...people are hard!

This is the second of a two part series of articles that has been too long in the making. Originally meant for a March 7 release, it has taken an extra month to get it “acceptable.” I guess people truly are “hard,” and in multiple ways.

People are funny. Or, perhaps more accurately, not particularly logical.

I ended my last article by stating that “technology is easy.” Of course, such a statement requires context. I’ve previously written that the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, which were seemingly developed in record time, represented modern “miracles.” I stand by that assertion; however, I also recognize that these miracles required decades of painstaking labor, deep creative thinking, and tremendous amounts of faith and determination. Overnight sensations, yes, but also decades in the making.

That doesn’t sound so “easy.” And, it’s not.

But, taken within the context of comparing technological to human development, there’s absolutely no contest—technology is easy. And, people are “hard.”

Examples are easy to find. The aforementioned vaccines are overwhelmingly effective and safe and clearly make a profound difference in terms of preventing the likelihood of death; yet, huge numbers of people have chosen to decline their use.

Global warming has the potential of inflicting devastating changes to our world that will make the pandemic seem like a “walk in the park.” Remarkably, over the past few decades, our scientists and engineers have probably invented all of the technology we need to avert the climate crises we likely face without any dramatic changes in our ability to “live well.” Again, though, we lack the collective will to fully utilize the technologies that could save us.

And, our scientists can invent nuclear weapons that work, but should truly never be used. Yet, we find ourselves for the first time in decades facing the threat of these horrendous devices being deployed in combat, seemingly at the will of a single individual for the purpose of simply sparing his own blushes as his invasion hasn’t gone so well.

Which brings us to social media. Its pervasiveness is absolutely astounding. When any service can count its users in terms of billions, well, that’s just unbelievable. Yet, I don’t think in the history of consumer services or products, there have been offerings with such a level of “popularity” that simultaneously make us feel so badly about ourselves.

Social media represents a technological development for which we, as people, seem poorly equipped. At least for now.

As mentioned, a human service agency I long worked for served a population that is broadly defined as having “developmental disabilities.” That’s an extraordinarily broad term for a population that has a remarkable amount of variation from individual to individual in terms of how their disabilities are manifested. At one end of the spectrum you have people who do not speak and often communicate primarily through highly aggressive and physical behaviors. At the other end, you might have people with learning disabilities that have difficulty interpreting language or social situations correctly, but express themselves very well. They may just seem a little odd to you.

Two highly common impacts of these types of disabilities are difficulties in communications and, consequently, these difficulties lead to diminished opportunities for personal relationships. We saw technology as offering a real opportunity for our population to develop communication skills that could be used to build a greater number of better quality relationships with others.

A computer is infinitely patient, so we thought our people could take their time in crafting communications in such a way that a disability would not be immediately apparent to the receiver and, therefore, not stigmatizing. Additionally, transportation is always a challenge for this population as many people cannot drive themselves and lack access to public options. Using the Internet provided a potential means for personal interaction without needing ready access to transportation resources. Consequently, we put both money and effort into using technology to provide these opportunities to people.

But building online communications skills did not transfer to the “real world”, at least on the whole, as we had envisioned. We were largely wrong about the community-building aspects of technology. We had looked in the 1990s, when the Internet community was “small” (at least by comparison to today), and saw email and electronic bulletin boards and mailing lists and found, mostly, productive online communities that were using the Internet to find each other in a way that was not physically possible. This seemed to us perfect for our population.

But, there is a dark side to the Internet, as there has always been, and the wisdom of the “yin and the yang” is alive and well, if not always appreciated. Decades ago, the light to dark ratio was pretty high and the dark was easy to avoid. Things more recently, though, seemed to have reversed. It’s turned out to be tougher than we expected to find the Internet’s “friendly neighborhoods” for both people with and without disabilities. It’s still there, but diligent effort seems to be required to find them.

Social media has played a starring role in this change. Its allure is that it can easily connect us to people that would otherwise be hard to engage, and that’s profoundly powerful. However, it also has the power to make us feel inadequate, angry, anxious, fearful, and resentful. Though the “content” is provided by “real” people, the content often appears to be anything but well-connected to “reality.” When it comes to have but a tangential relationship with the truth, social media fails to provide benefits to either individuals or society and, all too often, we lack the sense and/or the fortitude to just “turn it off.”

It’s the scarcity of “real and truthful” that represents the essence of the problem with social media.

At best, we have exaggerations. Posters’ lives are “bigger and better” than they really are. They have better jobs, nicer homes, more successful spouses and children who are incredibly smart, athletic, and who have lives that are “beating the world.” All seemingly “minor” infractions, but such “little lies” harm us individually and collectively as they have a cumulative effect such that social media seems to have become a “big lie.” The lies are personally harmful as they represent a belief that what we actually are is not good enough; they hurt us collectively as too many of us are hoodwinked into believing that we need to live up to all this nonsense.

