The Internet Microscope
When Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek made improvements to the microscope, he could finally see what had always been there. When he peered into the fabric of the objects and living creatures around him, his perception may have changed, but the world was no different. This is how it always had been — cells, mitochondria, DNA, all the little building blocks working harmoniously to create everything around us. The targets of his observation were always there, he could just never have seen them without the right tool. And so today, when we see the immense violence and destruction our world has to offer, we are not seeing anything new. It is only new to us. The Internet is a microscope that allows us to peer into the lives of people all around the world, and being the morbid creatures we are, our gaze often fixates on the visceral atrocities.
This microscope tricks us. It convinces us that this is the world — a tragic construction of people and plants and animals all falling apart faster than ever before. ISIS and Alton Sterling and rampaging trucks in France and the deaths of our heroes, like Muhammad Ali. But, we live in the most peaceful time in history. It’s as if Van Leeuwenhoek looked into the microscopic world, discovered the terror that is bacteria, and concluded it was going to kill us all, when in reality it had always been there, and had even mitigated over time. Looking at any number of statistics — homicide rate, infant mortality rate, sexual assault rate, prevalence of autocratic governments — will show you that the world is more peaceful today. And yet the news would have you believe that the world is falling apart, that violence is inevitable, that no one is safe.
We are mostly unequipped to handle all of this information. We grow up with our families, understanding this world of only three to six people. Then we are thrust into a school, and our world expands to twenty people, maybe one hundred. Then we see the Internet. Our parents give us a phone or we clumsily begin to access the family computer. Our world grows to 7 billion. We see our family, we try to understand them, why does mom yell at dad, why does mom kiss dad, what is in the refrigerator, why can’t I watch cartoons, and we see our little school class, and maybe our community, and we try to understand the way teachers think and the way our classmates feel about us, we try to understand the bully, we try to understand why we are not so good at soccer, why we succeed at baseball, why we read well, why we do math poorly, why we like girls, why we’re mean to girls we like, why they’re mean to us, can we ride our bikes to the other side of town? And then our world explodes and we see 7 billion people and all of their problems and how different they are, and sometimes how similar they are. 7 billion people. There is nothing that adequately prepares us for this. There is no class to teach you how to process this information, and so we often process it like all 7 billion people are our neighbors. In our little communities of a few hundred people, four murders would be a crisis, and so we see the violence on the news and the Internet and we are worried for our community, but we forget that community is actually 7 billion.
Working with such huge numbers is very difficult for our brain. When we hear 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, we understand that to be a massive number of people, but do we really understand such a number, especially when it’s human lives? A small middle school in Tennessee started a project in which they collected paper clips to symbolize each of the deaths of the Holocaust. When we stare at the massive sea of paper clips, it helps reinforce how great a number this is. But, then try to think about the total casualties of World War Two. 60 million people died. How do we even process this number of deaths? Would 60 million paper clips help to show the loss of human life, each as intricate as your own? Is death more tragic today than it was then? How did they cope with 60 million dead? Every death hurts someone. If a family member dies, your world stops. If three cops are killed, the news cannot stop covering it. 60 million people is such a staggering amount of dead. You could kill everyone in greater New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC and you would not reach 60 million people.
Do you think Boston is an important city? It has a mere 700,000 people. Do you know where Lagos is? It’s the biggest city in Nigeria. It has 16 million people and you probably don’t know anything about it. It’s bigger than any city in the United States. There are 16 million people and each has their own stories and struggles and their own sense of humanity. There are cities in China and India that casually host millions of people and I would bet 98% of Americans don’t know they exist. Am I the only one whose brain explodes at trying to really wrap my head around these numbers?
Our political debates are constantly filled with posturing about our soldiers putting their lives at risk in the War on Terror, and of course it’s terrible that Americans are dying, but, it’s been over a decade since the War on Terror began and we’ve had less than 7,000 members of the U.S. military killed. 7,000! That’s it! I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but isn’t that remarkable? We’ve been at war for over a decade and we’ve only lost 7,000 soldiers. That’s a mere one third of the average attendance for a Major League Soccer game. During the Vietnam War, over 200,000 U.S or allied military personnel died. During World War Two, 400,000 U.S military personnel died. And while these numbers seem huge compared to today, in none of these cases did we even lose 1 percent of our population. Not even half a percent. In World War Two, Belarus lost 25% of its entire population, not just soldiers. We are literally incapable of comprehending this. From 1998–2003 there was a war in the Congo and between 2.5 and 5.5 million people died, and you probably didn’t even know it.
