I hear folks complain that the overload of information and change is driving us crazy. A phone call used to be a rare interruption. Now, even robo calls “reach out and touch someone.” We used to read the daily newspaper at leisure. Now, each of us now receives twenty (fifty? a hundred?) tweets, texts, chats, and emails per day. And some letters, magazines, and leaflets.
I can now find facts conveniently on a phone that is smarter than I am. Fact: an expert’s report says driverless electric taxis will soon replace private automobiles and devalue the oil industry. What can I make of that prediction if I can’t sort the facts from the alternative facts? That’s crazy.
Technology, especially communication and information technology, changes on a two-year time scale. People adjust more slowly.
These changes are crazy-making.
Why? Because changes make us interact in a different way.
Mass electronic messages do not replace human interaction. Instead, they offer an addictive substitute. Individuals derive good feelings—actual physical endorphins—from personal conversation, or from acceptance in a group. Messages give good feelings with endorphins, just like human contact. Without the body language, facial expression, and authenticity.
When we adopt a group via mass communication, we establish identity from that group’s messages. Polarization occurs when one group competes against the other by manipulating information and blue lies. With an overload of information, we naturally select the words that make us feel good, words that reinforce our identity. As the penalty for misbehavior, the group uses rejection—which threatens identity—even to the point where one congressman is viewed as disloyal for conversing with a member of the opposite party. Overloaded with information, we avoid real conversations with real folks of different persuasions, even though most of us agree on fundamental things.
Society is rules for behavior, including big rules in the form of written laws and small rules like the arrangement of silverware on the dinner table.
An overarching rule—in the market, in politics, and even in our games—is competition.
In competition, winning is the value. That’s good for an individual business, good for innovation, but it offers no value for the common resources of parks, climate, schools, water, and personal opportunity. With the ongoing revisions of laws, a corporation or moneyed interest can become a monopoly. It can also control politics.
The very nature of winning conflicts with our implicit ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom. Unrestrained winning becomes a cruel circus of winners and losers. Good leadership for the country would identify its problems and the implicit rules underlying those problems. A football game is a poor model for an selecting leaders. Or for pursuing a life.
Winning requires the freedom to act. Too much freedom is, as the singer Kristofferson said, “just another word for nothing left to lose.” Freedoms that encourage too much winning by a few ultimately generate loses for the whole society, and even the whole earth. For example, drivers on the highway shouldn’t be allowed the same freedom as drivers on a racetrack. We’re aware of this at some deep psychological level, so we’re conflicted. In trying to win, we drive ourselves crazy.
We can become sane again.
We just need to be aware of the rules and then apply adjustments—not to the gains and losses, which are symptoms more than causes, but to the rules. Regarding the rules, we need to talk to each other, not to ourselves. Nor to our digital robotic responders.