Time To Reclaim The Internet – And Our Minds
Somewhere in between fireworks celebrating freedom and a pandemic-era election, there’s the quiet voice of people asking if they can have their internet, and their minds, back.
The fireworks have been going off all week here in London. The big display in the park nearby was cancelled, a casualty of the pandemic and the new (sort of) lockdown we find ourselves in. But, all over the neighbourhood, smaller displays have been going on for days.
The celebrations commemorate Guy Fawkes. He was a fundamentalist and terrorist, or zealous freedom-fighter, depending on how you tell the story. Either way, he paid with his life for his part in trying to blow up the government. Fawkes’ failure to kill the King 415 years ago is still celebrated every year with the lighting of fireworks and bonfires.
Democracy is a funny thing.
How We All Lost The Internet – And Our Minds
As far as inflammatory politics go, though, the past few years in the USA have been wild. This week, with fireworks randomly popping off in the background, we tuned in to reports from the presidential election. Would the USA vote for change – or more of the same?
During this pandemic, we’ve longed for normality. When will things return to normal? Or when will we have a new normal that isn’t so harsh, lonely, and restrictive?
The desire for normality sits within a larger question many of us have asked for the last five years. When will our public discourse, our online conversations, and our attempts to be informed about what’s going on in the world return to normal?
Part of my mission as a parent during these years has been to point, over and over again, at things happening in the USA, the UK, and elsewhere and say, ‘This isn’t normal.’
This week, for example, I’ve tried to draw attention away from baseless claims online and towards video of concession speeches from past presidents, like Jimmy Carter, and George Bush Sr. Again and again, the mission has been to point out this current season is not normal; neither is the way people act, nor the way they speak to each other.
Cleaning Up A Toxic Mess
It’s not enough to call out the toxicity of this moment. We have to face the mess and accept the work needed to clean it up.
A few years ago, I had a small operation. A cyst had grown on my back and I had to get it cut out. It was a small, messy thing, but it needed to be dealt with.
This week it flared up again. Not as bad, but it was painful and gross, at its worst just as the election results started to come in.
I hadn’t slept well and was curled up on the sofa, the pain in my back matched by a searing headache and general weariness. After breakfast and a dose of Ibuprofen, the news came through that Pennsylvania was swinging in favour of Joe Biden. I got up from the sofa and felt something cold and wet down my back. The abscess had burst.
The headache had also gone. And I took what felt like the first deep breath in a long while. It felt so good to just exhale.
I had a shower then called my doctor. Apparently, this was normal. Maybe even preferable. ‘The body is doing its job,’ the doctor said in a reassuring, doctorly voice.
Skin In The Game
After the 2016 election, I wrote about why people outside the USA care so much about these presidential elections. The piece was sparked in part by an internet troll who said my opinion didn’t matter because I had no ‘skin in the game’.
Sure, I don’t live in the USA, or pay taxes, which means I don’t vote. But the skin-in-the-game argument is false because we all live in the glow of the USA. If the country flames out, we all get sunburn.
The USA has more than 800 military bases in over 70 countries and has dropped bombs on at least 24 countries since WW2. While the USA’s economic supremacy is dwindling, it still has, at least for a few more years, the world’s largest economy. Moreover, from arts to education, media to technology, the US still leads and inspires the rest of the world.
We have skin in this game.
Withering In The Shadow
It’s been a brutal few years. Most of my friends owe some part of their work to life online. Virtual communities feed real-world work. And we’ve all suffered in recent years trying to protect smaller and smaller corners of the internet, trying to make sure it’s still okay to talk openly and authentically about things like art and creativity.
For many, it’s just been too hard.
It’s not just about one man or one office. But high office casts a long shadow. And this culture we live in feels coarse and harsh by design.
The surface of our online platforms is cut up, damaged and unsafe. Like an ice-skating rink after a hockey game. We need to run a Zamboni over it. Make it safe to play on again.
I hope that in the months and years ahead we can get our internet back. We can feel more comfortable sharing our stories and the things we make – without constant vigilance, not just against trolls, but against the troll in chief.
And I hope we don’t have to find new ways to drown out the amplified noise as we try to hear the inspiring voices we need to hear.
Regaining Our Optimism
One of the many disheartening aspects of the last four years is the way optimism has been co-opted as a tool of populist propaganda. Dave Chappelle highlighted it during his SNL monologue. A wedge was driven between optimism and science, between optimism and technology, between optimism and justice.
But it’s hard to be motivated for change without optimism, without hope, that the effort will lead to results.
It’s easy to forget, but just a few years ago we were on a path to increasing earnestness. Cynicism and sarcasm were the markers of being old, out of touch, short on ideas.
Authenticity was everything.
Time To Breathe Free
I hope this can be the start of a season of change. I hope we can all exhale and clean up the mess. The USA still clearly has a lot more work to do. This election is a bit like a new year’s resolution, more like deciding to go on a diet rather than shopping for clothes in a new size.
But it’s a step towards change and a reason to feel some hope.
We all, around the world, have work to do to fix the way we speak to each other. To stop shouting. Or cutting people out of conversations. To take responsibility for the harsh things that are said and the unjust ways people are treated.
Fear makes us react in strange ways, and there is so much fear. The last five years have been marked by fear.
In a year’s time, there’ll be more fireworks. Another election is always around the corner. Will we really be able to ‘breathe free’ by then?