Monday, February 21, 2011

The Golden Rule: Lost In Cyberspace?

Life Beyond Snark.

Somewhere around the time of the last election I read that it was the Dems' job to restore a civil tone to Washington. Not a bad idea. But, at least so far, the Dems haven't been the ones leading the meanie cyber charge in the nasty world of cryptic cyber commentary. The political cyber-right looks increasingly like the creepy, desperate kid that tries to get a seat at the cool kids' table by grossing everyone out.

So Mo Dowd's recent column on the lack of civility in cyberspace got me thinking about boundaries. Cause that's what it's really about, a lack of boundaries in civil society today and how that gets amplified by internet technology. What hath Zuckerman wrought?

Back in the late eighties/ early nineties the self improvement movement exploded (another story). All kinds of psychotherapy, twelve step programs, workout tapes, a burgeoning industry of self analysis books, and oh, let's not forget those handy cassette tapes you could listen to on your Walkman while driving the kiddies to soccer. It seemed that Boomers were suddenly hungry to know why we were all so uneasy with our "success", disappointed with the folks/parents we turned out to be, walking zombies in the addicted Nation in Denial. Nearly everyone was addicted to something: work, pain, alcohol, sex, drugs, food, co- dependency. Anything to fill the black hole you didn't want to look into.

"Enablers" had it the worst, what with no substance to blame directly for their cognitive dissonance. Lack of boundaries was their problem. You had to learn to say "No" to those who would take advantage of you, who ask you to alter your moral compass to suit them, or popular tastes, to infringe on your privacy or your right to choose – anything - or, um ... speak. And there's no pill for that, is there? The 'cure' looked like too much work for most people. A boundaryless President "shared" about the "dysfunctional" household he grew up in, blaming that for his bad choices, so now that was 'cool', evidence that, no matter how phoqued up you were, you too could still become president of the United States, and blame your parents if you screw up. But he claimed to feel great empathy; he could "feel your pain" – which is more than you could say for the next guy. In fact, unexamined family dysfunction, actually became a pre req for political candidacy. Americans now wanted presidents who were as screwed up as we were; true "fathers" of our country. People we could drink with and drown our collective sorrows.

All because we lacked clear boundaries. We decided as a nation that trying to identify and establish them was just too hard. We even ignored international legal boundaries and invaded a country, more than one actually, who had done nothing to us. (The right wing is even more opposed to boundaries than the left; just look at their refusal to stay out of your bedroom, your doctor's office, the collective vagina.) In the nineties we embraced, just like the ancient Greeks with their 'magical thinking' plays, the serialized morality tale of a thriving dysfunctional culture devoid of healthy boundaries or repercussions (See Tony Soprano, prev. blog). His rage and dizzy spells were ours as we rejected boundaries and personal responsibility for the easy fix of titillation, sentimentality and Prozac to deal with the side effects of -- denial! Shows like Friends modeled the kind of funfilled, shallow, ubiquitous human connection we would eventually simulate on Facebook.

By 2000 half the voters, distracted by busting bubbles, voted for a fellow drunk to run things. When buyers' remorse set in a few months later, we were treated to the biggest spectacle/distraction of all, September 11. (According to PNAC recommendations, "something big, like Pearl Harbor").) Glued to the screen, over and over we watched, awed and stupid, willing to believe anything that absolved us from responsibility. We plastered flags in our windows to ward off the evil; we shunned those who refused to salute, questioned their morality. We craved what the bigger screens had to offer, 24 hour constant distraction, terror, titillation, and the balm of noble sacrifice, the righteous suicide of WAR (We Are Right) –– distracting counterweights to the oppression of falling wages, rising executive salaries, "free/ easy money", fairy tale equity, exported jobs, the humiliation of retraining yet again for a 'new economy', costly instant gratification, and growing personal debt.

Denial and blaming someone else (the addict's invariable MO) became our default position for each and every problem the country faced. A healthy sense of boundaries, knowing what's yours to fix and what's mine and where the lines are, promotes healthy relationships and human dignity. But that's bad for the NSA's hungry databases and for the communications industry's bottom line intent on selling us that latest gadget.

Boundaries are now just so passee. The evidence? Anytime Wall Street, a gambling casino, can waltz right into the US Treasury and walk out with billions of dollars with no explanation whatsoever and get away with it that nation is in serious denial about where the boundaries of ethical behavior are and whose job (the government perhaps?) it is to maintain them. Citizens willing to put up with any transgression so long as the pay per view cable keeps working are not "keeping" their Republic. And despite being constantly "connected" and barraged with information, the vast majority of Americans still don't seem to really get what's going on, nor do they seem to want to! Witness the last election – as case of Classic Ballot Box Denial. The confusion about who to blame for the mess is manifest in the desperate drive to drown ourselves in useless information, vent frustration by outsnarking the next guy, a constant yadayadayada about ourselves, our very own show, our lives an open [Face] book, every second of the day, as we lower the civility bar further, sacrifice privacy of thought, relinquish precious time, just to have a place at the "cool kids" table, that precious few seconds of.. visibility. The bombardment of virtual useless information defines reality. For all that gets written that's critical of this phenom (a drop in the bucket compared to the advertising in favor of it), no one really questions -- What price, beyond the few thousand bucks a year it costs each of us to buy this technology (when basic landline phone service is still about 20 bucks month) are we paying for being constantly plugged in, on call, accessible, online, and interrupted? In other words, for our lack of boundaries?

Why the urgency? What's the source? It smacks of adolescent angst, adult version. What does it say about people? Do we all think we'll actually die if we miss something? I sense it is not unlike the moment Oblimey decided FOX news was right, that he DID after all have to don a flag pin to be a credible patriot. That was the moment he, and those who believed him, sold out to the 9/11 mentality of fear and the manufactured need to stay constantly connected.
It's estimated that people spend 14% of their time each day untangling earphones! What are we doing with the other 86% that will matter in the long run? Is it that we all really think The Big One will hit any moment still and we need to stay connected just in case? Really? then what are we doing about that?

Isn't all this just an admission that fear has triumphed? That we're afraid of privacy now? Of that silence, that depth? That old black hole?

The folks in Mo's article think "nastiness" and "shallowness" is the price we pay for constant connectedness. “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.” What effect might being constantly open to input via the airwaves, never turning that wavelength off, have on our ability to think, feel, reason, and empathize? Because when you empathize with people the Golden Rule makes a comeback. You think twice. You ask: would I want this done to me? Is it fair?

Is it possible the world we all now inhabit, one of constant digital interruption of concentration and deep feeling, a world that keeps us in a state of incessant shallow (despite personal revelations) interaction with other people in our own homes, many of whom we'd have nothing to do with in 'real' life, is creating an impulsively opinionated, outspoken culture that denies any allegiance to truth or the damage lies can do?

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, posits that "online anonymity", the ability to comment without real life identity, forethought or repercussion (and the cultivation of an audience hungry for those rash comments), has created a culture of sadism. Yes, SADISM. Think about that. A culture that is frustrated, angry and factually careless and uninformed, hell bent on expressing its rage with no concern for the results outside achieving fifteen minutes of fame for doing so.

"Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” says technology amplifies everything, good instincts and base. While technology is amoral, he said, our brains may be rewired in disturbing ways."

"Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, recalled that when he started his online book review he forbade comments, wary of high-tech sociopaths.“I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site,” he said. “Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?

”Why indeed?"

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