Why Has The World Become So Strange?
We live in very strange, we might even say chaotic, times.
Politics has grown more than a little odd (that is, more so than usual). Liberals dismiss conservatism as empty “populism”, while conservatives talk about fighting “culture wars” with presumably zero-sum outcomes.
Meanwhile, digital technology seems to breed curious behaviour, especially in the ways we speak to and about one other and engage each other’s ideas.
Families, the bedrock of stable civilizations, seem to take on peculiar forms, to the point where one prominent English judge recently - wrongly, I believe - declared the nuclear family as good as dead.
For some, assigning gender identities is no longer the province of nature; gender is considered a lifestyle option, a matter of personal choice.
In all this tolerance is preached as perhaps the ultimate virtue, often by people who don’t seem to understand that tolerance, by definition, requires hearing and understanding ideas with which they may not agree.
Strangeness abounds. Were my grandfathers’ generation to be resurrected tomorrow they would feel about as disoriented as Alice did after her descent into the rabbit hole.
In Britain, we can measure the bizarreness of our times by the political process surrounding our imminent Brexit. We are just ten months away from B-day, yet we appear to have no clear sense of the type of Britain we want to become after the great divorce.
Our government speaks to us in a slightly fractured way, as if we’re meant to see Brexit through a kaleidoscope in which every pattern is disconcerting rather than interesting.
There appears to be no clear vision of how Britain should look ten years from now, nor any strategy to carry us there.
For its part, Parliament is wrangling over various proposed amendments to Brexit bills which seem designed, in some cases, to slow the whole process to a shuddering halt.
The debate isn’t just unsettling, it is strange. I think it’s fair to say that in this respect we get the politics we deserve, for there’s a certain inconsistency and strangeness in so much of our collective behaviour.
Why all this strangeness? Where did it originate? What is fuelling it?
Many factors play a role, but some are relatively easy to identify - and perhaps rectify. One of these is the oddity we call social media, but which in many cases might better be known as antisocial media.
Speaking to Channel 4 news recently, Silicon Valley “computer philosopher” Jaron Lanier argued that BigTech companies engage in behaviour modification.
They hook us, he said, on a system of rewards and punishments. Then, by using algorithms and bots to determine our likes and dislikes, they point us toward other material that confirms our biases.
In the end, social media and search entities lead us toward ever more blinkered visions of reality. Our thinking becomes stunted, our worldview myopic.
Last week the British universities minister said that technology firms have a “duty of care to the young”. He likened them to polluters.
When an oil spill occurs, he said, energy companies are expected to clean it up. In the same way, new media giants should be expected to help solve some of the damage they do to young minds.
A UK study released last week revealed that ten percent of children aged 5 to 16 has some form of clinically diagnosable mental illness. The head of the National Health Service said that web giants are helping to fuel this “mental health crisis” among the young.
Strangely, tech mammoths like Facebook and Apple have advocated that the answer to our over-engagement with technology is even more engagement - via specific apps on their platforms.
Clearly, our appetite for all things digital and search-related has gone too far for any proverbial turning back of clocks. However, we can at least contain the strangeness.
Nothing much in life can be reduced to just a few steps. Yet there are a few simple things we can do to ensure that, at least on an individual basis, we don’t descend further into the mists of confusion.
We might start with a re-assessment of the time we spend online.
Much has been documented about the dangers of internet addiction. In fact, it is now recognised as a bona fide mental condition in a number of countries, including the U.S.
In international tests, people with internet addiction have been shown to score higher on measures of depression and anxiety, and lower on measures of self-directedness and cooperativeness. They also score lower in terms of family function.
While occasionally playing games online can improve decision-making, people who are addicted to game-play often exhibit high levels of impulsivity. Especially if their games involve them as shooters.
The word “addict” comes to us from the Latin language. The term “addictus” was used to denote the time served by indentured slaves.
The “addict” was the slave. In our relationship with technology, each of us must decide - and train our children to decide - who is the master and who is the slave.
From time to time, as a personal “sanity” check, I ask myself this question: “If my computer or smartphone broke down tomorrow, would I still have any friends?”
Having reassessed, we might be well advised to re-boot, to disconnect from some digital attachments for a set period.
Some people do this via digital fasts. They remove themselves as much as possible from personal digital engagement - that is, beyond its use in the workspace - for a set period.
Some fast for one day a week, others for a week or longer. The idea is simply to slow the process of degeneration in thought process, allowing time for reflection.
The philosopher and psychologist John Dewey wrote that we do not learn from experience, but from reflecting upon experience.
A study conducted by the University of California revealed that short periods of reflection can boost productivity by up to 40 per cent.
A global survey in 2017 suggested that the average time spent online is 135 minutes per day - that number has jumped 67 per cent in just the past five years.
We need to give our brains time and space to connect and make sense of the plethora of ideas we read and hear every day.
Having re-booted, we can reconnect with the digital, while setting better limits for our engagement.
We should do this while prioritising human contact so that we practice old-school biometric reading - reading faces more often than we do screens.
In the process, we can reduce the number of conversations we have which are mediated through screens.
Holding a conversation is a little like playing catch. When a person throws a ball, they will do so in quite a distinctive way. Each individual puts his or her own individual spin on the ball, in much the same way that we each walk a little differently.
In conversation, I will throw an idea to someone else, who will then throw it back to me with their particular spin applied to it. This is how innovation is often born. New ideas are born out of connections between old or existing ideas.
Having face-to-face conversations is a breeding ground for invention because new ideas don’t hang out in singles bars.
Luddism is not the answer to the strangeness of our times.
Technology - or our engagement with it - is only one facet of a much larger conversation to be had on maintaining individual sanity and social empathy and responsibility in a time of almost exponential change.
However, constantly re-examining the role of technology in our lives will play an increasingly important role in bringing order to the seeming chaos around us.