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On The Turning Away 

The Pink Floyd song was a call for a kinder, gentler world. “No more turning away from the weak and the weary, from the coldness inside… Is it only a dream that there’ll be no more turning away?”

A radio hit from the Gilmour-led reunion band, this was one of many begging humanist hits of the 80s; a slightly headier companion to We Are The World, That’s Just The Way It Is, Another Day In Paradise.

Pop stars urging and even shaming the world to care has never really gone out of style, and somehow today’s celebrities singing “Imagine” has a very different effect than it might have had in the past. Most people I know simply can’t relate to this kind of thing anymore.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, across social media the last few weeks there’s been a growing allergy to saccharine assurances, among them “everything is going to be alright,” and in particular the trusted go-to “We’re all in this together.” Far be it from me to question normative messages of unity… I personally like them, they feel right and offer comfort.

But we ought to question them, at a time when communication is potentially as dangerous as it’s ever been. All of the rest, the virus, supply chains, economic collapse, civil unrest, authoritarian this or that… it’s all just fuel. The detonator is now communication. Media. Connectivity, the connected thought process, and the cognitive dissonance it creates is the “credible” threat.

People say we got through previous pandemics without the internet, and they’re right. We survived all kinds of economic strife and war before the internet. Before the internet, when information was slow.

Everything you’re seeing now is the result of a network-connected thought process, with a constantly compounding addiction dynamic. The mounting anger and disillusionment that data and science aren’t settled and reliable, the clutching of pearls when we learn health organizations could lie or be swayed by economic influence. The endless political circus and blame game at the heart of it.

In a constantly connected thought process, our responses are mimicry. Exclamations such as “How could we have let this happen” are echoes, rather than genuine feeling or insight originated from within. We grasp for comforting consensus with “Where did you read that?” “Who is reporting that?” “What are people saying about that?” “Source?” It might seem correct or responsible to stay abreast of the latest developments, and yet, far too often the “developments” simply aren’t real.

There’s a virus yes, it’s highly contagious, yes. People are dying, yes, those things are real. Masks work, yes. China lied… yes. Many more lied, yes. All of it is real.

The “real” problem lies in what we choose to do now. A connected thought process quickly becomes neurotic without a solution. With no resolution, no stable timeline, the connected mind suffers and pines. The media-ravaged masses were already compromised, and are now in a kind of rolling meltdown with the promises of continued uncertainty. “It just doesn’t make sense!” “It still doesn’t make sense?!” “When will it finally make sense?”

You may argue there has always been uncertainty throughout history, but this level of confusion paired with the feeling that we *can and should know the answers* is unprecedented. In other words, we have never not known so much at a time when everyone seemingly should be able to know everything.

What new info today? Have we reached the peak? Will there be another? Will tests be reliable? Is long immunity even possible? What did Trump say today? How does that chart look?  Will we go to war? Is this cough going to get worse? Am I weak or the strong? Will I find work? Will there ever be a vaccine? Will we lose the house? What happened to the American Dream?

Does any of this matter anymore?

It’s a bad-faith press conference of the mind.

Might it be just a bit curious that this corrosive thought process is precisely the one which makes 21st-century for-profit media possible? Not so curious really, don’t we all know deep down what’s happening? We just can’t let it sink in, can’t quite act on it yet. Because, well, we’re addicts. It’s what we do. We’ve built a way of life.

At first, I thought what I was talking about was a futurist’s vision for mass rejection of media and ubiquitous communication, as a kind of immune response.

Years ago I crafted a name for an idea in a lecture about the future of media and its public consumption: The Turning Away. Not Gilmour’s call for renewed compassion, but rather the turning away from electronic connectedness, in order to find our way back to the source of what makes compassion possible at all. At first, I thought what I was talking about was a futurist’s vision for mass rejection of media and ubiquitous communication, as a kind of immune response. I feel this is still the correct assessment: that the human mind reaches a toxic critical mass where it can ingest no more poison, kicks into survival mode, and simply shuts down, turns away from the pain. You could argue this phenomenon is underway in the west, originating with digital “fuck media” populism, but still in the infancy of understanding that media means *all* media, not just news. What I didn’t realize at the time was that all connectedness would also have to be rethought. The idea we are all in this together… it doesn’t help any longer, especially if it isn’t true.

Is it true? Is there value in global unification? Now, in crisis… or ever? I think my own answer would be yes, but perhaps not yet, not until we know our capabilities.

In other words, within the system and parameters we have at present, a “global community” might not benefit us much as we’ve been led to believe. You could argue (and many do) it’s made us particularly weak and vulnerable economically, dependent on unsustainable and geopolitically fragile supply chains, outsourced labor, not to mention recent learnings about the biological downsides of global mobility. Diversity, it’s said, is an evolutionary strength, and yet, there’s mounting evidence that isolation might be a tactical advantage in the future if employed with disciplined knowledge and care. In fact, “science” may have already proved these “protectionist” notions with the largest global study ever conducted.

