Hope, Fear, and Exhaustion in a Changing World
How we survive in the Age of the Internet
Our world feels overwhelming sometimes.
You know why: you open up the news, or look at your social media, or turn on the television and right in front of you are death, injustice, corruption, the world slowly falling apart before your eyes and there’s not a thing you can do about it. How many of us have taken a “social media holiday” in the past few years? How many of those were because we could no longer deal with the things we read every day?
I see it even in my own readers. I posted some things about racial attitudes in the U.S. today — nothing remotely shocking, just some interesting data about things we all know are going on. And some of the comments were the entirely predictable “why does everything have to be about race?” ones.
There’s a response I’m supposed to give right now, that everything is about race because racism is a problem, but right now that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about why those commenters are, in an important way, right.
Those complaints are part of a much broader pattern: we each spend so much of our time hearing about how these people or those people are upset, or want some basic rights like not being summarily fired or executed, or that people are angry, and part of us automatically responds: What about me? I have serious problems in my life, too — but nobody is ever going to write a story about that. Why is it suddenly okay for this group to ask for what it needs, but not for me?
Again, there’s a response I’m supposed to give: you’ve been asking for what you need forever; all that’s changed is that other people are doing the same. But that response misses something important. It’s that this answer isn’t something that only privileged, white, straight, cis men are giving; it’s something that each and every one of us feels, from time to time. It’s the feeling that we’re all, individually and collectively, stressed out of our minds, stretched to nearly our breaking points, and now we are being asked to care about one more thing.
So let’s talk about this. About why we’re really all so stretched out.
Reason #1: The world is, in a lot of ways, going to shit.
We can talk about “relative poverty” and privilege and so on all we like, but there’s a simple definition you can use of how stable your life really is: how much of your time do you spend worrying that each basic thing you need in your life is going to get kicked out from under you?
This includes physical basics — food, water, shelter, warmth — and it includes social basics — our loved ones, our position among our social group, our self-respect. Never underestimate the importance of those social things; people will give up on their physical needs long before they give up on these.
And for nearly everyone, that pile of security keeps getting whittled down. For some of us, it’s the economic shocks of the past few decades: what used to be a life where you had some faith that you could keep things working has suddenly revealed itself to be one job loss away from disaster. For others, it’s a more continuous economic shock: probably the best way to measure a person’s real wealth is to ask what the largest economic shock is they could weather with 24 hours’ notice without permanent effects. If that shock is cancer, it’s not good; if that shock is a flat tire, it’s bad indeed.
For yet more of us, it’s social: our whole community is falling apart. Or it’s simple physical danger: knowing that, with more and more certainty, we could be killed the next day and nobody would stop it. Even the rich and the powerful aren’t immune: it turns out that you have to be very rich indeed, not 1%-rich but Forbes-rich, before these dangers go away.
And the thing is this: these problems are real because a lot of things are coming off the rails. We just passed through a century of unprecedented prosperity, where people could genuinely expect a better life than their parents, and a still better one for their children. Where ideas like a “social safety net” became political everydays in much of the world. Where the simplest reason many countries didn’t collapse into bloody revolt was that there was enough to be had that standards of living, even for the masses, could keep going up.
But that doesn’t keep happening forever. Productivity rises, one worker can produce more than before, and the workers get rewarded more — until it rises so much that we simply don’t need as many workers. New technologies let us do tremendously more things — until we remember that we’re paying for all of them with an incredibly finite energy budget, a hydrocarbon sludge that took millions of years to make and just two centuries to burn out. And we haven’t even begun to pay the piper on our climate, yet. The droughts of the past five years, and the revolutions that came with them, are chicken feed; what happens when half of South Asia is short on water? What happens when tropical diseases suddenly discover they can thrive a lot further north than they could before?
(Don’t kid yourself by thinking that South Asia is far away. Droughts hit everywhere, and so do hurricanes. And when you kick out the base of a pedestal and raise primary product prices — things like food — the rest of the pedestal is going to follow quickly)
And the thing is this: all of these worries are absolutely real. The world has gotten harder for a lot of people. And at the same time, a lot of people who used to be quiet have decided they’re sick of being quiet: they have nothing to gain by it, and everything to lose.
What’s important to understand here is that a lot of people are seriously freaked out about things, and with a good reason. And if this anger doesn’t always take wise forms, or even takes actively destructive forms, you can’t expect wisdom from people in a panic. Keeping your head in a crisis is not something they teach you in school.
Reason #2: We hear everything, now.
Back in the dark ages of the 1980’s, if the police executed a man in broad daylight in the streets of St. Louis County and left his body on display there for four hours, there would have been protests in the streets. And, living 850 miles west of it near Denver, I would have read about it in the papers, and maybe seen a 30-second segment on the evening news, and never heard about it again. I would not have seen live reportage from the streets, not watched police kitted out like they were going into Fallujah, and there would have been far less chance that a death like Michael Brown’s would have led to a national protest movement.