Do We Understand How We Value Human Life?
The less connected you are with someone, the less you value their life. You value the lives of your family the most, then your friends, then the people in your community, then the people in your country, then the people who look like you and share a similar culture, then, finally, maybe you value the lives of people completely foreign to you. It’s not wrong to think this way. It’s only natural. You would be destroyed if your best friend died, but you probably don’t take as much time to consider the over 100,000 civilian deaths from the War on Terror. We, as Americans, think more about the 7,000 U.S military deaths, and that’s natural. But, everyone that dies is important to someone, and so their death brings about the same feelings you would have if someone close to you died. The most objective conclusion is that all these lives should be weighed equally. In some ways we believe this, and anyone speaking in public would state it firmly, but obviously most of us don’t really feel it, because we are programmed to see the world on a community scale.
This is, again, something with which I find it difficult to cope and process. It feels wrong to look at 7,000 dead U.S military members and think, “Great, that’s actually an almost irrelevant number of deaths — we’ve had a pretty successful campaign there in terms of loss of U.S lives.” It feels wrong to look at the number of murders in Chicago, 468 in 2015, and think, “that’s a pretty statistically irrelevant number considering there are over 2 million people living in Chicago, 350 million in the United States, and 7 billion in the world — what’s 468 really?” Is approaching human life like a computer really the answer? I don’t think so. I feel it is probably unhealthy to process human life so rationally, because eventually you might forget you’re dealing with individual, complex human beings, and not just numbers.
But, maybe there are benefits to being a computer. A computer may theoretically save more lives than we and our complicated governments and organizations do. I assume most people would think that it is a good goal to try and save as many human lives as possible. And, in addition, if we assume that all human lives are equal, then saving the life of someone in Sudan should be an equal accomplishment to saving the life of someone in Chicago. Given the two scenarios, trying to save around 500 lives in Chicago, or trying to save 500,000 lives from genocide in Sudan, should we not choose the latter? It obviously sounds terrible to dismiss the lives in Chicago, but is it any worse than the way we often fail to consider the lives of Iraqi civilians, instead dwelling on the lives of U.S military? Again, we are predisposed to favoring the lives of those closer to us, and I think that’s normal, but maybe it’s not the right thing to do. I don’t know the answer, I’m just asking a lot of questions.
I think most people would agree that saving the most lives possible is a good idea, but I imagine they also think that truly living up to this statement would be rather difficult. It would be nearly impossible for most people to shun the problems in their own community in favor of trying to save people on the other side of the world, even if they acknowledge the problems in their own community affect less human lives than those elsewhere. It’s reasonable to assume people would give their best aid effort to causes they feel closer to, so maybe it is actually more efficient for everyone to attempt to save the lives near and dear to them. Maybe we should not feel guilty about placing greater value on the lives of those closer to us.
However, I noticed a recent phenomenon that would run counter to this notion. Following some of the terrorist attacks in Europe, there was a group of people who bemoaned the fact that we, as Americans, paid more attention to these tragedies than to similar terrorist attacks in the rest of the world. The implication of this was that we, as Americans, only cared about European lives and white lives. Personally, I am divided on this. One part of me, as described in this piece, thinks maybe we should literally treat every life as equal, thus the most pressing issues should be those that affect the most people — a few dozen people dead in Belgium should be irrelevant when considering the hundreds of thousands dead in the Middle East. The other part of me recognizes human nature — that we care more about those closer to us. Thus, when I heard this criticism of coverage of the European terrorist attacks, my first reaction was to wonder why anyone was really surprised at all? Did you not realize that the United States is most politically and culturally aligned with Western Europe? I didn’t think that was news. Obviously we are going to care more about a terrorist attack in France than one in Lebanon or Bangladesh. We share more in common with France. A terrorist attack there is not only more relatable, but more shocking because of that relation. This is not to say that we should not care about attacks or tragedies elsewhere in the world, but to imply that they should receive equally as much news coverage is a complicated declaration. I don’t think we want to play that game, because as I’ve demonstrated, there is essentially always some horrible tragedy going on in the world and it is very easy to engage in an endless circle of competing for which is worse and more deserving of our attention.
