“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
Our politics is getting weird. We’ve always struggled against opportunism and corruption and lying. But the fresh rise of what can only fairly be described as “crazy” is hitting us like an invasive species dropped into your local pond. It’s crowding out the parasites we’ve learned to tolerate and eating everything in sight.
While there have always been some odd characters attracted to power, it seems we’re dealing with a whole new category of crazy, something we’ve never encountered at the highest levels of our politics before. This year we had a GOP Presidential candidate rise to the top of some polls by claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. We have a new favorite (briefly?) who not so long ago accused the President of trying to set up mandatory, Communist-style re-education camps for youth. Goofball theories backed by pure fantasy abound. Rather than being hounded out of town, these folks become cult heroes.
Something has changed. Facts are elitist. Credibility is evolving into a liability and crazy has become a tactic. Where is this coming from?
There is a depressing irony at work inside this problem. Never in history have ordinary people had such ready access to reliable information. In that sense it’s never been easier to determine what’s real. Yet we seem more gullible than ever.
This torrent of information, both true and untrue, combined with an overwhelming pace of social change may be undermining our ability to function. If so, what does that mean for representative government?
More than forty years ago Alvin Toeffler published Future Shock. In it he predicted that society had entered a phase of constant, wrenching, and ever-accelerating change. He expected this would lead to a form of social meltdown and a terrible strain on the individual mind. There’s a comment from Toeffler’s book that seems particularly prescient:
“And what then happens when an economy in search of a new purpose seriously begins to enter into the production of experiences for their own sake, experiences that blur the distinction between the vicarious and the non-vicarious, the simulated and the real? One of the definitions of sanity itself is the ability to tell real from unreal. Shall we need a new definition?”
Maybe we are in the process of redefining sanity. We have an abundance of reliable information to help us separate what is from what ain’t. But we are also being overwhelmed by shiny distractions. And it’s not just our omnipresent entertainment that is weakening our hold on what’s real. This wealth of accurate information is available inside an atmosphere in which reality is becoming perilously complex. Even the most common tools and devices that are woven into the fabric of our daily lives are now wonders beyond simple credibility. Here’s an example:
I have a device sitting on my desk that is barely larger than a credit card. It knows where I am on the globe at all times and can recommend a nearby restaurant I might like. It allows me to hold a conversation or exchange messages instantly with another person who may be thousands of miles away. It entertains me all day and night with music, games, movies and news.
That statement is utterly, incredibly magical and at the same time absolutely real. And there is not a single human being on the planet, not one, who understands all of the materials and technology required to create my smart phone sufficiently to build one by themselves. Somewhere in the 20th Century our lives came to be dominated by technologies that were products of cultures, not people. We lost all individual control over them.
This world of credulous wonder and surplus information undermines politics, at least in the short run, by depriving us of what we most desire in evaluating public affairs – a singular narrative. In the old days when there were three television stations the dignified white men on the evening news handed us that calming gift. They had a staff of smart people who filtered through the galaxy of world events and digested them down into a storyline which we gobbled up at 5:30 pm Central.
With unfettered access to raw information we are faced with a horrifying new understanding – there is no single narrative and there never was. What happened today is that seven billion people experienced seven billion different things from seven billion unique perspectives between every blink of an eye.
Most of them seem to be blogging about it.
As change accelerates to a blur our reality is refracting into a mosaic with no discernable pattern. We are left on our own to figure out what it means, to translate it into the coherent story that our increasingly outgunned monkey-brains so desperately crave by using technology we can never hope to understand.
More and more we respond by shutting out the assault of cognitive dissonance and retreating from any unwelcome input. We surround ourselves with news outlets, friends and even neighbors who carefully reinforce what we want to believe. We are building our own reality to support our chosen narrative. It doesn’t seem to be working out well on a personal level and it’s rotting our politics.
Will we adapt successfully? Probably, though it’s hard to say how long it will take or how this process may permanently transform government. And we probably won’t collectively sober up before a lot of people get hurt. For the near term we can be certain that a significant chunk of our political energy will be diverted into fantasy and entertainment as we try to cushion ourselves from the onslaught of uncomfortable change and unwanted information.
Perhaps the best we can do individually is enjoy the fireworks and dodge the sparks. Oh, and tweet about the experience.