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Comfortably numb in our virtual cocoons

2011-04-29 15:52
Much has been said during the last few months about the positive role played by social media such as Twitter and Facebook in the democratization of the Arab world and other countries.

Though I agree with this positive assessment of the role of the Internet, it is also true that there might a dark side to our reliance on virtual feedback.

Is our generation in danger of becoming prisoners of the information revolution? Are our opinions really our own? Or are we merely echoing the collective chanting of the crowd in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when we proclaim, proudly: “We are all individuals!” Are we stuck in a place of no return, without any contact with reality, such as the character portrayed by Peter Sellers in Being There?

Information overload

Sometimes it seems to me that we are so inundated with information that we know less and less. Too much information may be blinding us to everyday home truths! We don’t take trouble to memorize facts or to ponder the meaning of things. We should we? If the facts are not in our heads, we can retrieve them with the push of a button. We can do it from our laptops, our iPads, out mobile phones.

A while ago, I heard Gareth Cliff discussing this same topic on Five FM as I was driving home early one morning after dropping off my kids at school. He posed the question (I can’t recall his exact words, but this was the gist of the discussion): “Are we becoming desensitized to the suffering of other people because we cannot bear to visualise their problems in such graphic detail?” Gareth admitted that the average person’s apathy to the plight of disaster victims in, say, Japan, could be a normal emotional survival strategy.

It is true that a mere flick of the TV remote control brought us closer to their suffering than ever imagined before. We could see the tsunami up close, we witnessed the horror and the chaos, it was as if the entire terrible scenario was being played out on our lounges. Yet, how much empathy can one person extend? Where exactly are the boundaries between one’s own personal angst and the terror of mass destruction in some distant country? With the flick of the same TV remote control or the click of a mouse, we can make the horror disappear again, and simply carry on with our lives as if nothing ever happened.

The gigantic bubble

Sometimes it feels as if we are living in a gigantic bubble, breathing sanitized air, receiving processed news, interacting with virtual friends, while not actually touching on anything, immersing ourselves in anything. We can wade through mud slides without getting our feet dirty, watch forest fires close-up without feeling the heat, see the earth shake during a major earth-quake without spilling a drop of our drink.

I tended to agree with Gareth Cliff that morning. As I drove up to a stop light, I asked myself out loud: “Is there something pathological about this? Are we perhaps missing the big issue?” At that moment, someone approached me, a dirty-looking person on the pavement, trying to sell me a copy of 'The Big Issue'. I simply pushed a button, turning my window up, and stared blankly in front of me, mentally shutting out the offending presence in my peripheral vision.

Though I was aware that this little incident was a kind of silent parody of the very syndrome I had been thinking about, I just didn’t want to be bothered any more. I was tired, I wanted to get home.

I turned into my own street, and picked up the remote control to automatically open my garage door, retreating once more into my comfortable little cocoon of theoretical liberalism and mass individualism.          

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