Ironic isn’t it? The Internet and a slew of communicative technological advances were supposed to draw people closer together when instead we’ve become more isolated and polarized.
A family is sitting together at a restaurant presumably enjoying each other’s company, when in fact all four members are scrolling their smartphones to see what they are missing. Welcome to the equivalent of the cliched cocktail party where perfunctory greetings are a pretext for scanning the room seeking a more fascinating contact.
It’s called multitasking – a euphemism for rudeness. It’s also why an increasing number of many incoming college students’ greatest weakness isn’t writing, it’s being able to communicate without using their fingers and thumbs. And why an increasing number of college professors are compelling their students to stash their electronic devices during class.
In short, these ubiquitous distractions have created an attention-deficit-disorder problem that afflicts young and old alike. It’s also spurred studies underscoring the dangers of a society compulsively tethered to technology.
Chief among them is Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor laments that rather than converse with family and close friends, we communicate in “bits and pieces” refusing to abandon our smartphones.
Lest I be labeled a Luddite, let me concede that there is much to be gained from technological advances that are coming at warp speed. Nor am I pining for a return to rotary phones, party lines, Smith-Corona typewriters and carbon paper. I do, however, yearn for the civility that has been replaced by rudeness and the sheer nastiness that enable people to spew their hatred from the safety of relative anonymity.
One only has to scroll the sulfurous comments concerning an online story or opinion piece to see how toxic things have become. It’s become so bad that many publications have simply stopped fielding comments because of their sheer hatefulness.
The targets of this digital abuse may vary from the author to the commentators themselves insulting one another with sophomoric responses. “Sophomoric” is the operative word because many of these comments resemble the stuff that one finds splattered on restroom walls, public buildings and park benches.
Several years ago I wrote a signed piece for the San Diego Union-Tribune, keelhauling Rush Limbaugh for polluting the airwaves with his unrelenting hatefulness. Needless to say, I received hundreds of emails and phone calls, many of which were abusively anonymous and some downright threatening.
The vitriolic responses didn’t surprise me because I was acutely aware of the polarization that has characterized public discourse much of the last three decades. Voltaire’s oft-misquoted maxim, “I may disagree with what you say, but shall defend to the death your right to say it,” has been superseded by the likes of: “I hate your guts you #%*#@%# and hope you die soon.”
This nastiness has given rise to the national scourge of cyberbullying, which all too often has lethal consequences. A heart-rending local casualty is 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu of Folsom who was taunted unmercifully in person and online, and committed suicide in December 2014. Stories like Ronin’s and other tormented youngsters across the country who have taken their lives have not slowed the torrent of abuse. According to a recent Pew report, some 95 percent of social-media-using teens have seen cruel behavior on sites.
Such is the seamy underside of social media and the degree to which we have become tethered to technology. The convenience of being able to connect immediately with others also carries with it the capacity to do great harm. Particularly those cowardly score-settlers who persist in pumping even more bile into the ether.
Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.