A brief aside — I acknowledge that these last two sections may have gotten a little off track, but ultimately I think they contain important information to consider in order to understand the central thesis, so let me bring it back to that. We are not equipped to process 7 billion lives. The Internet has opened this world up to us in a new way and this often distorts reality. How do we cope with this? I’ve tried to demonstrate just how difficult it is to comprehend tens of millions of lives, let alone 7 billion, and I’ve also tried to demonstrate how thinking about all these lives can call our morals into question through an analysis of how we might value human life. So keeping in mind the problem of big numbers, next I am going to look at how our reality is distorted by the Internet microscope.
Making Mountains Out of Molehills
The reason I spent so much time talking about big numbers is because you need to remember them and you need to remember how hard they are to process. Again, we instinctively and emotionally react to many events as if they were occurring in our own community, and this effect is intensified when you have something in common with the affected parties. So, again, as Americans we generally feel closer to crises in Western Europe. As an American Muslim or Jew, you probably feel closer to crises affecting the Middle East, and same goes with any other minority, particularly of an immigrant background. Additionally, the Internet fosters this environment because we are more easily able to relate to the far reaches of earth, so even as a white upper class American, you are able to empathize with the workers of an impoverished factory on the other side of the world because the Internet allows you to witness their humanity. We understand tragedies around the world through this intrinsically tribal lens, thus the more disasters or murders we witness, the more we start to feel a sense of anxiety and danger.
This sense of anxiety is very natural. It’s a defense mechanism. We are drawn to the worst scenes and events of humanity because they spike that sense of terror that is necessary for our survival. If you lived in a community of 100 people and there were a series of 3 murders in a couple of weeks, you would be on edge in order to protect your family, friends, and neighbors. You would be scared for your life and for theirs. Knowing about this violence is information significantly more important for survival than knowing about something positive, like the charity work someone in your community is doing. I think this is why the news mostly shows us bad and tragic events. Unfortunately, we are innately and helplessly drawn to this information.
It is here where we are duped. Our prehistoric senses and instincts are tricked by the massive quantity of information to which we have access. We are liable to let our minds run wild, overreacting and drawing the wrong conclusions. Trying to remember the bigger picture helps us to control this instinct. It helps to put into perspective the tragedies we see.
Go into Google and type in “2016 worst year ever” and you will get a lot of articles and tweets lamenting how horrible 2016 is. There is also the occasional article that has adopted my perspective, playing on the fact that 1492 was probably a lot worse than 2016. But, that article itself only came about in response to enough public decrees that 2016 is the worst. Next, type “2015 worst year ever.” Then do 2014 — Buzzfeed has 26 reasons 2014 was the worse, and they wrote that in April. Obviously I’m not the only one to conclude how ridiculous this trend is, but it persists nonetheless, and year after year there are plenty of people who can’t help but think they are living in the worst year ever.
We consistently overreact and forget perspective. Something can be a tragedy without being an international crisis or a bellwether for the apocalypse. One example can be seen in traditional xenophobic movements. At this year’s Republican National Convention, a few people were brought out who had a family member who was killed by an illegal immigrant who was released from custody. This is a tragedy, and one that everyone obviously wishes could have been avoided. But, rather than merely acknowledging the tragedy and discussing reasonable preventions, people drew the conclusion that illegal immigration will definitively lead to more murders, or, more problematically, that illegal immigrants (re: Mexicans and other Central Americans) are inherently murderous or criminal. This is a remarkably inaccurate conclusion derived from a few unfortunate anecdotes. The Department of Homeland Security stated that between 2010 and 2014, 121 illegal immigrants released from custody committed a murder. Again, this is still incredibly unfortunate, but we need to put it into perspective, so let’s look at big numbers. There are somewhere between 11 and 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. So, those 121 murderers represent about one thousandth of a percent of the total number of illegal immigrants — and that’s in four years. One thousandth of a percent is .001%. Do you know how remarkably irrelevant that number is? It’s less than your odds of being struck by lighting in your lifetime (according to the National Weather Service: 1 in 12,000 or .08%, compared to 121 in 12,000,000 or .001%). So, anyone using these few unfortunate anecdotes to conclude that illegal immigration is leading to mass violence and murder is drawing the wrong conclusion — they are forgetting big numbers and perspective. They see these tragedies and they go into survival mode — eliminate the foreign presence, trust only those in my community — and they are plainly wrong.
