It’s common knowledge that the world has become smaller. What’s not talked about as much is that as space has shrunk the velocity of time has sped. Addressing this already in 2006, UCLA Professor Richard A. Lanham, in his book The Economics of Attention, writes:
Travel as much as environmentalism and global trade has made us self-conscious about living on the planet Earth. Everything going on there now demands our attention. Suddenly we need to know about it not only to be hip but to be saved. Never have we paid so much attention to time, either. Since the dot-com bubble burst, we have heard less about “Internet Time” but surely its speed-ups continue to work on us. Information, and sometimes — who knows? — wisdom is dispersed into society faster than ever before. It is as if a computer compression algorithm had been applied to life itself.
Taking a break from media for even a couple of days feels like an eternity because in individual human time it basically is. Instagram users currently post an average of 2.5 million times a minute. Facebook users 3 million. Even if we assume considerable overlap, that’s a lot of new content being generated every minute of every day. And that’s only two channels.
There are 525,600 minutes in every year. Let’s say you consume and 👍 (or ❤️ or 😡 or 😮) 10 FB posts every minute. At this rate, it would take you over half a year to get through the number of FB posts produced every minute. If you set your phone down for three minutes, whole worlds have gone by. Of course, worlds have always passed us by, but now we know. Now we can access them. No wonder it’s hard to take a break.
Leading up to the election, I checked Facebook like an insomniac looking at his bedside clock. I knew better, but I couldn’t help it.
Thanks to The Guardian, The Washington Post, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, The Intercept, National Review, Al Jazera, The New Yorker, The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, AlterNet, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (I apparently read enough variety to diversify my feed) I read up on each candidate’s history and scandals.
I followed Wikileaks updates through Facebook as well. I learned about Podesta, the undermining of Sanders by the DNC, the Clinton Foundation and Saudi Arabia weapons deals. I read pundits’ attempts to explain away everything from Hillary Clinton’s inability to stick to the truth to Donald Trump’s boasts about being a sexual predator.
It was an interesting time, to say the least, but it was also exhausting.
Not only was the amount of content dizzying, but the constant engagement with those who disagreed with me — whether Clinton supporters who thought any acknowledgment of her readily apparent and vast flaws was equivalent to treason or Trump supporters in general — was draining.
I looked forward to the election being over. I thought I would get a break.
And then it happened — Donald Trump won the electoral college, squeaking out a small but clear victory over Hillary Clinton. (Even though the majority of Americans voted for her.) And after that, everybody began to freak the fuck out.
Small minded bigots felt empowered to shout and even enact their hate filled ignorance and stupidity in public, liberals blamed third party candidates, Sanders’s supporters blamed liberals. Trump’s supporters defended their votes. Nate Silver lost his job. Fine, Nate Silver didn’t really loose his job, but I bet he’s rethinking his models.
The point is that shit went crazy. And I was wrapped up in it.
The commonly accepted stages of grief, according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (Of course, as with every outline for human behavior, this shouldn’t be seen as a hard and fast rule but as a map for general human tendencies.)
I was over denial by the end of Tuesday night when I saw that 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. I denounced them on Facebook. In an incredibly self-righteous tone, I told them in no uncertain terms that I was done with them.
I thought not about the fact that my dad and his wife, both of whom I love a lot even while convinced their views on many issues are ass backward, are white, Evangelical and voted for Trump. Neither did I consider this one man, let’s call him Tim, who volunteers at a local prison every week to mentor the men there, continuing to meet after their release to support them as best he can.
I don’t know if he voted for Trump or not, but given his and his church’s views on the LGBTQ population and women’s rights, I bet he did. If so, I’m disappointed and saddened. But I’m not done with him, or my dad or many others who voted for Trump.
(Fuck the Alt-right, though, cause the moment you embrace an ideology that dehumanizes others is the moment you loose your humanity and any claim to participate in civil discourse.)
The next night, while laying in bed and reflecting on the craziness, I tried to come to terms with the fact that between my family and even some friends, I likely know a lot of people who voted for Trump. I could dismiss them all as racist, homophobic, bigots, or I could try and understand why people I know and love, many of whom are actually decent human beings, voted for him.
