A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an "always on" digital environment. It's worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That's not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.
Over in one tiny corner of the Internet is a Facebook profile dedicated to being outraged over the lack of black and brown voices being presented in the local scene [this scene could be improv, theater, storytelling, dance, music, or cross-stitching.]. Reading down the list of posts, one can see memes about it, complaints about it, an almost non-stop litany of blame on White Supremacy and Gentrification and finger pointing and bitching.
A deal away from that minuscule corner is another corner of the Web populated by voices filled with vitriol about the supposed "War on Christmas." Just east of that is the intersection of Fury and Entitlement over "Men's Rights." Popping up and around the entire vast network are pockets of outrage over everything from cultural appropriation to religious freedom to the aborted filmmaking of Zack Snyder.
In the 1930's, workers were outraged by horrifying working conditions. Dangerous factories, ungodly hours for sub-par wages, and no accountability for owners and management. There was, unfortunately, no Facebook to post on or YouTube to upload to. These people had to organize and go on strike and get beaten and hosed on the streets to express their feelings of injustice. In the 1960's, blacks had had just about enough of the Jim Crow laws that prevented them from being treated like citizens of our republic. No Twitter or Tumblr to rely upon, they took to getting on busses and traveling into the Heart of Southern Madness and marching in the streets to fully demonstrate their fealty to their cause.
Those die-hard activists of yore paved the road we tread upon. Without the Internet. WITH the Internet, we have become the most aggrieved and violated bunch of fucking assholes in the history of humankind. From the most wealthy convinced that they are being treated unfairly by the regulations and taxation of the government to students protesting against basic freedom of speech on college campuses, the Internet has opened up an entire civilization prone to tantrums and screaming when confronted with anything resembling opposition to the assumption that we are all victims in one way or another.
Before the Internet, if you disagreed with someone, you had to actually go outside of your mom's basement and argue with them in person. You had to go out and find people who felt the way you did about whatever feelings of marginalization and victim hood you were being subjugated to. Now, there is information overload. There are too many voices to keep track of. One can state an opinion and be argued with by people you'd never consider talking to in the first place. And so many of those voices are filled with outrage.
It isn't that we are more outraged than before the internet but that, with this unlimited access to more information than we can handle, our reaction to the people we disagree with is amped up to epic proportions. Because we can easily jack up the rhetoric without consequence, we learn to genuinely disdain those with opposing opinions.
In this digital world we have supplanted action with reaction.
The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit. A hundred years later, as literacy became essential and schools were widely introduced, the curmudgeons turned against education for being unnatural and a risk to mental health. An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools "exhaust the children's brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment." Meanwhile, excessive study was considered a leading cause of madness by the medical community.
Like the printed page, schools, movie, radio, television, and the computer, the Internet is merely a tool. Yes, it is a vast game changing tool but still only a means to distribute and consume information. And we weren't ready for it anymore than we were ready for the telephone but we figured it out. Right now it has become an Outrage Symposium sprinkled with photos of cats and babies and food. It has become a monstrous soapbox with room for every crank and shitstain on the planet to stand and scream.
It seems that the outrage is worse than it was before but I don't think so. I think we are all just exposed to the outrage more and from smaller segments of the population. I feel certain that there were MRAs out there, raging at how unfair it is that women were actually standing up for equal pay and against the systematic marginalization heaped upon them in the 70's (remember the ERA?) but you had to be in the same room as these idiots to hear their rants.
The biggest difference that I can see is the hyperbole associated with the rhetoric. "This situation is wrong and should be addressed" has now become inflated to Hitler comparisons galore. Anyone deemed to even mildly question your premise or ideology is worthy of the worst you have in terms of damning comebacks. Facebook Mob Justice and Pitchfork Waving, boycotts, "I'll get you fired from your job!" Scorched Earth politics of Destruction by way of the Digital Highway. People who, in person, would say that words are hurtful and shouldn't be used to cause harm but once online and fueled by the fury of the FB crowd, think nothing of piling on the vitriol and hateful condemnation to destroy someone they perceive as "getting away with it." And with the instantaneous nature of information on the web, taking a beat to check your facts and make sure you're correct in your assumptions of righteousness are all but extinct.
We love nothing more than feeling morally superior to others. Each of us revels in the idea that we are on the Righteous Side of History, that we are a part of something bigger and better than the Status Quo, that our cause is THE cause. Our rage is fueled by the sense that we are champions of some fucking cause which automatically instills a sense of entitlement and battle-readiness. If WE are on the Side of Right, then We are also the Victims of those on the Other Side.
There is hope for us, I believe.
Just as we adapted to the new media presented throughout the history of communication, I'm confident we will adapt to the overload of the Internet and slowly tune out those truly petty claims to outrage much like we tune out the insane guy on the block who rants about the alien probes up his ass and Jesus coming to save us on Tuesday. Technology has not always produced the atomic bombs and fossil fuel created Climate Apocalypse - in fact, it mostly produces huge leaps in our life span, in our abilities to shrink the planet in positive ways, and methods in improving how we communicate in an ever growing population.
The Outrage Symposium will level out as we grow more accustomed to the technology. Only then will we start to consistently translate our outrage into action. Only then will we see that sounding off on the Internet is not the same as doing something.
"If there is to be a Brave New World, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it." - Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
My nephew Ryan, who has only known the wifi connected life? He'll figure it out far more easily than I will.