This is good, you say. We hear about important things that we wouldn’t have heard about before, and it galvanizes us to change.
In fact, we hear about a lot of important things. I’m opening the news right now, picking the “popular” news sites, not the “elite” ones: let’s see the headlines. North Korea threatens to invade South Korea. Trump uses Chicago murder to demand black votes. “Will a wall work?” against immigrants. More deaths in Italian earthquake. Suspect confesses to murdering two nuns in Mississippi. Ohio convict commits suicide. Colorado police release DNA composite of suspected 1984 killer. I open up social media: Are Afghan refugees in Pakistan a security threat? Trump rally compared to excited chihuahua. Ryan Lochte and a faked robbery. Anger at a Barney’s ad “on behalf of poor Americans.” Op-ed about IDF raids in the West Bank.
Each one of these stories is genuinely important. Many of them require our attention, and far more which never make the front page do as well. (The New York Times has a shocking project going on: to report on each murder that happens for a year in a precinct in the Bronx, as seriously as if the victims were high-profile.)
But each of these stories exacts an emotional toll. We often forget that we are, today, exposed to what’s effectively the local news from half the localities on the planet. A murder, or an accident, or an act of corruption from a place we never would have thought about a few decades ago is now as front-and-center to us as one in our neighborhood.
Is it any wonder that we see the world as more dangerous than it used to be? Any wonder that we worry more about our children’s safety? We are aware of dangers around us in a way that no humans ever have been — and our minds are not yet tuned to filtering these out, knowing which threats are critical and which are not.
When you combine these two reasons, a simple fact becomes clear: we see a lot more bad news than anyone ever has before. Both because we are more connected, and because there is more bad news out there than there was in previous connected times.
There are pros and cons to this. The cons are clear, and they’re what we’ve just talked about: we’re stretched thin. Our emotional energy, the thing that keeps us going through the day, is being drained in ways that it wasn’t just a few decades ago.
The pros, I think, we often forget: we have become empathetic to each other’s needs in a way we weren’t in the past. Steven Pinker’s argument that the world has become systematically less violent over time has real meat to it, and his argument that this kind of increased familiarity with different people — our realizing that Frenchmen actually feel pain — stands up.
There’s another one we don’t think about. We’ve gotten so used to certain kinds of prosthetics that we forget that this is what they are. My eyeglasses are prosthetic vision, accommodating what I can no longer see as clearly. Writing is a prosthesis for memory: they keep track of what I can no longer remember or of the thoughts of people who are no longer here. Search engines are prosthetics for knowledge: they solve that annoying problem that we do not, at any instant, know everything, by permitting us to briefly glance into our electronic minds and have anything from how to fix a leaky faucet to the basics of algebraic K-theory loaded up into our minds in seconds.
In the past year, I’ve slowly started to realize what this kind of omnipresent journalism is: it’s a prosthetic for our natural inability to focus on problems which aren’t right in front of us, by keeping the problems which matter in our eyesight. Journalism is our prosthetic conscience. Today, we are dealing with the consequences of having a conscience which functions far more strongly than we have ever had to deal with before.
In previous generations, only a handful of people, kings and presidents and prime ministers, had to deal with every major event that happened in a single country; today, we all share that burden. Those people had elaborate systems built around them to help shoulder it; we have each other.
So where does this put us?
The world really is in trouble, and we’re more aware of it than ever before. We’ve acquired a powerful prosthetic conscience, and we’re trying to learn how to live with the damned thing. Sometimes we do well as a result, and sometimes we do badly, so overwhelmed by it that we just want to tell everyone else to go die in a fire and not care about their problems, no matter how genuine they might be.
And yet: we are slowly learning to live with it. We are learning to care more about each other, to say “yeah, that thing those people that I’ve never heard of want? I guess it makes sense. They probably need it,” where before we would have said “Who? Who cares?” We’re becoming more, not less, of a society, even while it seems that we’re coming apart at the seams.
This is why the things that give us hope are often the things that make it harder. The Internet has given us new access to knowledge, AI’s make it possible to know the things we need to know, and networks have made it possible to hear from people around the world all the time. As we each, individually, experience more of the world, experience the things which previously only the most powerful could, we also experience the burdens which only they did.
It will take time for us to learn how to behave, how to support one another, when these burdens come onto our shoulders. But we will shoulder them — we must shoulder them — both individually and as a people. The new world we are coming into demands new kinds of strength from us: the strength to see what is happening, even when things are going badly, and nonetheless to make wise decisions; to balance our immediate needs against our long term, and our children’s; to understand that there is no such thing as your neighbor’s house being on fire and yours being safe. The pain we feel today, the exhaustion when we are overwhelmed, is the fatigue of us developing new muscles we never needed before.
Is this too much of a message of hope? Perhaps. There are no guarantees of victory or success; only of challenges ahead. To work.