First thing to do — open Twitter and Facebook, read all the things on all the sites and discover what all the pundits say. So much for my social media break.
Exit polls revealed that Clinton lost due to the white working class.
As their reasons for doing so soon piled up, it became apparent that it came down to the damage caused to small town and rural America by shifting economic patterns.
Chris Arnade spent much of this past year exploring Trump’s USA. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Arnade offered Prestonsburg, Kentucky as a paradigmatic example of the factors that led to Trump’s victory:
It’s 3,500 people, all white, a coal industry town and hasn’t had a good run economically in the last 15 years, since coal has tumbled… and with the economic decline has come a large increase in the things that follow: addiction, breakup of families. The place feels very hurt. And in comes Trump with a message of restoring pride — partly through white identity — that resonates there, because from Prestonsburg, Kentucky, America does not seem great.
Clinton missed what both Sanders and Trump understood: working class Americans had been shit on by the neoliberal policies entrenched in both parties since President Clinton’s years in office.
Wage stagnation, the outsourcing of America’s manufacturing, regressive tax policies and the erosion of the social safety net hung the working class — whites, blacks, Hispanics and Latinos — out to dry.
The DNC made sure that Sanders message of an inequitable economy rigged by those at the top was squashed, “And in comes Trump with a message of restoring pride…”
At least, that’s one explanation, and I was determined to write a long Facebook rant about why it was right. Punching my phone’s screen like a 13-year-old girl on a double dose of Adderall, I was suddenly overcome by the reality that it didn’t matter.
I could post the shortest, clearest and most convincing Facebook post of my life, and it wouldn’t make one quark of a difference. Those who saw it and already agreed with its perspective would like it, maybe even heart it. Those who saw it and didn’t would either scroll on or, possibly, comment telling me how much of a dumbass liberal or radical I am.
Best case scenario, I would enter into a debate (read fight) with someone, neither of us caring much about what the other had to say, only wanting to win in front of the perceived audience of spectators.
Wanting time to reflect, I decided to take a break from Facebook for an indefinite amount of time. Which gave me time to read. Which gave me time to think.
And last night, listening to Chance the Rapper while washing dishes, I realized I was happy. Not ecstatic or joyful, but happy, simply happy; content and thankful to have an apartment with my partner, to listen to amazing pop/hip-hop, to wash dishes, to think, to be alive.
It had been a long time since I had felt that — the simple pleasure of a fleeting moment of unhurried nonchalance.
Now, possibly more than at any other time in my life, is not the time to disengage entirely. Given that Trump appears to be doubling down on some of his most despicable tendencies, there is a lot of work to do, and I intend to do my part.
But, with the occasional exception of checking updates from some activist groups I’m connected to, that will not be done on Facebook. Maybe my break will only be another week. Maybe it will be a month. Maybe I’ll never return.
You can, however, assume that I would be liking your wedding and baby pics. You can pretend that I’m still reading every article you post. And if you’re like one of my uncles, you can now post your racist and distorted, if not entirely fallacious, memes without me commenting. (Will someone else pick up that slack? Not that facts or sound reasoning will make a difference, but I feel like someone should at least keep trying.)
I’ll still be reading the news, of course, but I want to do so slower and in a more thoughtful manner.
I keep coming back to the reflections of Jacques Ellul, the 20th-century French philosopher, in his book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes:
To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it can not permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events… Under these conditions there can be no thought, and, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them.
I wonder if we all could use a break from the dizzying and addictive cascade of content and information.
I wonder if, rather than simply disconnecting us, it would improve our understanding of one another and the world we all inhabit. Maybe Facebook isn’t an issue for you. I’m getting older, afterall. But I wonder what would happen if each of us stole some time to reflect in the midst of our information saturated age. Might we reconnect with a different mindset? Might we find a different way to speak (or comment or tweet) with one another, even with those we disagree with, and, in turn, might we not together enlighten our civil discourse?