On Disconnection and Isolation
Last week, at 11:17 PM on Tuesday night, our front door bell rang. For most people, this would result in a slight apprehension before answering the door to find out what neighbor is locked out of their house. But if you harbor some anxiety about the neighborhood you live in, justified or not, a rung doorbell at any hour outside of a 12 hour window between 10 AM and 10 PM can have a definitely different reaction. There have been stories lately in our neighborhood of people ringing doorbells to find out if people are home before breaking in or stealing their cars. We have a neighbor directly behind us who have who had their front door kicked in in broad daylight and all electronics stolen. We’ve had a home invasion on our cul de sac in the 18 months we’ve lived there. And so, instead of making a logical decision (it didn’t help that we were long since asleep and not particularly rational when the door rang), I immediately started thinking the worst and worried for the safety of family and home.
By the time I had actually woken up and made it into the living room, handgun in hand, I saw a black truck drive away from the house and turn the corner. We have renters next to us who have been, if not outright unfriendly, then at least aloof and one neighbor behind us has seen people from that house come down and take pictures of our cars. All of these things come to mind at 11:30 at night when the doorbell rings. After making the rounds of the house and seeing nothing outside out of the ordinary and setting the alarm, I climbed back into bed. Immediately the phone rang with a unrecognized numbers. “Weirder and weirder,” I said to Mara but didn’t answer it. Only when I got the voicemail from our friendly neighbor behind the house about our garage door being wide open, did I start to feel exceptionally foolish. Of course it’s a neighbor. That’s what neighbors do. But fears of crime and a general feeling of anxiety turned a neighborly act into a stressful situation. Once upon a time, in a different era, people were more likely to be connected to their neighborhood (though of course we know this is a generalization about a false nostalgia but I don’t think anyone would argue that the neighborhoods of today are more connected than those of 30 years ago when kids played safely on the street and walked safely home from school). A doorbell after 10 might cause concern but not fear. Yet today, in areas like south Dallas, it’s difficult to manage those fears, especially when there is a constant, torrential inflow of information regarding bad things happening to people.
And we’re some of the lucky ones. Many people have no idea who their neighbors are. We have the phone numbers of several around us. We talk to them regularly in the street. Still, in certain circumstances, fear is the easier emotion to muster when something happens. A strong crime-free neighborhood can be thought of as a kind of cultural safety net. When something happens, people are there for you. However, as a society, we are more disconnected from each other than ever before. In a world when you can Skype with people in Russia, there is less and less meaningful human connection, more and more isolation as we have to drive farther and farther to get to our jobs and more and more inventions designed to keep our face glued to a tiny screen in front of us instead of lifting up our heads to see the world. This disconnectedness, this isolation, makes it easy to prey on our fears whether the hunters are politicians, marketers or media talking heads. And because we are evolutionarily wired to be alert for danger and react to it (far better to run like hell from a shadow that could be a lion but turns out to be a bush than to “make sure” and be dead), this disconnectedness is a self fulfilling circle. It is not easy to get out of our natural state and try to see things in a different light.
David Foster Wallace wrote a commencement speech for Kenyon College in 2005 called “This is water”. I watch it once or twice a year to remind myself of its lesson which is this: our default setting is almost always self centered and revolves around how poorly we are treated or what bad luck we have. When someone cuts us off, we yell in rage in our confined little cars never once thinking that maybe that person is trying to get to the hospital to see his child born. When the grocery store only has one checkout station open, we mentally fume about how our time is being misused never thinking what it must be like to be that one single clerk servicing all these angry people. It takes a great deal of effort, perhaps more than most people can bear, to step outside this default and assume the best of everything. Because it’s much easier to assume the worst, we fall into traps constantly about what is causing the problems that we have. Now, 70 years after a generation of Americans saved the world from incomprehensible evil, we have a society and a culture that in almost every way is designed to pander to our default setting of selfishness. Yet, we are a social species so we find communities within this selfishness that oftentimes become echo chambers and further the self-fulfillment of “It’s someone else’s fault.” We have at least one full generation who has grown up totally on the Internet where saying things you would never say to anyone’s face is de rigueur. More and more we have created places in our lives where it’s acceptable to do perfectly inhumane things. And while most of our bad behavior is limited to the confines of our car or Facebook or whatever, our politicians have become living caricatures of that behavior.
