Furthest Right

Chain Reaction

For thousands of years the world was big.  A man’s only concern was his family, his community, and his nation.  Even at the national level, news took days to arrive.  It took a full day for Pheidippides to run from Athens to Sparta in order to inform the Spartans that Persian forces were invading.  Even as recent as the Civil War era, one can imagine that news from across the country took days and only the most important stories were considered.

Today the world is small.  Every news story from every corner of the globe is right there in front of you, on your computer screen, within minutes.  Furthermore, the news is an odd combination of the lurid/sensational/ultra-violent but also the twee/inconsequential/feel-good.  The most horrific and the cutest – massacres, catastrophes and kittens rescued from trees.

Is man cut out to reconcile so much disparate information so quickly?  The world was large for thousands of years then in a mere 100 years, the world has rapidly become smaller and smaller.  Our social reality is out of sync with our biology.

Man was not meant to hear about and reconcile the news from all corners of the earth.  Understanding the dynamics of a county or state is hard enough, let alone an entire country, let alone the entire world.  It is no surprise we neglect our own backyard as we hear of more sensational stories from abroad.  Rather than prioritizing on the basis of proximity, we prioritize on the basis of what is most sensational.  But as we are distracted from our own problems, they grow and grow.

We are not only distracted, we are also desensitized.  When we are bombarded with news of natural disasters, riots, death, and violence, we slowly become numb to these things, in general.  As post-modern theorist Jean Baudrillard formulates:  information annihilates meaning.  When all we hear is murder, rape, arson, they begin to lose their impact.

Being “connected” to the world has its upside.  But perhaps our instant mass-communication system has connected us in ways which we never bargained for.  It not only distracts and desensitizes decent people, it also connects and empowers the indecent.  Perhaps we are a little too connected.  Mass hysteria is a well documented phenomenon.

This phenomenon of mass hysteria or chain reactions manifests itself in many different forms:

  1. Computer worms are essentially chain reactions.  The ILOVEYOU bug is especially funny because of its unassuming origins.  It was apparently an accident not even borne of maliciousness.  There is some speculation that it was all over a girl.  It is somewhat reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove.  The littlest mistake or accident is amplified a thousandfold.  That an empire can be taken down by a mere accident is a hard pill to swallow.
  2. Flash mobs can be silly or they can be violent (kind of like the stories in the news).  The key here, is that a flash mob is a chain reaction organized and set off by telecommunications, social media, or viral emails  And although much bigger than a “flash mob,” the London riots in the summer of 2011 reveal this same dynamic – discontent multiplied exponentially through social media and cell phones/mobile devices. To be defeated by a worthy adversary is one thing, but to be taken down by a bunch of yahoos is a humiliation.
  3. 2011 has seen large protests all over the world.  In fact, 2011, thus far, could almost be called the “year of the protest.”  The “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia but really became a big story when it hit Egypt in February 2011.  Curiously, big protests hit Wisconsin in February 2011 as well.  Currently, this wave of mass protest has culminated in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  What’s interesting is that not only is a single protest, in and of itself, a chain reaction, but that all of the protests, from all corners of the globe, in total, resemble a chain reaction.  It started in Tunisia, then spread across the entire Arab world, from the Arab world to Wisconsin, from Wisconsin to Wall Street.
  4. If any news story is justified in being spread instantly across the world, 9/11 was certainly it.  But to repeat those videos over and over and over, in chain reaction form, seems to go beyond the media’s duty to report the news.  The unintended effect is desensitization.  The long-term effects of 9/11 have still not been felt.  The children who watched that video over and over on the evening news are just becoming full-fledged adults right now in the year 2011.  In this sense, the video of 9/11, repeated over and over, will act as a mental time bomb.  In the next 5 to 10 years, the kids that watched that video over and over will become the leaders of our nation.  It is then that we will feel the real result of that mental virus, whether positive or negative.  Perhaps it will harden them, perhaps it will desensitize them.  But that isn’t the point, the point is that, in this case, the chain reaction didn’t just spread across space, it spread across time.

Honest show of hands:  who even remembers that the Interstate collapsed into the Mississippi river only four years ago!?  Miraculously, only 13 people died, but strictly as a visual, it rivals 9/11 in terms of resembling a Hollywood disaster movie.  Not only does this catastrophe symbolize America’s infrastructure literally collapsing, it also symbolizes our desensitization to catastrophe in general.  Call it an intuition or a hunch, but this event seems oddly forgotten about by the media and the American people.  Perhaps this is, already, the temporal chain reaction of 9/11 manifested as desensitization.

Our non-stop news cycle, which is not even a cycle, but a perpetual onslaught, distracts us with the most sensational and lurid, and desensitizes us to catastrophe in general.  No wonder the West is going to hell in a hand-basket and we are talking about Hank Williams Jr.

The vulnerability of being connected should be understood.  If something is stretched far and thin it becomes that much more vulnerable at any one point.  All it takes is a thug with a vendetta, or a news story sensational enough, even if it’s thousands of miles away, and the chain reaction is underway.

On the other hand, if something is consolidated it is much harder to puncture.  With this in mind, the value of being insulated gains its full power and takes on a positive connotation.  It is a survival technique to avoid being swept away in mass hysteria.  Turn off, tune out, and re-connect with reality.

Tags: , , ,

Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn