When I was a kid, and you wanted to find a new service–an auto repair shop, say, or a tailor–you looked in the phone book. When you wanted to know what was on TV ahead of time, you either subscribed to TV Guide or the local newspaper. When you wanted to know a fact, you asked someone nearby who maybe knew, maybe didn’t, or maybe sounded awfully convincing. Or else you went to the library and looked up the information in the encyclopedia or used the card catalog to find a book on the subject.
The internet has made a huge difference to the accessibility of knowledge.
When I was a kid, maybe two or three years old, my dad borrowed a huge monstrosity of a video camera from work for one weekend. It had to be plugged in, and you could either mount it on a tripod or laboriously carry it around on your shoulder. My first backpacking trip around Europe, I had a camera with real film inside. One of the limiting factors of how many photos I could take was how much film I could afford right then and how much photo processing I could afford later. I carried the finished but undeveloped rolls of film in my backpack all over Europe and desperately hoped no one would steal it.
The cell phone (and digital cameras, and tiny little camcorders) and the internet have made a huge difference to our ability to make, keep, and share records.
When I was a kid, my mom sent out Christmas cards every year, and every year it took forever for her to write them all. But as this was the one time every year she communicated with assorted college friends and relatives, it always seemed worth the effort. Of course, there were only a few college friends she kept in touch with, because who had the time to write even more letters? You paid by the minute for phone calls to places less than twenty miles from your house, and more the further afield you were calling. Answering machines were a big deal because not very long before, if you weren’t home, you’d have no idea if anyone had tried to reach you while you were out.
The internet and cell phones and social media have made a huge difference to our relationship with communication.
None of this is news. But it’s interesting to see how these shifts in technology are still trickling down and affecting the world today, and how we are managing these shifts, both as a larger society and as individuals.
Ta-Nehisi Coates put it succinctly when he said, “The violence is not new; it’s the cameras that are new.” We’re seeing more of a lot of ugly societal trends not because human beings became more monstrous overnight, but because now we can research things, we can record things, and we can disseminate that information with easily available and easy-to-use technology.
It’s important to remember that technology on its own is rarely good or evil. It’s how that technology is used that can be good or evil. And likewise, our behaviors in the face of how the world is changing can be helpful or harmful. Both a corrupt military and a populist revolution can use social media to ferment revolution. We can use the internet to educate ourselves or we can use it to doxx people who think differently than us. We can further the spread of both true and false information. We can help each other, and we can hate each other.
We can lose touch with empathy altogether and forget all the voices on the internet belong to real people. We can lose touch with perspective altogether and say #alllivesmatter and #notallmen. And our flaws and our mistakes are magnified and repeated; instead of reaching the people we saw in person today, the scope of our words becomes potentially global.
Today the individual has more power. And in the headiness of individual power we can forget there are ideals we share. Sometimes we have to exercise research and critical thinking in order to understand both what those ideals mean and how we are falling short. Sometimes we have to contemplate uncomfortable truths, when ideas of how we thought the world looked and who we thought we were are turned on their heads. Sometimes we have to make personal sacrifices in service to those ideals.
But it is not all dark. For every shadow that is cast, there is the opportunity to shine a light. It is hard to look without flinching at some of the worst humanity has to offer. It’s okay if you flinch. It’s okay if you’re tired, if you cry, if you feel despair that we’re in the middle of a night that will not end.
But then remember. Humanity can also offer goodness: The way a community can come together to help victims after a disaster. The way the scientific community uses the internet to work more effectively. The person on the plane that let my friend rest her sprained ankle on his lap so she could keep it elevated. The person who uses the internet to reach out to someone who is having a hard time. The person who swallows hard after an offensive joke and then says, “Actually, that isn’t funny.”
Our essential natures have not changed. We have always been monsters, yes. But some of us have also always made the choice to strive for better. Right now we are seeing a lot of our monsters. It is necessary in order for change to take place. The more people become aware of problems, the more impossible monstrous realities are to ignore, the more likely they will be addressed in meaningful ways.
But we have also always been light-bringers. We’ve been willing to help others for no personal gain. We’ve chosen to do the right thing because we value integrity.
We know how to be kind.