We have a leading Republican candidate who wants to build a wall between us and Mexico because it’s the illegals who are making it difficult to get a job, not because long ago we allowed our corporations and manufacturers to send perfectly good middle class jobs overseas. We have an entire Republican field who seem to strongly believe the sitting President of the United States should not nominate a Supreme Court justice after Justice Scalia passed away last week. We have a Democratic candidate and former Secretary of State who found it perfectly reasonable to have a private email server for official United States business. We have become disconnected not just from those we disagree with but also from a sense of common decency. Gone are the days of cross-aisle negotiations to get key legislature passed, ala Lyndon Johnson. Our centrist common sense politicians are being replaced through big money and big lobbying with meme spouting rich loud mouths. Our politicians vilify opposing view points as if they were truly evil and not human beings coming to different conclusions regarding certain facts.
But our politicians are and always have been real life caricatures of ourselves. Walk anywhere today and you see people totally disconnected from the world around them, heads buried in their phones or tablets, headphones on to drown out the sounds and distractions of the world they only partially inhabit. People share tiny sound bites on social media that are extremist representations of the political and cultural memes they believe, beliefs that are almost always handed down to them through their families with little thought of how the other side might operate. Other people in their own echo chamber share and promote this extremism. We live our technological lives in mediums that are designed to grab attention as quickly and cheaply as possible. The words “socialism” or “immigration” or “taxes” and a million other talking points encompass entire gray universes of complex issues that we increasingly refuse to accept. And then we are shocked (shocked I tell you!) when our very own extremism and disconnectedness come full circle and are personified in our political candidates. The mediums we choose for communication today drive our inability to discuss and grasp the subtle and sublime in life and in politics.
We don’t do this out of malice. In fact, our technical interaction is largely done for the same reasons and through the same mechanisms as today’s click bait advertising. We want to see the little red circle with a large number of likes or comments in it. And the easiest way to do that is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A picture of a cat with a cucumber will get more response than a 5000 word essay and slowly our ability to deeply understand and discuss our world fades away. Our relationships become shallower and shallower. In return for our own abandonment of the connectedness of social interaction, we receive politicians who are incapable of consensus building. They can only yell like children that they have been wronged which is exactly what we do every day. It is our default setting and without struggle and effort and vigilance against the forces in our technologically connected but socially disconnected world, we fall farther and farther into that default setting until we are unable to experience someone who disagrees with us as anything but an enemy to be defeated. When that happens, we are lost because there are always enemies enough in life without creating make believe ones ourselves.
Here’s just on example of how this works, how we get caught in our own personal echo chambers driven by social media. Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was buried. President Obama attended the visitation Friday to pay his respects but did not attend the funeral. This morning in my Facebook feed was a post from the Chicago Tribune faulting Obama for not attending the funeral saying it was what “Chicago guys do”. I read it and immediately thought of the time an aunt died in my family. I wasn’t close with that part of our family but I took off work to drive to Oklahoma City to go to the funeral. I did this because she had been important to the continuation of our family reunion. But I also did it out of sense of duty, a sense of “that’s just what you do”. So as I read this article about Obama not attending Scalia’s funeral, I did so in the light of my own bias, my own belief system and by the time I was done, I was convinced this was a mistake if for no other reason than the political enemies of President Obama could now use this as fodder for retribution around the entire empty Supreme Court seat. I expected to add this story here as an example of disconnectedness. A moment of reflection and a quick Google search led me to another conclusion. There are perfectly other, perfectly plausible reasons why a President might not attend the funeral of a sitting Supreme Court Justice who died. For one, a Catholic funeral is not an event of state. Having a President attend with all the related logistics would have added significantly to the planning and execution of the funeral. For another, it’s perfectly reasonable he made contact with the family and they expressed a desire to not have him there for the very same reasons. There are myriad other reasons why he might choose not to attend. Yet, as I sat drinking coffee reading one viewpoint that happened to exactly fit my personal biases. I convinced myself this was a major error in decorum. This is a very personal decision made by the President of the United States possibly in conjunction with the family of Justice Scalia but I made it into a political issue because of social media and my default setting and bias. It’s worth noting that this particular bias is actually a good one and is directly related to maintaining a sense of connectedness with those who are important to us. But I managed to briefly turn it into a way to be disconnected because social media and the ever present stream of information it feeds us makes it very easy to do so.
What does all this mean for our society? Our choices of communication enable us to superficially remain connected to more and more people while losing many of the aspects of deep connection. We live two lives, the one on social media where it is easy to isolate and promote sound bites that fit our personal biases, the other in real life in our interactions with our family, friends and the world in general. As we begin to spend more and more time on social media in an echo chamber of our own making, the actions on social media, being easier to accept, believe and promote, will continue to bleed into real life until we have effectively lost the ability to empathize and understand those with whom we disagree. We will have built a society around shallowness lacking civility that is incapable of emotions other than anger and disagreement. When I look at the politicians of today, I fear we may already be a long way down that road.