You know I often come to you to help me reflect on world events when no one wants to attend for more than a line or two and a funny picture. This time I wonder about things that go viral. Some people say that people are stacked ten deep like cord-wood on this little planet. Only in the past 25 years, with the advent of the global web, have we begun to get a sense of what that really means.
There aren’t just pictures of starving kids, or the beautiful Taj Mahal, or six o’clock news reel of a great speech by Nelson Mandela. We can actually interact more or less in real time with ordinary people around the planet — 24/7. And for more people now, this virtual reality is almost as real as life gets.
We see postings on social media and comments on articles, from people we know and don’t know, about events they have seen in person and events they just comment on.
We are highly connected with these people even if we are not connected in the same way we connect with loved-ones, or with nature when we walk in the woods. But as social animals we are inclined to take what people say rather seriously. We have seen many things go viral on the web, things like kitty pics, stupid things celebrities say and do, and amazing stories of human survival.
What else can go viral? Human feelings. Anger, fear, suspicion, depression, hatred, or the desire for revenge. All these can go viral faster than trust, hope, love, or compassion. This is why we don’t cry ‘FIRE’ in a crowded theatre. Bad news travels fast. Does patience ever go viral? This is asymmetrical warfare against our darker side.
The alarm call is pervasive throughout all social animal species. Even social insects like ants and bees when attacked use pheromones to call for backup. Tribal humans use a war drum and a war dance. Today it’s the social media rant. And we respond by liking and sharing. Collectively we send signals that go viral along with the feelings they impart. And the lines form between factions. Where is mediation for the masses?
In physics we know that is is easier to destroy order than to create it. A string of dominoes goes up in an hour and goes down in seconds. We see in the study of collapsed civilizations that what took hundreds or thousands of years to construct can come down without so much as a single historian around to record what just happened. Gone! Scattered!
In North America we have lived rather comfortably for many decades, with some trepidation regarding the nuclear cold war (if you’re old enough to remember), but little in the manner of a clear and present danger. Though minorities of all kinds have felt the sting of systemic injustice, we have not seen the angry face of ethnic cleansing, genocide or military coups. We have been sheltered from the intimate knowledge of what truly horrific and inhuman things humans are capable of doing to one another.
Many among us deny the darkness within us all and will deny the threats. Others will say we must suppress this rage on all sides. But we don’t know when we will collectively reach a critical threshold of pressures, a tipping point when someone draws a line in the sand and another steps over it in defiance.
Other people have faith in a natural system of checks and balance, a self-correcting mechanism in society. But what are the natural limits of this self-correction? On what scale does it operate? Perhaps the pendulum has to swing quite far before it turns back on its path. And in its sweep there may be many casualties. Mother Nature holds no favorites.
Diary, we need a way to make good things go viral and we need to start this now.