Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Information Overload

It occurred to me in conversation with my wife this morning that certain incidents seem to happen much more frequently in 2019 than when we were kids. We were talking about a child in his early teens who committed suicide. We don't know the grieving family but are acquainted with at least one family who does. So there's sort of a connection there. But that isn't how we found out about the tragedy. My wife learned of this child's death the new fashioned way, through social media, specifically facebook. Every couple months give or take it seems we learn about a young person taking their own life, though usually not anyone we're personally connected with. When we were kids we don't recall ever hearing about, much less knowing a single kid who killed himself or herself. Is society unraveling at such a rapid clip that the odds of making it through your teen years without deciding enough is enough are significantly lower than twenty, thirty, forty years ago? Is the fact that bullies in 2019 can use a number of apps and social media sites on the internet to conduct their nasty business, rather than only being able to harass face to face back in the day, the reason why a greater number of children in present times decide they can't take it anymore?

Maybe. But then I realized that if my wife didn't happen to be a regular facebook user, there is a fair chance that she never would have found out about this poor child. Even though his family lives rather close to our home and we're connected by a single degree of separation, there's no guarantee that the suicide would have come to our attention if it wasn't for facebook. This caused me to ponder how many other things appear to happen much more
frequently now than used to be the case...and to wonder whether those things really are happening more frequently, or are we just more likely to hear about it these days. 

I rarely sit down to watch a local nightly news program and I don't subscribe to a single newspaper. Yet I feel far more informed about important and trivial matters going on in the world than I did prior to Al Gore's internet. I spend time daily staring at my Twitter stream, take a peek at the day's trending topics, and in so doing I receive my news fix on a regular basis. Whatever I miss on Twitter I learn about on facebook. And every so often a breaking story comes to my attention via Instagram. All bases are covered, information overload accomplished with minimal effort on my part. At a glance I gain superficial knowledge of incidents taking place throughout the world near and far. If a particular story is of personal interest, it's easy enough to delve deeper by clicking on a hyperlink. If the subject matter doesn't grab me then I'm content with just the headline.

In addition to information flowing more rapidly and further reaching in our current era, we are also able to record whatever occurs more easily. Most everyone has a cell phone on them that functions as a still and video camera along with allowing us to place and receive phone calls. If something noteworthy takes place in your vicinity, it's no hassle to record it. And then to post the video online. Depending on how interesting the content is, it may go viral. If so, inevitably a hashtag will be created for it. Now it's a trending topic which makes it breaking news whether the media gets involved or not. News organizations won't ignore for long if enough people are talking about it. They will promptly report on what they see has grabbed our collective attention.

Incidents of a certain nature seeming to happen much more frequently than in years past can have significant consequences. We react to events that are rare differently than to those that are an epidemic. Are white people constantly reporting black people who are doing nothing but minding their own business with melanin to the police? That seems to be the case because stories about a white person feeling threatened by the proximity of a black person doing nothing at all threatening make it to my twitter stream at least once per month. But chances are that these absurd situations don't actually occur more regularly than a decade or two ago but simply come to my attention more frequently now. Long before Becky made an emergency call on her cell phone, Becky back in the day was hustling to make the call in a phone booth. But nobody recorded her. If a level headed police officer shows up, it's not that big of a deal, just another example of bigots being idiots. If a trigger happy cop shows up, the result can be tragedy. Too many tragedies can spark a movement such as Black Lives Matter. That movement along with resulting backlash can make it into our political discourse and help determine who we elect president. But are white cops killing more unarmed black people today than in the 1970's, 1980's, 1990's and so on? Or are we just more likely in 2019 to find out about a greater amount of excessive policing and higher number of unjustified killings due to the sped up nature of communication?

Somebody has probably crunched the numbers and can provide answers to these questions. Do more people under the age of 18 commit suicide now than in the past? Do more male and female teachers have sexual relationships with students than used to happen before? Have incidents of racial bias from the ridiculous to the deadly significantly increased? Or do we merely hear about these things more so consider them to be bigger problems than before? Was our pre-internet ignorance bliss? Or does increased knowledge empower us to greater recognize the ills of society and try to do something about them? Even if all we end up doing is complaining more frequently. The squeaky wheel does eventually get some oil though. #MeToo is one such example.

I have questions. And without researching further I'm left to guess at the answers and leave you to do the same. One thing I know hasn't changed is that there has always been a degree of corruption in politics and political behavior ripe for mocking. But no previous president has ever given us quite as much material to work with as Trump. For bad and for worse, he's something new to reckon with. Hopefully we'll do more than hashtag and complain about it.

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