I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of technology ever since the 2016 election.
As the first election accompanied with the widespread use of social media, the rules of the game were on an entirely different playing field. The news coverage on the election and the subsequent social-media responses developed into an information avalanche. It was suffocating to log in and see something new every time. It was exhausting to dredge through the endless tweets, opinion articles, news segments, and statuses made by Facebook friends.
In short, it was just too much.
Once, a news outlet posted something that didn’t align with my views and I unfollowed them. Easy! But, what happens when a Facebook friend posts something I find offensive and I don’t really need that in my life? Maybe, I should just unfriend them. How easy it is to click a button that silences their opinions and shields me from having to see it! Eventually, without even acknowledging what I was doing, my feed became redundant, only presenting arguments and opinions that I already agreed with.
I’d built walls to insulate myself.
What are the implications of these walls I’ve built — of intentionally selecting what I see and don’t see? In my echo chamber, I’ve curated all of my social feeds, allowing the algorithms the tech gods have made to show articles, stories, and events that reinforce the ideas I believe in.
SOMETHING there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
In Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall,” there is a “something” that wants to keep the artificially made wall between the two neighbors down. This “something” is bigger than you and me; it’s a natural force. But, what is “natural” exactly? Is it to learn as much as possible from as many different people as possible? Or is it to choose information that supports our beliefs and ignore the ones that challenges them? Which one do we see more of today? And, how has technology influenced it?
Perhaps, it’s not natural to build walls up.
Everything we believe in is reflected on our social feeds. This constant reinforcement dangerously affects our ability to think critically upon our own views. Just think about how many hours of your day you spend looking at your feed. On the bus to work, scrolling through while waiting in line, it’s constant connection, but it’s a connection to redundant ideas and sources.
When social media first showed up, many rejoiced at the ideas and people it would connect — “connection” was the buzzword.
- With social media, we can connect with people we don’t agree with!
- Social media can connect us to things we don’t fully understand!
- Social media connects.
But, it’s accomplished almost the exact opposite. Social media has entrapped us in a comfortable cage. We avoid new ideas and information that don’t align with our viewpoints, and we’ve never been lonelier. This cage we reside in positions us so that we constantly face a screen filled with “thumbs up” and “hearts” with our backs towards those who disagree with us.
It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It’s isolating.
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
“Good fences make good neighbors.” Whenever the neighbor speaks in the poem, he repeats this cliched line. He echoes his father, symbolizing tradition and strict adherence to it — something we’re all familiar with. Yet, communities that promote tradition without critical evaluation represent a frustrating aspect of humanity.
With social media, it’s even easier to remain trapped in this bubble. While social media does allow us to pop the bubble with a simple click of a touchpad, it counterintuitively strengthens it, reinforcing our security with ourselves and our beliefs.
I’ve found myself asking “surely there might be value to surrounding myself with people who only agree with me?” Yes, there is. Author Emily Parker argues that social media should not be used to convince the “other side” but to send out calls of action. In that sense, social media has connected us with a large number of people who share our ideas. This expansive resource can prove advantageous in creating actionable items, such as protests, rallies, movements, etc,.
So yes, social media can do good. As much as I complain, I’ve seen the results and the benefits. It can bring social justice issues to our awareness and rally support on large issues. (Black Lives Matter, calling your representative, donations to ACLU and others)
Social media is not the root of the problem; it’s the construction of our walls and more importantly, our lack of awareness of why we even do it:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
My walls not only prohibit conversations that I could be having, but I even forget that people have opinions that differ from my own. That’s the danger in the walls we build.
When we refuse to acknowledge other sides, to look and listen and understand, we fail to actually connect with people. If we build walls around ourselves, we never make those meaningful connections, never having those discussions, even the painful ones, that can bring about real and impactful change.
Just as Frost ruminated on the nature of fences and walls in his poem, we should critically look at our own. I’ve been asking myself many questions lately:
- Am I blocking out information that does not support my views?
- Do I build to block out opinions that don’t agree with mine?
- Why and what do I gain from this?
- Do I build simply because I’ve always been told to do so? Because, “good fences make good neighbors?”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head
Frost’s speaker considers pushing his neighbor more, asking him to think about the why of the wall. Perhaps, we should all be wondering the same, be questioning ourselves. I’m ready to try being a little more open, to let the walls stay down, and to begin to understand life from different perspectives.