Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Tax of Social Media

© Charles D. Hayes

The pace of change has always delineated differences among generations. As often as not, each generation longs for something they grew up without. For this reason, in my view, the not too distant future promises a rediscovery of the rewards of solitude as something that will suddenly seem astoundingly meaningful because it affords so much time for thought. With thought comes perspective, and with that comes wisdom worth passing on.

Most of us know people whose interest in life seems to grow richer and stronger with age, coming ever closer to achieving a level of awareness that we commonly think of as wisdom. We also know people whose lives seem to shrink with time, gradually becoming less and less of who and what they once were.

Life stage researcher Erik Erickson characterized the years north of middle age as a tipping point, with one direction moving toward perspective and the other toward despair. Twenty-first century technology is ratcheting up the process for many people, pushing us further and faster in whichever direction we are leaning.

My observations suggest that openness to new experience is a key characteristic for those who strive for perspective as they grow older. Watching friends and family members withdraw into a shell of growing angst and despair is one of life’s great disappointments. When this is someone’s chosen path, efforts to get the person to change course are rarely successful.

We know the effects of change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were astonishing. Generations who grew up traveling by horse and buggy died witnessing rocket ships and satellites in space. Now, in this century, we are experiencing even faster change with communication technologies effectively having nullified geographic distances, resulting in a retribalized world based more on ideology and political class than ethnicity.

The solitude of daily life experienced by earlier generations has been replaced by unrelenting communication and media distractions. Thoughtful correspondence is increasingly overwritten by tweets. Time spent looking at snippets of text on small screens is overtaking time spent reading serious books. In-depth reading is giving way to Cliff Notes and one-page summaries.  

Nevertheless, if we don’t keep current with technology, the world seems to pass us by. We have less and less in common with younger generations. Our music, tastes in fashion, and preferences in entertainment are deemed obsolete and out of touch, and as aging friends and family pass away, we become ever more isolated.

Each of us can probably relate to having family members who never signed on with computers. Now they are likely alienated from social media. I’ve used computers since they came on the market, but only just recently did I change from using a flip phone to a smartphone. For a short time, it was a traumatic experience as I felt a complete loss of control over my ability to use a telephone. (I’m over it now.)

We can easily lose sight of the fact that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, our tools shape our behavior. Facebook, for example, has created an environment where we are subtly and not so subtly encouraged to like things. The downside is that doing so makes us much more aware of what we dislike, so much so that Facebook is adding a Dislike feature. This existential experience tends to motivate people to seek out echo chambers where political viewpoints narrow and contempt escalates and smolders.

Needless to say, for a species as tribalistic as we human beings are, manipulative media is something to be constantly aware of, simply to keep ourselves from being unduly influenced. Social philosopher Eric Hoffer was correct in declaring that hatred is one of our greatest unifying forces. And thus, the strength of communications technology is also its weakness: it brings people together while it alienates and ostracizes others. 

Some people take pride in not watching or even owning a television, not having a cellphone, or not using computers. On the other hand, some people express pride in not reading books. But purposeful isolation and alienation of any kind shortchanges perspective. Without common frames of reference, relating to others becomes more difficult.     

Now that I’m accustomed to my new phone, I view it as something short of magic. It’s the equivalent of having a personal assistant 24/7. Social media and smartphone apps for seniors are tremendous aids for keeping in touch with family and assisting with medical issues. Even so, today’s political environment suggests the world needs much less chit-chat and much more thoughtfulness and deep reading.                         

Ralph Waldo Emerson put our current dilemma in perspective more than a century ago, pointing out that “every advantage has its tax.” So, if you are feeling alienated by your lack of technical savvy, Emerson is still good company. His work is all about gaining and maintaining perspective. Read his essay “Compensation,” and you will be rewarded with a riveting example of thoughtfulness.

In Emerson’s time, solitude was a big part of life. If you read the letters and prose of ordinary citizens during that period and compare them with today’s social media, you may perceive that we need to rethink and relearn the importance of solitude.

The tax for using the media available to us is paid in lost opportunity for thoughtful reflection. Wisdom these days will likely be found by discerning and maintaining the right balance between technological wizardry and enough silent contemplation to keep from being manipulated politically and to maintain a level of perspective that makes life worth living.  
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