Friday, December 21, 2012

The Sandy Hook Mass Killling: A Meditation on Living in the Global Village

I have three children, ages 14, 13, and 10, and so of course my wife and I, like so many other families, have been talking with the children about the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.The conversations have made me think again about Marshall McLuhan's idea of the "global village," and the challenges that it poses in the 21st century for cognitively limited human beings.

When McLuhan wrote about the "global village" in the early 1960s, he was pointing out that in the pre-electronic age, people's main experience of the world involved those who lived nearby. Of course, other news filtered in by way of media and gossip. But the arrival of electronic technology creates a common set of experiences and perceptions. The telegraph provided much higher-speed connections about news events. Radio broadcasts of sporting events, music, entertainment shows, presidential speeches, and news meant that many people across the country were sharing the common experience of the broadcast as it happened. Movies and television then added a visual component, so that people from all over the country, and in some cases the world, began to share a common set of mental images of what events and people were important and what those events and people looked like--all based on highly edited clips of film.

Of course, we have gone far beyond McLuhan's global village of the 1960s. In the internet age, anyone can post digital images and sound to the world. When a 24/7 media environment combines with social media, we now live in the global neighborhood, or perhaps even in a global extended family.

Nothing in the evolutionary history of humans particularly prepares us to process the information from living in this information environment. For example, did you know that the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history was a bomb attack on a school in Michigan back in 1927? But at that time, there was no national outcry, no presidential proclamations, no screaming news headlines all over the country. In 1927, mass killings at a school in Michigan seemed so far away for most of America; in 2012, the deaths in Connecticut feel so close for most of us.

This shift in the content and immediacy of the information we receive, together with the experience of receiving it simultaneously across the country, creates a severe challenge for  how to think about it.
Daniel Kahneman, who shared the Nobel prize in economics back in 2002, write about how humans think in his recent book: Thinking, Fast and Slow. I haven't yet finished reading the book, and for a summary I'll turn here to a review by Andrei Shleifer that was published in December 2012 issue of the Journal of Economic Literature. Andrei writes:

"Kahneman’s book is organized around the metaphor of System 1 and System 2 .... As the title of the book suggests, System 1 corresponds to thinking fast, and System 2 to thinking slow. Kahneman describes System 1 in many evocative ways: it is intuitive, automatic, unconscious, and effortless; it answers questions quickly through associations and resemblances; it is nonstatistical, gullible, and heuristic. System 2 in contrast is what economists think of as thinking: it is conscious, slow, controlled, deliberate, effortful, statistical, suspicious, and lazy (costly to use)....  For Kahneman, System 1 describes “normal” decision making. System 2, like the U.S. Supreme Court, checks in only on occasion. Kahneman does not suggest that people are incapable of System 2 thought and always follow their intuition. System 2 engages when circumstances require. Rather, many of our actual choices in life, including some important and consequential ones, are System 1 choices, and therefore are subject to substantial deviations from the predictions of the standard economic model. System 1 leads to brilliant inspirations, but also to systematic errors."
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, my children's school district has been sending out emails and letters. One of them gave the statistics that there are 132,656 K-12 schools in the United States, and that including what happened last week, there have been 32 school shootings in the last 25 years. Of course, this is classic System 2 information, appealing to the conscious, controlled, statistical side of my brain. I find it hard even to read these kinds of statistics in the aftermath of the deaths; I can literally feel my brain wanting to escape back to automatic and effortless responses.

I find myself wondering about the possible effects of being a cognitively limited person living in a global neighborhood defined by the rapidly expanding capabilities of information and communications technology.

 One possible outcome of living in a global village--or a global neighborhood--is that one has a sense of access and connection to a far larger number of people and experiences. I prefer to live in a world where I can grieve, even in my separate and unattached way, to the people of Newtown. A global neighborhood can be a world of greater empathy and connection.

But another possible outcome of living in a global neighborhood is that, given the ability to connect to every act of evil that occurs, we will be exposed to many more acts of evil. Even if the overall quantity of evil is not rising, our limited cognitive facilities combined with the surrounding information and media environment will cause us to perceive evil as rising sharply. In other words, instead of the global neighborhood causing us to have broader access and connection to the full range of human and natural experience, instead we expand our access to the evil, violent, grotesque, and sentimental.

Yet another possible outcome is that we become numbed and overwhelmed by the by the wide range of input that we are receiving, such that all electronic input seems to have a similar quality. Real-world violence merges into movie violence merges into video-game violence. A personal putdown on a situation comedy is like a personal putdown between two talking heads on a news commentary show is like a personal putdown via social media. Reactions blur between the real and the fictional, the impersonal and the personal. We have ever-heightened attention to events for an ever-shorter window of time, until nothing means very much for very long--until it is stoked by a news hook like new information or an anniversary. 

I want to live in the global neighborhood, with a heightened sense of connection. I want to know what happened before the Sandy Hook killings, and what is happening since. (I confess that I have little taste for details of what happened during the actual episode.)

I don't want to be overwhelmed by the old, sad, true reality that there is always something terrible happening somewhere, just because it is now possible to consume a perpetual diet of such events. I don't want the details of the Sandy Hook killings to terrify my children, or to move me to tears (any more than they already have). I want to be a person who counts his blessings, not one who counts the world's disasters.

I want to have an attention span considerably longer and broader than the news cycle. I  don't want to be a person who reacts to the horror of children being killed in some knee-jerk, automatic, sentimentalized fashion, although the controlled and deliberate side of my mind sheers away from contemplating the horror too closely. I don't want to forget the challenges and joys of the children at the 132,000 other schools across the country. 

As a human being with limited cognitive abilities, I struggle with being who I want to be in the face of the Sandy Hook mass killing. I struggle in my roles as a parent, as a citizen, as a member of the human race.