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Friday, December 29, 2017

Caught In The BUBBLE: Generation I, Technology, Politics in 2017

2017 was neither the best nor worst of times, but the center does not hold

Artist Unknown

Suzanne Fields

When summing up the year now fading, the catch-all phrases that generalize a common view don’t work. It was neither the best of times, nor the worst of times. In our fragmented politics, the center does not hold, and moving out to the edges of the frame doesn’t hold us together, either.
Lots of e pluribus, not much unum.
In her new book, “Braving the Wilderness,” Brene Brown, a guru of togetherness, accurately describes paradoxes that afflict what she calls “common enemy intimacies.” We hold onto ideological bunkers with echo chambers where we can share a common bias, flavored with rage. There are few common goals for the public good. The guru’s insight strikes me as the obvious truth of our times, sad though it is. Unifiers on either side of the partisan divide often prefer to point with righteous fingers to the other side rather than link hands to reach a righteous consensus.
We can see that in Congress, where the Affordable Care Act, i.e., Obamacare, was adopted by a Democratic Congress without a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate, and Donald Trump’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act, i.e., the Republican tax reform legislation, was adopted by a Republican Congress without a single Democratic vote.
The president plays to his base, using technology to leap over the institutional media, and the Democrats play to their base, leaving the rest of us to parse the truth from millions of tweets, active and reactive, a fragmented picture of where we are, if not who we are. No warm fireside chats unite us, but a lot of angry tweets and nonstop punditry do divide us.
“Saturday Night Live” parodies Mr. Trump accentuating his yellow hair, but it’s hard to catch the essence of the man in a satirical skit. He doesn’t give us enough time between tweets to take him as seriously as we should. He requires a portrait by Picasso or a Cubist rendering, with features flying off in several directions to capture his unique style. The same is true of the culture. We crave unity, but we unite only in our bubbles, where never is heard a discouraging word. Only the brave step out of their bubble to take an X-ray of the body politic.
Pinocchio, the puppet with a tell-tale nose, has been brought back to the culture, but instead of putting old woodenhead in an instructive tale for children about the peril of telling lies, he’s become a symbol of the politicians and press retailing partisan talking points as if they were the news. President Trump decries “fake news.” Kelly Anne Conway describes such news as “alternative facts.”
This approach to the facts didn’t start with the Trump administration. Bill Clinton, caught in lies about his sordid personal life, insisted that facts depend on “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Hillary, faithful to the family tradition, defended her use of a private email server set up, saying it had no classified information on it, which of course it did.
Taking stock of the events of the swiftly receding year, we should recognize how deeply we err as mere humans, abetted by the new technology which puts the passage of events on steroids. It’s exciting, but it’s exacerbating the thinking process on which the functioning of democracy depends.
Since today’s college students make up the first generation for whom the digital keyboard replaced pen and ink, it’s natural that they look to their medium for the message. They should understand they’ll need more than a little help. The smart ones are taking classes in “media literacy,” trying to avoid the latest traps in the dissemination of information. With no Socrates to question assumptions, a team of four college students earlier this month created an electronic program called Open Mind to question the validity of sources.
The winning software was developed during a 36-hour competition at Yale University in what was aptly called a “hackathon.” The software whiz kids, devised a warning to pop up on screen to alert the user when he’s entering a site known for spreading fake news. Designed as an extension of Google’s Chrome browser, the program suggests where to go on social media for alternate points of view.
This might offend traditionalists who revere Gutenberg and relish a variety of print sources from their own reading, but to many young adults of the i-generation Open Mind sounds like a reasonable start for someone willing to flee his bubble. The winning team’s prize is an audience with congressmen. Second prize should be an audience meeting at the White House. The rest of us should pay close attention to their progress, if any, in the new year. We can all use a little help.

• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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