Stay Grounded and Hopeful
So far, 2020 has been very difficult. I know that that statement is a real BSO (blinding statement of the obvious), but I thought, given the developments of the past week or so, that it needed to be said out loud. Unfortunately, it’s likely to get worse over the next number of weeks as the nation conducts a quadrennial presidential election so full of acrimony and uncertainty that the results may not be known for some time after the event. What a mess.
As former president Barack Obama has noted, “elections have consequences.” The job of President of the United States is the most consequential in our country, and perhaps even in the world, given our nation’s historic significance in global events. Given this, it is no surprise (perhaps another BSO) that the competition to fill it can be so rough, heated and contentious. It has always been thus (witness the election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, one of the nastiest of all time), though recent elections have taken the level of acrimony to a new and unprecedented high. In my opinion, this has to some extent been the result of the use and misuse of technologies unimaginable at the time of our country’s founding.
My wife and I recently viewed the Netflix documentary entitled “The Social Dilemma,” described as a “documentary-drama hybrid [that] explores the human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” It was mind-boggling, and we encourage everyone to see it. In it, some of the people involved in the development of online tools such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and others, confess their concern about the way in which these tools have morphed into threats to our continued existence as a cohesive society (that is not an exaggeration).
The film’s underlying premise is: these tools were created for positive purposes, but in order to be sustainable, they had to attract revenue, principally by advertising. What they had to “sell” to the advertisers was the increasingly rich data they had on their individual clients (“users”); applying ever-increasingly sophisticated algorisms to this data, they could identify individual user interests and predict their behavior, which of course was valuable to advertisers who could then target their spending on audiences most likely to purchase their products or services.
But it didn’t stop there. If you can reliably predict someone’s behavior, you likely can also manipulate it. If you can alter what a user sees online (e.g., by showing ads for products he/she likely would buy), you can redirect or reinforce their views by tailoring (i.e., editing) information and messages. Taken to its extreme, you can have instances where two people access the same online tool or service and yet get quite different information and a different experience. Since each believes that what they have seen is true, they reasonably believe that what the other has seen and believes is not true, leading to argument and discord – even though they have both been using the same tool or service! When used intentionally to impact political opinion, this used to be called propaganda.
This is scary, George Orwell “1984” stuff. It is made even worse by the fact that more and more people (particularly younger people) get their news and information primarily or exclusively via online services. Add to that the obvious and pervasive bias in our media these days, where information is constantly edited, omitted and misrepresented for political purposes, and it should be no surprise that we find ourselves in this toxic mix of partisan poison and nasty name-calling. At the very least, we need to find a way where we all have the same experience of what the real facts are.
But all is not lost. The republic will survive; I am confident of that. My confidence is based on what I believe to be the inherent common sense and intelligence of the American people. Increasingly, rank and file citizens are seeing through the attempts by the media and others to brainwash them, to make them believe that good is bad and bad is good, to drive divisions between people and groups by characterizing everyone as either “oppressor” or “oppressed” (thank you Karl Marx), to pit parent against child and brother against sister.
One young woman’s journey of self-realization is captured in this “walkaway” video --
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flp7gKg5G4E. I share it not as an argument for one political philosophy or the other, but as a compelling example of a member of the younger generation (which will one day be the governing generation) successfully stepping out of the confines of an imposed, one-sided, agenda-driven mindset and finding her own way with the help of her real-world experiences. It gave me considerable hope for the future.
In closing, I offer the following excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (PHIL 4:8,9):
[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. … Then the God of peace will be with you.
Peace. Would that we could bring that to our national discourse! Perhaps our best course of action for the remainder of 2020 is to remain grounded by thinking constantly about the good things Paul references, and be open to the hope of divine assistance in remaining one country, undivided, graced with the blessings of true liberty, and committed to the happiness and well-being of all.