Michael Brendan Dougherty:

There are any number of reasons why people feel this way, historical and political. But one of the main reasons they feel like this is because of the internet, particularly social media’s effect on the way news is created and delivered to you. And how all of this has warped the experience of those who have lived through these social changes. It isn’t just about politics either, but almost every dimension of human experience. Do you love architecture? Someone just built a monstrosity next to a building you loved. Click here. Do you adore products by Apple? Well, they’re screwing them up. Click here. Did you just feel that unnamable, almost unmentionable surge of gratitude for all the people you’ve known in life and all the kindnesses their presence brought to you? Click here and see that most of them have contemptibly dumb opinions about everything.

The internet doesn’t coddle you in a comforting information bubble. It imprisons you in an information cell and closes the walls in on you by a few microns every day. It works with your friends and the major media on the outside to make a study of your worst suspicions about the world and the society you live in. Then it finds the living embodiments of these fears and turns them into your cell mates. And good heavens it is efficient.

Like a magnifying glass held over an anthill, social media focuses an intense, disproportionate amount of our energy and attention on trivial objects and events. Or like a classic Tragedy of the Commons-collective action problem, we’re all individually incentivized to dump just a little bit of negativity into the web, whether it’s by writing a vituperative blog post or sharing the latest outrageous “OMG, you’re not going to believe what this idiot said” with a friend. Collectively, though, we all become worse off as our news and information stream becomes increasingly polluted by garbage and bile. How do you change the incentives, then?

Last year, I had lunch with an old friend. He had become increasingly embittered by politics in the last few years, and he spent part of this conversation fuming about Obama and Bush, claiming that they were two of the absolute worst presidents we’d ever had. But, I replied, don’t you think it just seems that way because we know so much more about them? If modern mass media had existed to scrutinize the previous few dozen presidents on a microscopic basis, don’t you think that we’d have been similarly convinced that they were hastening the End of Days too? Do we honestly have the context and perspective to meaningfully judge such recent actions yet?

I recently saw a conservative writer summarize the presidency of Bill Clinton by saying, essentially, “shrug, yawn.” His verdict was that Clinton was fortunate to occupy the office during a relatively calm period of peace and prosperity between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. The dot-com boom and the tail end of the abundance created by the neoliberal shift in the ’70s and ’80s meant that Clinton only had to keep the ship of state cruising on course. History will apparently only register him as an unremarkable footnote to the end of a much more interesting century.

Now, I’m speaking here from the dead center of Generation X. That is, I was a young adult when Clinton took office, and if he is indeed destined to be remembered as a talented-but-unexceptional politician who didn’t have much lasting influence, you wouldn’t have guessed it then. My perspective may be skewed a bit by virtue of my membership in a family of rabid Clinton-haters, but I clearly remember Republicans generally acting as if he represented the death of virtue in general and everything good about America in particular. But it wasn’t just the deranged conspiracy-theorizing of his enemies that we can see reflected in the level of discourse on blogs and tweets today — I also remember when he did a live town hall-style event on MTV, where one young woman, who had clearly absorbed plenty of media narratives in her time, informed him that the recent suicide of Kurt Cobain symbolized the hopelessness and frustration that a lot of us in this generation felt, and wondered what encouragement he might have to offer. I don’t remember his boilerplate answer, but the point is, this common theme of a young generation facing an uncertain future full of anxiety, career insecurity, and financial decline was overdone then, and we didn’t even have the Internet to perpetuate it. How long would it take me to find an article written within the last week bemoaning the inability of millennials to find satisfying work and middle-class security in a topsy-turvy world? Probably less than a minute. But don’t worry, kids, they wrote the same articles about us, and we seem to be getting by okay. And less than two decades later, the man who represented the decline and fall of America is now seen as a humdrum symbol of the good old days. Why should we believe that things will be significantly different two decades from now?

In middle-school social studies class, we were taught how to watch and read the news while critically reflecting on it. One important lesson our teachers stressed was that the reason so much news seems horrible is because it’s the exception. Good news is too common to bother reporting on. Paradoxically, though, when the exceptions get concentrated into a compact, regular delivery system, it starts to overwhelm our perspective and seem like the norm. We all know this, but it’s boring to remind ourselves of it, and the latest outrage hits us right in our amygdala and gets our adrenaline pumping, which makes us feel so alive. Even if we feel sick soon after. I don’t know if there’s any systemic solution to the problem. On a personal level, all I can think to do is to seek out better sources of information, like books, which grant wider, deeper perspectives than the chirm of social media, and to use them as inspiration to write after a period of reflection, rather than indulging in reflexive ranting. Put down the magnifying glass and try looking through a telescope for a change.