Of course, this type of xenophobia is as old as immigration itself. There are also phenomena of overreaction that I think are more unique to our modern Internet Microscope. It seems like every week there is an incident that gets the social media world fired up, only to die down sometimes a mere two days later. It’s as if we see a couple reported cases of the flu and all of a sudden conclude there is an epidemic. I saw this with the lead up to a few international sporting events, namely the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2016 Eurocup in France, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Leading up to each of these events was a monsoon of negative press and doomsday proclamations. Sochi was rife with rabid stray dogs, nothing — from electricity to plumbing — would work properly. Brazil was a dangerous place where people were consistently murdered over soccer games — it would be a bad idea to go to the World Cup, it’s not safe (spoiler — my friends and I went to the World Cup. It was awesome.) France was a hotbed for terror attacks — it would be dangerous to step foot in any soccer arena (spoiler — my friends and I went to the Euro Cup. It was awesome). Rio was completely unprepared to host the Olympics, events would surely be cancelled, and the pools and the water would get everyone sick.
While you couldn’t argue any of these events went 100% perfectly, you also have to acknowledge that they were all ultimately executed smoothly with very few setbacks, a far cry from what the media would have had you believe leading up to the events. We take a few bad incidents and explode the story into chaos. Rather than merely acknowledging that hosting such a massive event is difficult and will inevitably experience some mistakes and problems, we get wrapped up in declaring certain danger, destruction, and failure. I imagine in the 1960’s there were also a lot of problems organizing the games — we just would not have heard about all of them. My point being that the issues have always been there, it is just that now we have the Internet Microscope to see them all, and because we focus on the problems rather than whatever it is that is going well, we make the wrong conclusion. If there were 50 bad incidents in the lead up to the Rio Olympic Games, we would interpret that as a crisis and conclude that the games would certainly fail. But, what if there were 10,000 things that were actually going right, most of which we would not hear on the news or social media? So only .5% of the stuff going on is bad, which is not very much at all, and perhaps not even that much better or worse than when the games were hosted in Rome in 1960, or Tokyo in 1964. By the way — there were zero reported cases of Zika linked with the Olympic Games.
There is a reason that statisticians require sufficient sample sizes to make conclusions. Using a handful of anecdotes to make broad conclusions about the path of society is dangerous. There is so much statistical bias in those anecdotes because, again, we are more likely to hear about the bad incidents, thus coloring our entire view as bad. I am not, however, advocating the elimination of these anecdotes, because in many cases they serve an incredibly important function — eliciting empathy, which in turn inspires action that hopefully improves the lives of those in need. But, it is still necessary to step back and try to put those anecdotes into perspective, because while in some cases a heart wrenching news story will be the impetus for necessary change, in other cases we interpret these stories wrong, leading to inefficient and misplaced action, or, worse, discrimination and xenophobia.
When the Microscope Works
So far I have described how the Internet Microscope creates a problem for us — namely that we are ill-equipped to process 7 billion lives and 7 billion stories. I have gone over the moral conundrums we face in trying to process all of these lives, and I have examined some of the problematic conclusions we arrive at because of this confusion and our failure to maintain perspective. However, the Internet Microscope is neither bad nor good. It has a profound affect on our society, and that affect is sometimes bad and sometimes good. In the spirit of keeping a comprehensive perspective, I want to now examine the positive outcomes of our ability to see and know everything and everyone.
I think the Internet Microscope has been most insightful and important in the way it has exposed both the problems and successes of minorities and non-Western people. Obviously in a country that is mostly homogenous, the media will largely, if not exclusively, feature people and stories from that homogenous group. I imagine that in China nearly all of the TV programming is about Chinese people, starring Chinese people. Throughout most of the 20th Century, I imagine the United States was in a similar situation — mostly white Americans as the stars of any story and mostly white Americans on the news. However, the Internet Microscope has helped to change this in a country that increasingly has to confront the reality that it is not, nor has ever been, homogenous. Whereas centralized, powerful studio executives were, and still are, less likely to create projects featuring minorities, the Internet has allowed those stories to grow, and the effects of this have been overwhelmingly positive, both in the spirit of diversity and also in the development of activism to address chronic problems in those communities.
