All the Noise

I learned about Myspace during my very first history class here in America in 2002. Despite the years of my American tutor’s hard work back in Taiwan, I had no idea what was going on around me. Surrounded by confusion among a room full of native English speakers, I remained unruffled, unexpectedly. I was probably too young and too excited to fear or worry about this turmoil. Instead, I was eager to comprehend everything around me, to read beyond words and sentences, and to interpret the different facial expressions and gestures. In this midst of confusion, I randomly overheard the word “Myspace” in a seemingly exciting conversation among a few classmates. They seemed engaged, all leaning forward to the center of the group, acting in exaggerated manners and constantly trying to talk over each other. Based on what I could grasp, this “space” which they were referring to seemed to offer a frenzy of excitement. That was my first memory of social media.

It was probably timing, I never got the chance to get into using Myspace, and the next thing I know, Facebook was what everyone was talking about. Just like most people nowadays, I spent a decent chunk of my teenage years on curating my personal Facebook page, branding and showcasing “myself”, “socializing” with friends online, and chitchatting about it all.

As far as I know, social media is a means to satisfy humans’ yearnings for connecting, minimizing the sense of space and distance. Through sharing thoughts, photos and videos online, we get to enjoy these snippets of each other’s lives almost instantly, and communicate our current state of mind and thoughts with one simple click. Such digitalized approach of communication was meant to simulate presence.

I am among the many who have naturally been going with the wave of social media and evolvement of communication. Quite frankly, I never gave it an attempt to mull over any subject on this evolution of human communication. It is true that, compare to myself five, ten years ago, I am not so active on Facebook anymore. And I am also currently approaching my social media posts a bit differently, treating them more like creative mediums, piecing together this personal portfolio. Nevertheless, these changes were definitely not due to conjugation or reflection upon certain scholarly publication or topics, but really a shift of time allocation because of work and other things. As an individual who always has a to-do list and has a severe need to be busy, occasionally over the top, I’ve always appreciated technology for making our lives more convenient and more productive. And that’s probably the reason that I had been deliberately overlooking any deeper discussion and argument on the impacts of this digital world, not on the more apparent hows, but whys, the meaning behind us consuming and sharing information.

It was not until I listened to Screen Time on Ted Radio Hour a few days ago on my drive home that I realized how dire and paradoxical this digital world of ours can be at times. This digital universe is supposedly a place where open communication is the building block of all, where everyone has equal voice with equal rights to share their opinions anytime, anywhere. Listening to Jon Ronson describing the incidence of Justine Sacco back in 2013, I felt heart broken. Jon pointed out the irony in this imaginary world, and how this digital space has been fostering groupthink, slowly and perniciously overtime. By definition, “Groupthink elevates the group to a predominant position, so that the group's boundaries and image have to be protected and the group's interests have to be upheld, even if doing so has a significant cost to outsiders”. As in the case of Justine, this globally established bully crew targets the one voice which does not seem to conform to the ideology upheld by this imaginary community which we contributed, and in many occasions, encouraging the relentlessly unjustifiable personal attacks. I am by no means picking an argument on whether it was Justine or the rest of the world being that ultimate villain. This was the perfect example of the outburst of the “righteous voices”, or this elevated sense of moral standard, conveniently riding the sovereignty of the bully crew with close to zero due diligence in understand the true meaning, the reasons, and the context behind the 140 word tweets or pictures which we stumbled upon most likely by accident. As Jon noted, I am not sure if this is the democracy which we envisioned.

Maybe a bit more thought is needed before each click. This digital world allows us to say whatever we want and become whomever we’d like, most often than not, we choose to be someone with a sense of hyperbolic moral purpose. Whenever we learn of the news about another disastrous incidence, a devastating situation, or a tragic story, we are all so eager to express our condolences and laments through a few lines of texts, a photo, or a video on social media. Not that there is anything wrong with such expression of caring, but we should perhaps get rid of the voice of this exaggerated, righteous alternative persona that many of us developed online. Instead of using overly-simplistic words and posts, we might consider spending just a little more time in reflecting, thinking through what we are trying to convey with each click, in spite of the length or the depth of the message.

This segment of Screen Time left me thinking long and hard for the following days, ruminating on this modern communication of ours, all the 1.3 million pieces of content on Facebook every minute and the 500 million tweets sent and the 85 million videos and photos uploaded everyday. Perhaps we should find our own way through the ever-growing mountains of digital data, above all the noise.

Living in this massive universe of 1s and 0s parallel to our physical world, we seem to be occupied at every conscious moment by our tiny little screens. Without the time and space for ourselves to digest the information that truly matter to us, even the meaningful data would become just another blob of texts that caught our eyes for a few seconds, then go straight over our heads. To slow down my own thoughts and make some sense of this world of data noise, mostly trite and vapid, I’ve been trying to create more “me time” everyday - the moments on my drive to work, my calligraphy sessions on a rainy day, or simply while I sip my coffee. These moments help me become more attentive, giving me ample space to absorb and appreciate. And as Guy Raz noted on Ted Radio Hour, it is the human experience, this reality which comprised of physicality, feeling, sensing, and interacting, that gives each one of us a particular perspective, hence a unique voice. And it is only when we truly experience and relish our moments in the real world when we have the ability to contribute something of substance, share our unique insights and perspectives, and connect and inspire one another. .

After all, the basis of the very existence of social media and the digital universe was meant to enhance human connection, but it should not be at the sacrifice of the human interaction, this human reality.

As hippie as this may sound, especially in the Silicon Valley, I am currently considering a getaway weekend from my iPhone which I can’t seem to live without. While this irresistible tiny screen delivers the entire digital world to my fingertip, it also has been controlling my attention and time like light traps to bugs. Wish me luck on this first getaway from my iPhone for 48 hours, and I will be sure to also write about this mini trip whenever it happens!