Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: These days, Californians should be scared of the light

Technical director Dragos Maciuca poses in August in the lobby of the Ford Motor Co.’s Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto. Joe Mathews says that the bright lights from Silicon Valley always shine on us.
Technical director Dragos Maciuca poses in August in the lobby of the Ford Motor Co.’s Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto. Joe Mathews says that the bright lights from Silicon Valley always shine on us. Associated Press

Remember the good old days when Californians were scared of the dark? When Hollywood was king and we all knew there was no monster or ghost scarier than the one we couldn’t see?

Those days are over. Today, the light is scarier than the dark ever was.

It’s not just because the sun now shines so hot that California is drying up. What’s truly scary is that Silicon Valley rules us now, and the lights it shines never really turn off.

They are the lights of the smartphone and the tablet and the router, keeping us up with their glow. They are the lights of social media, luring us to share and step into the light of a community, when we’d be better off exercising or seeing friends or making love.

And they are the lights of transparency, that new god. The best companies are transparent. We demand that our governments be transparent. We, they, all pledge to be transparent. Let the light shine everywhere.

But we pledge transparency so often, we’ve turned it into a club. Woe to anyone who won’t disclose – you must be hiding something! Let’s convene a grand jury. Or sue. Or file a ballot initiative to impose a new disclosure rule.

It’s scary how much we can see now. At the same time, there is so much out in the light that we can’t see it all. So we struggle to prioritize what’s most important. And it’s frighteningly hard to tell, in all that light, what information is correct and what’s perilously wrong. There’s too much dangerous stuff out there where credulous people can see it. And so they might believe that immigrants are criminals or that vaccines threaten children or that having a gun in the house makes you safer.

Remember when danger came with crime or violence or drugs in the night? Well, murder is down, and drugs are on their way to being legal. Now we most fear exposure, the scary reality that all our personal information is out there to steal. Identity theft is the crime of these sun-splashed times.

It’s not only the bad guys who can get you in the light. It’s the good people, too. They want to give us fair warning of everything, and so our lives have too many forms to fill out and boxes to check. If we miss anything, if we forget anything, if we read too fast – well, it’s our own darn fault, isn’t it?

Online communities grow like weeds; every organization has one. In my own life – with wife, three kids and a multifaceted job – I’m supposed to be signed into and contributing to a couple dozen online huddles, from preschool to youth sports teams, from work lists to a global democratic forum I help run. And so I toggle between all the screens I’m supposed to monitor, anxious that I’ll miss some message I can’t miss.

With the light creating so many pressures, I love the dark now. I bet you do, too. The dark doesn’t cause sunburn or skin cancer. The dark allows you to think and search the sky for a few stars.

My favorite moments now are when I leave the mobile phone at home and steal away for a short walk after the kids have gone to bed. I love hiding in the shady corners of coffee shops where I can feel safe in dark anonymity. I hope you find some dark place like that during this very bright and big Halloween weekend.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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