in an emotional exchange with someone else who is not there. While you and your friend largely ignore one another. I can see how this could be interpreted as making people more isolated, but the recent coronavirus fiasco has suggested to me that we are not more isolated, but more connected than ever. And that is a Very Bad Thing.
I like people. I even like people that I don’t like all that much, if that makes any sense. One advantage of being a person as deeply flawed as myself is that I tend to accept others as they are, and I try to avoid criticizing others. So in general, I get along great with basically everybody. I love people.
But I fear mobs. While people tend to be reasonable, intelligent, and pleasant; groups of people, for various reasons, quickly become irrational, passionate, and dangerous. And I would argue that the ubiquitous nature of smartphones has reduced us from a civilization of individuals who, together, can handle extraordinary crises; to a mob which is by definition irrational, passionate, and incapable of developing a carefully reasoned approach to just about anything.
Allow me to preface my argument the way I normally conclude my arguments: I really hope I’m wrong about this.
I mentioned to my wife the other day that I thought that the old media (CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) was doing more harm than good by fostering panic in our response to the coronavirus. She said maybe, but that she thought that social media was more damaging than conventional media outlets.
I thought this was a profound observation.
Don’t tell her I said that.
But I think that if the average person read a story in a newspaper, this would be different. By the time you read anything in a newspaper, the information is at least 24 hours old, and probably two-three days old. So the reporter, and his/her editor, has had time to study the issue, attempt to research the facts of the story, and then present a thoughtful summary of what they learned.
No chuckling please – I’m talking best-case scenario here…
So the average person reads that news story, considers the data presented, and thinks to him/herself, “Hmmm… I think I might skip church tomorrow, and I’ll be a bit more conscientious about handwashing.” Which would be an entirely rational response.
But suppose that person gets on Facebook or Instagram, reads the trending articles (which by definition will be the most dramatic and inflammatory interpretations of the topic at hand), then that person starts exchanging comments with others who are similarly panicked about whatever is going on. That person is going to go to Costco and buy 100 rolls of toilet paper. Logic, reason, and contemplation go out the window.
The information age has reduced us — nearly all of us — to a mob. It has reduced our innate skills at reasoning and consideration of risks vs rewards to … um … to a Whack-a-Mole game. And that’s it. Our reason is gone, and our passions are exaggerated. Instead of brains, we now have Whack-a-Mole games. All due to the information age. So in response to a serious threat from a global infectious disease, we neglect typical protocols for managing contagious diseases, and we buy lots and lots of toilet paper. This is unhelpful. This is potentially dangerous.
And this is not what I thought the information age would offer humanity.
There was a brilliant post about this a few years ago. But despite its profound insight, that post did not anticipate the coronavirus.
I acknowledge that this is not all bad. Sometimes, over-reacting to a serious threat is not a bad thing. If you have pneumonia, and you can’t breathe, then whatever dose of antibiotics you’re taking could be described as, “Not enough.”
But there are side effects to over-dosage. Side effects which are not always immediately apparent.
If you’re insufficiently despondent about our response to the coronavirus, ask yourself this: “How would Robespierre have responded to the coronavirus crisis?” What about Saul Alinsky? Or even Bernie Sanders? Or perhaps even Joe Biden facing poor polling numbers?
President Obama once said, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” That sounds nice. President Obama had a gift for making horrible things sound nice. But those things remain horrible, even if they sound nice.
Humans are strange animals. The things we do as individuals tend to be rational and cooperative. But when we join together into cooperative groups, we become a mob. And then the things we choose to do together tend to be irrational and uncooperative. Not always. But often.
The information age, and smartphones, have made us more interconnected than ever before.
God help us.
As a wise man once observed, “I really hope I’m wrong about this…”
Note: Despite my previous righteous rantings against the evils of semicolons, in the third paragraph of this essay, I found myself with little choice but to indulge the natural human temptation to include these infernal forms of punctuation (twice!) into what is otherwise a carefully thought out essay.
Please don’t judge me. If anyone flags this post for COC violations, I will completely understand. I know that this is a family website, and children may be reading.
I will do my very best to see to it that this never happens again.Published in