Monday, November 2, 2020

Unplugging as a Political Act

by Laurie Allee

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As I write this, the president of the United States is probably adding another tweet to his ongoing, stream-of-consciousness tone poem in a frenzy that makes Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" look downright mellow by comparison.

For your sanity's sake, don't be like the president.

As the 2020 circus of chaos expands its rings, I can't seem to stop checking Twitter. A day's news seems like it will encompass an entire chapter of a future history book.  

And it happens every day.  

No, actually, it happens every hour.

The strange new normal of disorder and upheaval has left me in a perpetual state of shock. I'm overwhelmed by the statistics, the scandals, the outrage, the ever-increasing vitriol, the spin...and my own crushing disappointment, fear and incredulity at the antics of all the lunatics running our asylum. 

To be an American in 2020 is to be part of an extremely dysfunctional family.  It's like being a child of alcoholic parents who are locked in a bitter, ongoing divorce. Instead of providing for the children, these parents spend all their time fighting and pitting the kids against each other.  They mismanage the money, neglect responsibilities, refuse to provide basic care and tell each kid that the problems are the other parent's fault. Sure, we have aunts and uncles who offer platitudes and promises.  They won't feed us either, or give us a real way out of bedlam. Many of them have picked their team.  They keep telling us how important it is to choose which horrific parent we want to live with, and to never speak again to the siblings who choose the other one.

These parents have given all the kids an irresistible toy to keep them out of the way and occupied: s
ocial media.

In less hectic times, limiting social media was a simple act of self-preservation.  Now, it almost feels like a dereliction of civic duty.    

As tensions from both the election and the pandemic continue to escalate, I'm hooked on Twitter's ominous scroll. Maybe this hour will offer something positive -- and not just more cases of Covid-19 positive.  Maybe this article will offer solutions.  Maybe this expert will offer some hope.  Maybe arguing a little more and forwarding a few more links will make the world better, will make me feel better, will make a difference.  It's an impotent substitution for actual democracy, and a Clockwork Orange chamber of horrors, but I keep looking into the roiling pandemonium hoping to see shimmers of sunlight, or a hint of a rainbow, or at least a weather forecast suggesting clearer skies ahead.       

I was so happy to have found a silver lining in the dark squalls of 2020: a deepening bond with people I love that came, ironically, through screens.  Those of us who seek digital minimalism have been trying for a while to find a healthy balance between screen time and real time.  As Covid-19 began to unfold, the lockdowns, quarantines and restrictions brought about an unexpected twist: a renaissance of connection using the very digital devices we'd been turning off. 

What had been an addictive, superficial distraction became a lifeline to our loved ones.  Because we couldn't really go anywhere, we realized how much we'd taken everyday life for granted.  So, we used our devices to recreate a world we'd lost.  A Zoom coffee break with friends made us appreciate face-to-face time -- even virtual.  It was a much more satisfying use of technology than sitting alone at a Starbucks scrolling Instagram feeds, or worse: sitting together at a cafe, each looking at our own phones.  

Why did it take a pandemic to reveal something so obvious?  

Quarantine life also prompted many of us to step away from screens and do things that were more hands-on and real.  Stuck at home, many people rediscovered all those wonderfully organic, three dimensional things:  books and musical instruments and art and gardening and board games and guilt-free naps in the middle of the day.  

Darker, troubling parts of real life came out of the shadows and demanded attention, too.  Covid-19 compelled many to take a stand against the old status quo.  It was no longer enough to merely like an activist's tweets or sign a few online  petitions.  People got out from behind their screens and into the streets.  Boots-on-the-ground civil disobedience is about as real as it gets.      

I was hopeful, in spite of devastating Covid-19 statistics, a crashing economy and the negligent folks in charge. I thought the fever dream of this crisis would bring enlightenment... a kind of catastrophe-induced gnosis.  I thought we'd reached the breaking point and were finally going to address the root causes of so much unhappiness.  I also thought we might finally break free of our screen addiction.  Like those folks in Plato's famous story, I thought we had finally recognized the illusion of flickering shadows.  I thought we were coming out of the cave to be part of real life. Instead, we've become even more captive.   
Trending Topic: Dystopia

As crises deepen and starts to fester, social media's pernicious creep has grown. All that online trolling and yelling and blocking had already prompted many to delete social media accounts -- or, at least limit time spent logged on.  But in these weird, scary, uncertain times, we all look to online feeds for information and answers.   What we get, instead, is an endless scroll of horrors.   

Our digital public square reflects the world back to us with the distortion of funhouse mirrors. 
Social media's ever-updating litany of controversy and catastrophe offers a dizzying, almost inescapable whirl.  Life has always been a kind of carnival, but now it's as if our dysfunctional parents put us on a merry-go-round that never, never, never, never, NEVER stops.

