Your smartphone has seven million times the memory and 100,000 times the processing power of the guidance computer onboard Apollo 11. Have you wondered what we’re collectively doing with all that power? Are we spreading more heat than light, or finding constructive solutions?
These are important questions, given the range of hugely significant challenges - and opportunities - we face. And especially so in the age of COVID-19, where we rely so heavily on digital communications to maintain friendships, stay informed and explore schools of opinion.
On present evidence, it seems many of us believe that the best reaction is an over-heated one, whatever the debate at hand. Calm and carefully reasoned deliberation appears to have been devalued, in deference to what I’m going to call a “hot response culture” (HRC).
This is most obvious in the world of social media, where hyper-emotional responses often appear to reign supreme, especially on contentious but important issues.
In the UK, online conversations about Brexit and, more recently, gender and race illustrate this well. (More on this shortly.) Doubtless, the imminent US election will provide further proof of the potency of the HRC and its capacity to entrench prejudices.
According to several studies over the past decade, we may have become so enamoured with emotional over-reaction that we’re permanently changing the way our brains work.
In her book Stop Overreacting, therapist Dr Judith Siegel used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track how the brain diverges from its normal functions during an emotional over-reaction.
She found that in a normal reaction the areas of the brain responsible for judgement and self-awareness light up at the same time as those responsible for fight-or-flight reactions. However, when we overreact, only the lower function areas fire up, which means we're in danger of acting without proper judgement.
In line with this, some neuroscientists express concern that a cultural trend toward emotional immaturity, combined with rapid response technology, will permanently alter the way our brains process events.
Some predict that we may soon become a generation desperately in need of empathy and wisdom, but unable to express either. These warnings have been in place for several years, but we are arguably much closer to this dystopian scenario than we’ve ever been.
During the Brexit debate, social media provided a useful platform for discussions about the pros and cons of a British departure from the EU. Over time, as confirmation bias and information loops kicked it, people grew more entrenched in their beliefs and less likely to respond cordially to even respectful dissent.
Once the first phase of Brexit was initiated, the ardour of online debate cooled relatively quickly. Yet the HRC hasn’t lost its heat. It has simply found new points of focus.
Today, discussions about race and gender have seen some public figures in the arts and elsewhere being cajoled, disowned and threatened. Why? Because their views don’t sync with the norms proposed by self-appointed cultural arbiters.
Ten years ago, academics lay at least part of the blame for our shortening emotional fuse squarely at the feet of reality television.
"People can be seduced into thinking that [overreacting] is the most common way of reacting to life when it's not." So said Rodney Carter, a professor of communication studies and government at the University of Texas.
At the height of reality TV’s popularity, he noted that the genre “hyped all the emotions”. Exposure to a steady diet of reality TV, he claimed, left people feeling that they couldn’t just be happy, they had to be ecstatic. They couldn’t just be upset, either - they needed to be “violently angry”.
It seems we’ve learned little about the dangers of over-reaction since then. Dr Carter’s comments are just as applicable to today’s social media - perhaps even more so.
As with reality TV, even mild exposure to social media can leave us, on a subconscious level at least, feeling that the world is a more coarse and threatening place than it is. As a result, we may react with fight-and-flight, but without judgement or self-awareness.
In the post-COVID age - when it finally arrives - this could represent a major threat to the mental health of children. Traditional teaching methods will give way to blended education, with digital lessons augmenting but not replacing the classroom. Children will spend even more time online than they do now. The coarsening of online public discourse could lead to a rise in anxiety levels among the young - something that’s already a concern among mental health experts.
The hot response culture seems to demand that we favour over-reaction over moderated consideration even when it comes to quite simple ethical questions.
A case in point: a British lecturer was recently fired by a university tribunal for expressing views that were considered to be potentially racist. His views, as they were reported in the press, relied heavily on racial stereotypes. His opinions were very clumsily expressed - a fact he acknowledged - and in terms of their substance, reflected that he should seriously re-think. Unwise they certainly were, especially when he made them after being told they could be problematic. Yet the tribunal dismissed him because his words could "potentially" cause damage.
Was there no other avenue open to the tribunal? Let’s be clear: his remarks were not adjudged to be definitively racist, only potentially so. This is perhaps a small but important step into Minority Report territory, where we adjudge someone a law-breaker before any crime or misbehaviour has been committed.
My point is not that social media are the root of all evil. Far from it - these platforms have provided great benefit, enabling us to pursue collaborative innovation. If we are now closer to solving pressing global problems than we were a decade ago, it is partly because of social networking. The internet is the major connection point for researchers currently charged with finding COVID-19 vaccines.
My point is that we gain nothing and lose a great deal when we congregate too quickly behind barricades; when we shout before we speak and fail to think before we do either.
Granted, the COVID-19 lockdown was traumatic for many people and the unfolding pre-vaccine transition period carries anxieties of its own. Some people find it cathartic to gather in protest given the privations of the past four months.
However, in the realm of worldviews and ideologies, we should not replace conciliation with a desire for outright conquest. Whether they adhere to our way of thinking or not, other people are more than the sum of their ideas. Human beings are often far more nuanced in their thinking than forums like social media will reflect.
Issues involving race and gender are hugely important. Much will flow from how we resolve the questions locked within them. It is because they are so weighty that we should resist the temptation to take the easy route, resorting only to either “cancel culture” or outright, instant vilification.
If we believe that someone else’s ideas need to change, we must acknowledge that this won’t happen without an act of will on their part. We encourage this through engaging, explaining and attempting to persuade, with a mixture of empathy, reason, conviction and compassion.
Revolutions, it is said, eat their own young. Leaders or would-be leaders of highly flammable rebellions often later find themselves rebelled against. They are burned by the very fire they set alight.
Why is this? Because shouting, or issuing threats, provides catharsis only for the shouters. With even the most righteous of causes, such as the struggle against racism and the need to seek a common understanding on gender, being loud on its own does nothing to convince others that ideas have merit in themselves.
Heat, however vociferous, eventually dies down. Only ideas born from and carried forward with the light of reason, conviction and compassion will survive.