Nothing has ever persuaded me more that our dialogue is broken than the current political quagmire. When I began the Mayday Experiment, one of my goals was to try to change the conversation and have in-person dialogues about sustainability — as opposed to arguing about the existence of climate change — and this primary season has only confirmed the importance of that, as well as renewed my commitment to this mission.
With the world at our fingertips just a google away, it appears the Internet has made us more lazy rather than more knowledgable. Why articulate your position when you can post a link? And then why read the link someone posts when you can just scan it and continue arguing? Why listen when you can yell? Why try to see the good in someone when we’ve been given easy tools to block them, to draw our bubble around us?
My friend Paddy Johnson summed it up succinctly: “One of the problems the Internet has created is that with all this information on hand, it's harder to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. So many people really dig in their heels and comment without the kind of humility required to adjust an opinion when needed.”
And she’s right: We all do it, even when we don’t realize we are. I am definitely no saint – I am as guilty of these sins as the next person. Those who know me know that my Facebook page is a chaotic circus of competing opinions as everyone from the far left to the right chimes in. I post publicly, so random people and virulent trolls wander my way frequently, and I am, unfortunately, usually up to debate them, though I often regret it. To me, this diversity is healthy; I never block anyone, with the rare exception of those who become so abusive I feel I have to protect my friends from their presence. As long as the dialogue remains respectful, I have always welcomed all comers. This year, though, it’s felt like a full-time job to manage the revolving array of conversations.
I feel committed to the idea that we should expose ourselves to different ideas. I’m always loathe to un-friend someone on Facebook based on political disagreement (or any other kind, for that matter, aside from outright bigotry), but I have seen it happen again and again to everyone around me, and have certainly been the victim of it myself. Google and social-media platforms use algorithms to reward us with what we “like,” creating even more of a bubble. To that end, we are getting different news and have different sources that we “trust” – someone on the right and on the left almost live in parallel digital universes, creating profound echo chambers that feed bias with a steady drip of disinformation.
Which creates one of the other major problems for us staying informed: The average social-media user absorbs an average of 285 pieces of information daily, from video to words, which equals essentially a novel, all of it building that comforting bubble. We are continually buffeted and manipulated with story lines that demand our attention and drive the national conversation – often at direct odds to our better interests while distracting us from actual news, in favor of the latest Kimye/Taylor feud or YouTube star. And lately, with politics running 24/7 through everything, actual news from around the world seems to rarely push through the thicket of information overload. The media usually gives us what we crave; it doesn’t give us what we need.
Which is why I wind up reading twenty things from all sides, trying to aggregate something akin to the truth, a time-consuming and exhausting task. This tactic might lead to a lot of depth in one subject but no breadth: As is said, we know more but understand nothing. As a result, we are all growing further alienated and almost living in different realities. Absent the Fairness Doctrine, there is no reason for the media to show all sides of a story; the idea of “fair and balanced” is merely a marketing ploy today, no longer describing a moral objective or legal requirement.
Often, the argument against the Internet is that it makes us more socially isolated, more envious of one another. I have always rejected that argument: Though not remotely a “safe space,” the Internet still feels like my native language in some way; I've participated in online communities like the Well since I typed words on a flashing amber C-prompt on my Apple IIE. (I am aging myself, I know.) It has brought the world together, allowed for movements like the Arab Spring to form, reunited long-lost friends and family, and helped people create community around shared interests as opposed to geography. The gifts the Internet gives us are enormous, despite its myriad flaws.
So I would argue that the Internet brings us together rather than separating us. Sometimes, when we come together, we fight. That has always been true, through the breadth of human history; the Internet has merely given us a new way to squabble.
But back in meatspace, there is no un-friend button. You must do the work of disconnecting from a person, or simply perform the awful and unkind trend of “ghosting,” but the work of the conversation still largely relies on some form of communication that doesn’t include posting links at one another. Arguments must be made with our own words, and it’s tough to “block” someone minus a court order. We have to work together a little more, and we have the cues of body language and facial expression to help us reach understanding. This is what we evolved with and, frankly, what we’re better at.
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Which is why, as I try to embody the principles I’m striving toward in the Mayday Experiment, I am struggling to change how I speak, how I write…to grow some patience and lose the “penchant for intellectual cruelty” that an old friend once noted in me (which, thankfully, has softened over the years). I still fail, a lot. But I notice that, despite my introverted ways and internal feelings of awkwardness, having conversations in person are generally kinder. Sans emoji, sans links, just two people talking and listening, I hope.
And with this dialogue, the mission of the Mayday Experiment continues to move forward all the time – when I am outside working, when someone rings my doorbell to ask excited questions about the tiny house, when a group visits my studio and I talk to them about it. The work of it is becoming my life, or vice versa, and it feels more important than ever before.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.