So we jump off and try to run away.  We tweet that we're "taking a mental health break."  We try deep breathing and long walks.  We read a book or play the piano.  In an attempt to stay informed but limit our exposure to online fury, we decide to check the news once a day ... but there is always something so outrageous, so egregious, so worrisome, we can't seem to look away. Before we know it, we're back on the merry go round.          

Staying offline doesn't fix things, either.  When I avoid Twitter,  I don't feel more relaxed.  I feel anxious.  I can almost hear the creepy incidental music from JAWS softly playing in the background.  Something is out there.  What am I missing?! I might not see it yet, but it's there, just under the surface, it's about to get me, and it's huge.  

Every day there is something huge.  The public response is equally huge because, just like kids trapped in a custody battle, we have no real power.  So we fight and we yell.  Or we sit back and watch, horrified, while everyone else fights and yells. 

I think what worries me the most is the fact that social media's acrimony has escaped the confines of social media.  Artificial as it might have been, we used to have a set of rules we (mostly) agreed to live by in civil society.  Most of us didn't walk around looking for a fight.  

We always used to say "Twitter isn't real life."  

But now it is.    

Chaos Metastasizing   

The "Karen" phenomenon is a direct outgrowth of social media.  Sure, there have always been awful people yelling awful things in public, but we didn't see them very often, if at all.  Social media's flame wars have jumped out of the screen and into Trader Joes.    

I recently read an article arguing that all online "influencers" are now obligated to take a political stand. In other words, an account dedicated to knitting or jazz or painting or Roblox or beauty products now must also include whether to vote blue or red or green or not at all.  I recently read a long Twitter thread telling fiction authors that they can no longer sit by and avoid "being political," even if it alienates potential readers. During the recent vice presidential debate, a nasty Twitter fight broke out between two former cast members of The Vampire Diaries.  Yes.  Stefan and Alaric were arguing about the 2020 election.

Yard signs have been popping up in my neighborhood. They are the equivalent of Twitter bios for households.  I'm not talking about the usual candidate support signs during an election.  These are signs professing beliefs that might as well include hashtags.  As well-meaning as most of them are, they declare a preferential "team."  Us vs. Them.   

As citizens, we should strive to be politically engaged.  (My first political action was when I was a kid and I wrote an anti-nuke letter to Jimmy Carter after the Three Mile Island disaster.)  
An informed, active citizenry  provides a balance to unchecked governmental power.  Movements bring about change. Movements ended slavery, got women the vote and advanced civil rights legislation.  Movements stopped wars and demanded marriage equality. Without a movement behind it, Medicare for All wouldn't now be a topic of public conversation.  Without current movements, an apathetic power structure would probably not acknowledge systemic racism or climate change or income inequality.  We need movements and real, vibrant political change, and we need actual political involvement to preserve what is left of our democracy.

But I think the politics of social media are less about making change, and more about picking fights.  

Social media has made every single part of our lives "political" -- but not in any measurably positive way.  Arguing with someone you disagree with and then blocking them is not furthering any cause.  We're not building anything with all of this rancor.  We've been corralled into sides of an unwinnable feud, prompted by these devices that tell us all day, every day, that the other guy is an enemy we need to defeat. Further, we are squabbling within the factions of our own "sides." 

I guess the echo chambers of social media couldn't contain all of the rage.  It overflowed into real life, sending people out looking for real fights.  Some of them have real guns.  

We are the Divided States of America, where even wearing a mask to help stop infection -- something easily explained by sixth grade life science, something many of us used to do during flu season anyway -- is now seen as a political statement, or worse, an invitation to brawl. 

But look at me doing the same thing right now... taking my blog about living with less digital distraction, and making it political.

*      *      *

Irreconcilable Differences?

I think it's safe to say none of us have ever seen a U.S. election quite like this one. 

A friend texted me today to tell me that he saw a fight break out last night, right here in sleepy little South Pasadena, between a group of Biden supporters and a group of Trump supporters.  One of my neighbors recently installed security doors and window bars on his little Craftsman house.  A movie friend in Santa Monica said he rented an AirB&B away from the city to "ride things out."  A mom I know told me she bought "election survival supplies." When I asked her what she meant she said "extra ammunition."

If you check Twitter, the mood is bleak, with topic after terrifying topic ratcheting up fear and hopelessness. Twitter asks if this is like 1930s Germany?  Twitter wonders if we will continue to have a democracy after the election?  Twitter adds depressing Covid-19 statistics into the mix, then highlights the hashtags of pandemic deniers.

Remembering our Shared Humanity  

I'm old enough to recall a time when people thought of other political parties as opponents, not enemies.  Growing up in Texas, I was the odd lefty.  I protested apartheid and marched for the ERA and supported gun control efforts and condemned trickle-down economics.  I was often called a commie pinko or (my favorite) "Jane Fonda" but the gristle of politics didn't choke the other aspects of my life.  

