A’changin’ times: A virtual commentary

Irreverent graffiti on a bus

I’m now half-way through my stay abroad and I can honestly say that I hardly miss a thing from back home, which is great actually. But there is one thing I crave—and this is going to sound silly—video games! It’s no big deal of course but the small stuff can help with the monotony. My generation is perhaps the first to consider gaming as something of an art form that transcends an age cap. My parents laugh about it, like I want to play with marbles or something like that, but age (and gender) are quickly becoming non-issues for gamers nowadays. Anyway, this got me thinking about how technology has blown up the virtual world, in ways that are beyond anything Nintendo could’ve envisaged back in the eighties when gaming took root in the household.

We all occasionally reflect on the changes that a generation witnesses in society, and with the accelerating pace of that change in recent times I often wonder what my own story is and how it might pan out many years from now. Until relatively recently, there were only two major developments that I’d care to mention on this topic. They both occurred around the same time at the turn of the century: widespread use of mobile phones and, of course, the internet. I remember when a 2G phone became a must-have at school, by which time a desktop computer was a common feature in the household. While this was certainly mind-popping technology at the time, perhaps it was just my perspective as a kid but the world remained pretty much the way I’d always known it to be, right up until sometime near the end of the last decade. Can you guess where I’m going? Yeah, Facebook and the whole social media wave hit hard, and the smartphones and tablets saw to it that we stay logged in almost 24/7.

I’m not a tech expert but I don’t believe there’s been any huge technological jumps since they put the satellites up; (although perhaps it won’t be long before the internet is old hat!) I’m not a sociologist either but it’s that side of things that I’m interested in here and I’d like to share some of my own observations. I hope it doesn’t become a permanent feature of this blog but, well, I’m not happy about any of it. It’s not that I’d rather disconnect the entire planet and take us back to simpler times (secretly, perhaps!) For one, I know that technological progress has steadily raised life expectancy the world over; (I also know that anything pre-internet is the dark ages as far as the youth of today are concerned!) But as always, I’m thinking about how moral values come into all this and I believe I can thank the single biggest game changer of this digital age for most of my gripes: globalization.

Greed made the seven deadly sins list—we know all about it. Lesser-known (or discussed) phenomena are the ways that money has made its way into our subconscious and how this plays out in our everyday lives. To be fair, I’m not sure that the process of globalization is itself inherently harmful (in a less greedy world). My problem is that a data-driven engine of greed will always seep deep into a data-ready society when social status is largely determined by wealth. The end result is that objectivity (all things quantitative, analytical and measurable) will trump (or Trump) our subjective attributes; in other words, a case of quantity over quality, as I’ll now try to explain.

As far as I can tell, there are two main mechanisms at work here. The first is manipulation. We have no problem handling data and we’ve only just begun to harness the power of data analysis and mathematics to further our goals. I truly believe that it presents a bottomless well of untapped potential which can and should replace many of the political processes involved in shaping society. Unfortunately, without a solid ethical foundation, this power is an untameable beast of corruption. Boundless profiteering has made its way into almost every part of society. Just think about that. Social media brings us together only for us to revel in a consumerist playground with delusions of freedom. Politics and democracy are nothing more than empty vehicles for profit and fear mongering brings in even more data for strategists to play with.

This brings me to the second mechanism: desensitization by way of information overload. This one works in tandem with the first. Basically, the internet opened up the floodgates and we’re not ready for it. There’s no evading the incessant assault on our senses. We can’t get away from it in the workplace and then we bring it all home with us. And the 24-hour news feeds hammer inhumanity into our eyes and ears until we can’t think or even care about processing any of it. Footnote: more than 800 migrants drowned last week… HUMANITY? Anyone? As I say, opinions (like mine) are usually predicted by behaviour models which prey upon sheer confusion, knee-jerk reaction and whatever other exploits the collective intelligence of global greed can identify. That’s why it’s about time we dive in and go in-depth on the solutions and take it all more seriously.

I dunno, perhaps the youth still believe that anything goes and that they can still get some good kicks from knocking everything down. The thing is though, if you can’t remove the old stuff without replacing it with something new, you’re only a sucker in the system. They all have their fingers poised on the vent button on their keyboards and the fat cats wouldn’t have it any other way.

Moreover, bashing the norms have only strengthened them. Check out any popular post on YouTube or Reddit and you’ll soon find method in the madness—everyone is following a code of conduct. You might think it’s just a kids’ thing online but everyone in the real world is at their wit’s end and subject to a miserable situation. Small talk was once commonplace and now even a glance is avoided for fear of upsetting the balance on that tightrope. It’s a sad sign that the smaller and more ‘connected’ the world becomes, the more impersonal it gets. Everything is mediated, nothing is direct. This is why trust is at an all-time low and why we’re arguably unhappier now than we’ve ever been in ‘peacetime’. Perhaps this is all a matter of escapism because the red pill got too hard to swallow. The problem is, the way things are headed, a Second Life will be the only one we’ve got.

 

Recommended related viewing: http://bit.ly/22w0ZH5

Photo by Jay Mantri

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