The Internet allows for the decentralized production of content, which allows for people that may normally be on the fringes of society to actually be heard. Whereas previously these people would have had to jump through a thousand hoops in order to make it into the ears, eyes, and minds of the country, now their stories can be easily and quickly proliferated all around the world. Our newsfeeds may be constantly full of tragedy, but sometimes that is necessary. Poor factory conditions in Southeast Asia may have been easily hidden from consumers before, but these situations are become increasingly more difficult to conceal. A news story featuring one of these tragic workplaces exposes the American people to a situation many may have not even known existed. The spread of this story leads to empathy — rather than thinking about it as some factory on the other side of the world, we see the humanity and the tragedy and it calls upon us to take action. The effect is bolstered by the Internet’s ability to transmit visual content. Reading about the appalling conditions is bad enough, but seeing them through pictures or video is a much more visceral reaction.
Video has also been a key component in the rise of activism in the United States concerning police brutality. It seems obvious to some that police brutality has been a plight upon the Black Community for as long as this country has existed, but much of White America has actually been uninformed, often maintaining that such examples of racism are a thing of the past. From the murder of Michael Brown, to those of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, video evidence has been a key component in mobilizing and informing the American population that police brutality is very much alive and disproportionately affects Black Americans. With nearly everyone possessing a cell phone and an Internet connection, these incidences of violence are significantly more likely to reach the public.
The subsequent public outrage is good. This is a case in which we need this visceral reaction in order to be made aware of actual statistical evidence that demonstrates inequality. This is the opposite scenario described before concerning xenophobia, in which tragic anecdotes create a narrative that runs counter to the statistical evidence. The Internet Microscope can both trick us and illuminate new and important parts of the world. The only way to know which purpose it serves in any given moment is to, again, remember perspective.
It Only Feels New
In the introduction to this piece, I described how bizarre it would have been if Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek had looked into a microscope, seen bacteria for the first time, and concluded that it was going to kill us all. In reality, there was no cause for alarm, because the bacteria was not new — it had been around for millennia, and we had survived. But, of course, Van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery also allowed for the development of modern medicine. It’s hard to acknowledge where we can make progress without also going mad at the potential dangers around us.
In addition to using perspective in order to determine what news stories provide us with a signal of real problems and which are pushing us towards false conclusions, we also need to use perspective to help manage our expectations and anxiety. When I talk about the Internet Microscope having a positive effect by showing Americans that racism is not dead and that police brutality is real, we should also remember that this is not a indicator for the end of the world or that society is approaching some sort of all time low. Again, the opposite is actually more accurate — the world is generally a better place than it was. That does not mean it is perfect.
That imperfection also implies that we are not perfect. As I have tried to present, one of those flaws is our consistent inability to cope with and process all of the information we have available today. This information is powerful, but we were mostly not built to handle it — maybe our children, who will be connected from the time they are toddlers, will be different. But, for us, we often draw the wrong conclusions from this heap of stories, transforming a few anecdotes into a state of emergency for our communities. And while sometimes this new access to information leads to positive change, it is misinterpreted often enough that we should try to be more careful in our analysis and in the conclusions we draw from that information.
If there is anything I’ve hoped to transmit to you through this discussion, it is to acknowledge the importance of this perspective. Just as a mother tries to ease her young son’s broken heart after a teenage breakup, or a father calms his daughter’s stress over one bad exam, I am trying to do the same, as audacious as it may sound to place the world as my child. Nonetheless, a teenage breakup is not the end of the world, it only feels like it. And, one C in 8th grade will not plunge you into homelessness, it only feels like it because you are young and this test represents such a huge portion of your world. So, as much as humanity will present its worst to us, its terrorist attacks, its racism, xenophobia, its appalling labor conditions, its evil corporations and politicians, its senseless murder, it is important to always hold tight to perspective. These things are not new — they are as old as humanity itself, and while that does not mean they should not be fought with every ounce of our strength, it is also surely unhealthy to absorb all of these problems, to convince ourselves that the world is a terrible place, and to constantly fear the end. Rather, from time to time, perhaps we should break from the Internet Microscope and take a moment to reflect on the good in our world and in our communities, and remember that all of the fighting we do is, slowly, but incredibly, working.