When I was still living in Austin, I belonged to a group that met weekly at a piano bar to sing jazz standards.  The people in that group were diverse in every measurable way -- there were lifelong Democrats, old oil money Republicans, a few far left hippies, an anarchist, and several apolitical artists who didn't vote. There were a couple of rich society people, as well as waiters, teachers, college students and retirees.  

We got together every week for years, and I can honestly say we never stopped singing to fight about politics.  (Before you insist "there wasn't as much to argue about back then" I'll advise you to look up Iran Contra, apartheid, the S&L scandal, Reaganomics, the AIDS crisis and the Gulf War.) My jazz buddies and I shared a love of music, and we also shared love for each other, even though we never would have agreed on how to govern the country. We may have loathed leaders...but we didn't loathe each other.

I remember working with people and never knowing how they voted. Or, if I knew and they had opposing views, I might have thought they were naive or misguided, but not evil.  You've heard the saying about never arguing about politics or religion??  That was a thing.  

I remember when being politically active meant hands-on volunteer work, not wagging a finger at those who disagreed with you.    Civic duty meant voting, writing to representatives, attending meetings, donating to causes, actively campaigning for candidates and, yes, lots and lots of protesting.  But it did not usually entail yelling insults at people in Trader Joes.   

That there were places free of invective and political strife meant we we could live with each other without hating each other. It gave us time outs and safe corners to plan, strategize and use our energy to actually make a difference.  It gave us the comradery of shared civilization.  

Sure, there have always been people preaching on street corners, handing out pamphlets and posting flyers.  We're used to a range of political beliefs, and the passionate arguments fueled by those beliefs. We've always seen those things.  But until recently, we didn't have devices in our pockets to notify us, every hour of every day, of a repeating, overarching political message: that those who don't share your views are evil, that your neighbor very well may be the enemy. 

We certainly didn't have a president encouraging civil war.      

We've always been a country of unherdable cats.  We all see things very differently and none of us like to be told what to do.  Until social media came along, we at least tried to preserve and polish the veneer of public civility. We quoted Evelyn Beatrice Hall: "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." We agreed, as a culture, to adhere to a basic framework of good manners.  The framework was kind of like a traffic code.  It enabled us to move freely but not crash into each other.  Some may argue that it was fake -- and they wouldn't be wrong.  But what we have now, as "real" as it is, is ultimately powerless.  Fighting with each other doesn't seem to be bringing about an actual revolution or changing things for the better.  

The normalization of boorish aggression exemplified on Twitter (with a president who acts as its poster boy) has not served to uplift the downtrodden or muckrake the truly corrupt or rescue the oppressed or create good public policy.

Social media may have started out as a place to talk about all kinds of things, but we all know it is now saturated with ugly politics.  Even with many people participating, it is managed by a few who decide which topics trend.  Far from a democratic place of equality, it runs on algorithms that favor the fraught, the controversial and the enraged. It censors and de-platforms those who break through the established  Overton window.   

It keeps us fighting and fools us into thinking we're doing something worthwhile by attacking each other...while the powerful are safe from what would happen if we actually came together and changed the world.

*      *      *

The Personal is Political

When I decided to call this blog Life Analog, it wasn't about collecting vinyl records and using mechanical clocks.  (Although those things are awesome.)  I was striving to live as much as possible in 3D life, prioritizing meaningful connection with people and with nature. My analog life focuses on interacting with things I can actually hold in my hands -- things that crack and get dirty and wear out.  It involves embracing my humanity -- my fragile, unfiltered, all-too-short real life that is often overshadowed by a digital approximation.  It means reconnecting with my conscience, as I disconnect from online chatter. It means finding ways to make a difference locally, connecting with the other human beings who share my community.    

Fear and uneasiness are foundational to online interaction. Experts have agreed that Twitter makes anxiety worse.  As we enter our 9th month of a raging pandemic in a warring political hellscape, the physical world offers enough things to worry about.  We need to approach our lives calmly, not in a constant state of simmering panic.

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr details how the internet itself destroys our ability to read and think deeply. Online life was making us scattered and unable to concentrate long before the pandemic, economic crisis, political breakdown and civil unrest of 2020.  If ever we needed focus and depth, it's now. 

So how do we remain connected in a time of lockdowns?  How can we make a real political difference in an era of so much pandemonium and vitriol?  Maybe most important of all: how do we stay sane?

The Truth is in There

For me, I have to be very, very careful with my time on the Twitter merry-go-round.  This is especially true as we enter the climax of an election that makes the Gore/Bush hanging chad debacle of 2000 seem like a friendly competition between gentlemen.  