Nick Sternberg
Nick Sternberghttps://nicksternberg.com/work/
Nick is a professional outlier and regular contributor at the fringes of the very online.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Nick, with these two paragraphs alone, you have my vote for enshrinement in the BIZCATALYST360˚ Hall of Fame:
    ____________________
    A connected thought process quickly becomes neurotic without a solution. With no resolution, no stable timeline, the connected mind suffers and pines. The media-ravaged masses were already compromised, and are now in a kind of rolling meltdown with the promises of continued uncertainty. “It just doesn’t make sense!” “It still doesn’t make sense?!” “When will it finally make sense?”

    You may argue there has always been uncertainty throughout history, but this level of confusion paired with the feeling that we *can and should know the answers* is unprecedented. In other words, we have never not known so much at a time when everyone seemingly should be able to know everything.
    ____________________

    And then there’s this: “A ‘global community’ might not benefit us much as we’ve been led to believe … there’s mounting evidence that isolation might be a tactical advantage in the future if employed with disciplined knowledge and care.” It suggests that a return to some levels of sovereignty might be intelligent and constructive, rather than being necessarily racist or xenophobic. Voluntary cooperation and reciprocal trade relationships are one thing. Dependence unto unwitting beholdenness and servitude is quite another. “Put your own mask on first.” If we haven’t taken care of ourselves, we have no business taking care of others.

    When you nomination for the BC360 HOF goes to the floor, I’ll be the jackass in the front row screaming his tonsils out: NICK! NICK! 😉

    Joking and hyperbole aside, thank you. We needed this.

  2. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. I must admit to thinking along similar lines as you, so reading this post was intriguing. I haven’t had cable TV for six years and I haven’t watched adult television in 13 months. I do read articles online, so I’m not totally isolated from the media.

    I’m a single mom to two young children with a full time job. When down-time elusively presents itself, I read and write.

    I frequently use the notion of, “We’re all in this together.” However, I don’t see us all holding hands and chanting. To me, it means that we are all dealing with the same issue. For the first time in our history, we are fighting the same enemy. Some countries will tell the truth. Others countries are paranoid or distrusting.

    We can’t change who we share the world with. We can’t control the way they react. We can’t control their level of honesty. We can only control ourselves. And that doesn’t mean “America”. We can’t control America. We can only control our individual selves. So let’s do a good job of that. The rest of it will fall into place.

    • I think most people I know who’ve turned away from sources they used to rely on are far from isolated from media at large, myself included. How do I stay informed without those sources? I honestly don’t know for sure but I suspect I learn more from text messages and social media than I’d like to admit. And I agree with your definition of “together” (but separate.)

      I don’t mean to demonize any nation or world authority when I say they lie with a frequency most of the public is only recently waking up to. I am probably more concerned about the rapid (and justified) social acceleration toward distrust than I am the lies themselves. The lies have been around since the beginning, and actually serve a legitimate purpose much of the time…

  3. Very thought provoking article here Nick. This to me is the paradigm of all time. The world so large has shrunk with technology. Growth is incredible. Only half the worlds population is connected via internet…I think of the ones that are not…. I learn more from personal connections and their shares from different international bases, I see the human connection. We all have different experiences, but a limited emotional bank of feelings. Phenomenal
    Thank you for this read! Have a great day Nick, still thinking here! I like that,
    PaulaG

    • It’s as if all our similarities, the trials and triumphs we share as humans were always known to us, long before the electronic age and ubiquitous communication that allowed us to dive deeper. As if we never needed to experience the world in VR goggles or even speak the language… these commonalities are innate truths. For me where it seems to fall down is when we conflate this with an idea that we all share the same interests and can (always) work together as one. It’s a prickly topic for some people, so naturally, I’m comfortable with it ;-)

  4. There’s always something bad with the good and vice versa-yes? The internet, our interconnectedness is something we only imagined in our minds-‘I wonder what it’s like to live in Scotland, or Australia… or what do the majority of Americans think about such and such topic…’

    And, now we can ‘connect’ and find out first hand from people who live in those places. We no longer rely on the media of newspapers and magazines or major contributors like BBC, most of which work to promote a certain political ideology or sensationalism. We now rely on each other.

    You’ve brought up lots of things to think about.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • The promise was always “a more connected world,” The question now emerges as what qualifies as connection, and is connection always beneficial? I for one was never wholly convinced knowing so much about goings on in the world was helpful past a certain point. In the context of this pandemic, information is about to become a known vector of harm, something the public tangibly understands; up until now this idea has mostly been a topic for media theorists and the intelligence community. I agree that smaller spheres of reliance are coming. And I think I welcome it.

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