But, the falsehoods don’t end there. Much of social media is literally programmed to “help” us make ourselves “better off” than we are currently. With great disappointment in myself, I have not brought myself to delete my Facebook account as it is useful to me for genealogical research, which represents my singular personal use of the service. Yet, the service is constantly pushing me to connect with people who might somehow be of interest to me through one of the very minimal number of “friends” I have on the service. I really don’t want or need an algorithm to help me find “friends.” Although not a gambler, I would happily wager that most “Facebook friends” are no friends at all and represent nothing more than meanlingless and superficial relationships.

To make matters worse, when it comes to political discourse, those friends might not be real people at all as it seems that more than a few nation-states are weaponizing social media using fake accounts to sow societal discontent and division amongst the populations of their enemies. And, too many of us are falling for this con and there’s a high price to pay for our gullibility.

Truth matters, and it’s under attack. The emergence of terms such as “truthiness” and “post-trust” represents a warning to us that something very wrong is happening. Without truth, we cannot have trust. Without trust we cannot build real relationships or constructively work with each other. If we cannot have workable relationships, we cannot solve problems big or small, and we have some tremendous and critical obstacles we need to overcome in the coming decades.

So, what are we to do? There’s a reason that the Constitution’s First Amendment speaks to freedom of speech and I am a fervent believer in interpreting it expansively. Like truth, free speech also seems to be under attack from both far ends of our political spectrum. One side seems to warmly embrace outright fascism while the other appears desperate to prescribe sets of sanctified words and beliefs for all of us. Personally, I’ll have neither, thank you!

Thus, I am not in favor of policing speech except in its most extreme and dangerous forms. Speech meant to threaten or libel others must face legal consequences.

I am, however, very much in favor of regulating the means of disseminating free speech within the context of ensuring competition amongst the means of distribution. Like many parts of our economy, our communications sector is obviously guilty of having an excessive concentration of power. There are too few owners of radio and television stations with a handful of large companies controlling far too much of the messaging through these means.

The Internet is even worse. Google lacks adequate competition in search. While to date they do not seem to have abused this position, it’s certainly technically possible for them to modify their algorithms to “encourage” results in one political direction or another.

Facebook, too, lacks adequate competition. They also seem to be far less interested in self-policing than has been Google. They clearly seek to maximize “eyeballs” and profits and appear to have no compunction with serving people content of highly questionable intent. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to describe them as consciously malevolent, but they’re clearly amenable to collateral malevolence if it serves their financial aspirations.

People need viable alternatives to both services and regulation needs to evolve such that there is a strong diversity of choices in from where and whom we receive our communications and offer our thoughts. I think antitrust regulation has a role to play here. It would also be wonderful to see a revolution along the lines of that forged by the open source movement, which I think has had a profound (and underappreciated) effect on sparking creativity and diversity in both technology and the number and types of people that are able to offer their talents. Perhaps we need social media platform technology that is not corporate-owned, but produced by the public for the public interest.

Mostly, though, I think the responsibility lies collectively with all of us. We appear to have forgotten how to treat and talk to one another, especially in online forums. Change always begins with a single step taken by one person and each of us can freely choose to treat those we encounter with decency and respect. Huge numbers of small changes have an immense cumulative effect.

We can also choose to reengage with our local communities, and we should. Turn off any screens you’re spending too much time with and do something with “real” people. And, by “something,” I am suggesting something meaningful in that it contributes to the world and not just your own personal entertainment.

It’s really hard to hide the truth from people you interact with face to face on a regular basis, especially people with which you’ve engaged to accomplish some “larger” purpose. It’s been said that it’s also hard to hate people you know. People may give you reasons to not like or trust them as you get to know them, but through knowing them “for real” your decision-making in this regard will be far more reliable.

As you engage in your communities, focus on building relationships by showing respect to people and building stronger connections with those who reciprocally treat you with respect. Be okay and honest with yourself about who you truly are and allow others to do the same. We are fundamentally social beings and healthy and happy lives are built from balanced and mutually beneficial relationships. Life is short, time is precious, and your energy is wasted if you expend it on people who fail to treat you with basic respect and dignity.

Finally, we need to be rigorous in calling out half and un-truths as they’re presented to us on issues that matter to us societally. Such callouts must be backed by well-founded, demonstrable evidence and be presented in a balanced and even-tempered manner so that they can be heard. We cannot encourage another person in any direction until they invite us in, and we are more likely to connect with people who aren’t shouting at or speaking down to us. At the same time, we need to always be receptive to listening and “hearing” as we will sometimes be wrong ourselves. Learning and evolving is always okay.

Technology provides a great tool for helping people find each other. But, it’s just a tool and not a destination. Choose reality and real people over the “metaverse” and avatars, neither of which is likely to really be as they appear. Too many of us are living in virtual realities transmitted to us through our screens by people who simply which to extract something from us. Life is not well-lived as a spectator sport, so turn off your screen and go out and make and live a life of your own that ideally involves and helps others, but, at a minimum, does them no harm.