Ralph Waldo Emerson warned about the dangers of distraction in his 1841 essay on self reliance.  For Emerson, spiritual isolation served as a buffer against the forces trying to steer his attention toward "emphatic trifles."  He insisted it was better to rebel against conformity and "false consistency," choosing, instead, to follow his ideals.

"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself," Emerson wrote.  "Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."

I think if we want to keep our sanity (and our civilization) we need to stop following the conformity (whichever "side" you conform to) and false consistency of the Twitter terror scroll. We must choose, instead, to be true to ourselves, to hold fast to our own triumph of principles. 

We know the difference between right and wrong -- most of us, anyway.  We know that we are never going to be able to erase HALF of the country, and somehow we're going to have to figure out how to live together peacefully regardless of which "side" currently holds power. 

As we unplug and look away from our screens, our view of the world gets wider. When we look around and actually see our neighbors, they become real, three-dimensional human beings, instead of Magats or Shitlibs.  We start to realize that when this place breaks down and both red and blue elites have either retreated to bunker mansions or rocketed off to Mars with Elon Musk, it will be up to us to rebuild.  

When those shitty parents abandon us, we're going to have to take care of each other.

Unplugging as Liberation

Twitter takes our complex world and simplifies everything into its lowest common denominator.  Free of all that pesky nuance, political ideology is now as simple as an emoji: a blue wave or US flag or (hello, fellow comrades) a red rose.  Social media has given us our digital public square, but now it is a playing field for round-the-clock, dystopian bloodsport.  We no longer simply disagree.  Instead, we are at war.  Good vs. Evil,  Us vs. Them,  Red vs. Blue. 

It's easy to block everyone you hate on Twitter, but how are we supposed to share this country if we devolve into real world sectarian violence?

We need to listen more to the inner voice of compassion, reason and humanity.  We need to listen less to online personalities -- including the president, many members of Congress and most of the corporate media class -- who will do absolutely anything for clicks and likes, including egging on the public to take up arms against each other.   

I realize there is no way to go back to the halcyon days before social media.  There is, however, a way to stop giving the online world so much of our gaze.  Capturing and keeping our attention is what social media is designed to do.  In The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu enumerates how the "information economy" is a wide net that traps and resells human attention.  By keeping everyone online and fighting, shocked and outraged, afraid and unable to look away, the powers-that-be hold the ultimate commodity: us.  

We must break free.  First, we must find ourselves, then we can begin to actually see one another.  
Emerson's call to "trust thyself" sounds deceptively simple.  He didn't mean to do whatever we want in reckless acts of amoral selfishness.  Emerson believed in an ethical, capital T truth that is true for all people.  He believed an individual's greatness comes from "the perception that the absolutely trustworthy" is "seated in the heart."  We find truth, gain inner peace and approach wisdom through conscientiously doing good work.  Emerson seeds a powerful idea with all of this: when we change our own lives as individuals, society can't help but be transformed too.    

With so many crises occurring in simultaneity, we can't afford to sacrifice our real world community by shutting ourselves away into online echo chambers.  Whatever horrors 2020's prelude will lead to, the effects are most definitely not going to be virtual.  We are in real world trouble, and we're in it together as a human family. 

Emerson had a deep distrust of conformity, so it's no stretch to assume he'd have hated social media.  He believed that external pressures from other people's opinions -- those of greater society as well as institutions -- most often lead people astray.  He believed the pressure of conformity made people join groups that they inherently didn't believe in.  It made them give to causes they distrusted, to support leaders they didn't actually like.  

"I hope in these days," Emerson emphatically wrote, "we have heard the last of conformity and consistency."  

I have to laugh because I just thought, wow, that quote is the perfect length for a tweet.  Its message, however, is something we all need to talk about together -- even if those conversations are now taking place on Zoom, or through masks from 6 feet away.  

Even if we are having those conversations with people who voted for the other guy.

I'll admit it: part of me just wants to unplug completely, hide away and not think about the many problems of my country and my planet.  But living a life analog is not about isolating and turning a blind eye to real world dilemmas.  (Most of us don't have that luxury, anyway.)  

What we can do, regardless of our politics, is seek to act in ways
that will make things better.  We can choose to stop allowing social media to turn us against one another.  It's as if we're all Manchurian Candidates, just waiting for the triggering hashtag that will send us out to kill each other.

We can make positive political points by acting locally to help our communities.  We can spend time actually supporting causes and candidates, rather than arguing online with people who support other causes and other candidates.  

We won't be able to save our world if we stay plugged into fury and dread.      

"For every minute you remain angry," Emerson wrote, "you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind."  And further: "You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon will be too late."  

Let's make sure it's not too late.

For my guide to social media alternatives, click here

For great books to conquer digital addiction, click here

For political books to make you think, check out my library at Books With Laurie here.

Okay, so here I used Twitter for good: ways to stay sane right now.

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