II'm not prone to panic attacks. In fact, I've never had one in my entire life. But I think I was on the verge the other day. It was raining up here in NorCal, welcome relief from months of out-of-control fires and persistent drought. In these Covid-fraught days, I've gotten used to being restricted, but for some reason it hit me harder. I realized that my day consisted of moving from screen to screen to screen. From iPhone to iPad to Mac to TV, with little physical environmental or human interaction. Yes, there were Zoom meetings and yes, I was productive working through a start-up project I've taken on and learning more about the differences between Lightroom and Capture One. But I felt like I was experiencing a kind of claustrophobic vertigo, spinning into some sort of artificial, noisy void from which there was no escape.
Perhaps it's because of the intensity of the moment we're living in. Our Capitol was attacked by mobs of anarchists. We had a legitimate, fair election, but the 200+-year old processes by which it was determined are somehow fungible and in doubt. It's unnerving to say the least. The attacks come from within, from groups of people who have been led believe to their marrow that there is a deep state conspiracy in which a good portion of our leadership, both Republicans and Democrats, is engaged in cannibalism, child trafficking and oppression of everything they believe is right and good with America.
As the insurrection arrests continue and defenses are explained, the really twisted part is that smart, fair-minded citizens--your neighbors, your cousins, and work colleagues--truly believe that following the directives of this mystical and unknown "Q" and of the most venal and cruel president we've ever had is an exercise in patriotism. Collectively, they've lost their minds and there is no intervention, no reprogramming effort that's big enough to turn this around. Reality is colliding head-on with the propaganda and there's no telling at this stage which will win.
As a result, there is a crying need for accountability and a restoration of reality-based consequences that I'm worried will never come. GOP members of the Senate, people who were directly terrorized by this mob, who hid under tables and desks praying they wouldn't be discovered and executed, want to give the president who initiated this a pass. The overwhelming sense of futility that I'm feeling politically is compounded by an accelerating Covid death count, confusion over vaccines and whiplashed public policies coming from every direction as well as my frustration and anger of being locked down for almost a year. Vertigo, indeed!
I've written in the past about my pet theory that the internet is more than an information technology--it's a biological adaptation that recognizes that given climate change, an exploding population facing severe shortages of resources, and the certainty of more pandemics, we're going to have to be less physically connected to survive. The internet seems to me to be a pillar of that adaptation. But I looked at it agnostically from a "product/technology" standpoint and didn't fully acknowledge the moral and social obligations that such a sea change requires. It's become clear to me that we're in the early stages of a web-enabled global psychosis which has the very real potential not to save us, but to destroy us. And it's happening more rapidly across more aspects of our society than I ever thought possible.
Here's a case in point. Day traders on subreddit site, Wall Street Bets have been jacking Wall Street around for months, having as much, if not more, influence on specific stocks than the expert analysts in institutional investment houses. GameStop is its current darling, thanks to more than 10,000 hits extolling the virtues of the stock. Of course, the bloated valuation of the stock is about as real as Democratic Senators eating children, but this gambit has got real financial implications. GameStop, a minor retail chain on its way down, achieved a real $23 billion valuation at its peak. This campaign is basically an unaccountable pump and dump scheme designed to kill hedge funds that went short on GameStock. It's a visceral reaction to a market where the elite consistently make a killing but most people just get killed. And it is of a piece with the antiestablishment, anti-expertise trend that's tearing down the foundations our democracy, economy and culture. As the Entrepreneur article states:
"When you are able to feel like you're a rebel going against the establishment, that's a very powerful emotion," Smith said. "It's absolutely part of what is contributing to this gain stock event." He continued: "You read the language on the message board, it's very 'us against them.' That's so powerful."
It's impossible to know whether this is a healthy correction where people assert power over the powerful or whether this is truly the barbarians at the gate. Ironically, either way, most of the people who hopped on this stock to falsely accelerate its value are going to get hurt, unless they get out of it now. We live in time where the challenges are so big, the threats so deeply existential, that the technologies that elevate the rage of the individual into real-world damage will certainly do us in. At the same time, Internet-distributed content and services are part of our salvation as a species because we are going to have to be less physical, buy less stuff and find different ways to connect. We have no choice.
The first step toward fixing this is to rigorously restore faith in the truth, first by strongly asserting and second, clearly punishing those who trade in fear, lies and demonstrably false narratives. In other words, call bullshit on the bullshit when you see it. Every time. The second step is to hold these companies accountable, or even better, break them up. They are media, no different than the NY Times which are held to libel laws and other regulations. Facebook should be no different. The third step is to require that people to put their real names and at least their city location under every post. No one should be allowed to post anonymously--no more screen names. That will stop the most of the cyberbullying and conspiracy theories. And finally, we need to find value in things that can't be Googled, SnapChatted or Twittered. Like junkies in recovery who find God, we need to find and cherish a higher, more human purpose. But that's a discussion for a later date.