The Bubble Effect

The Bubble Effect

The United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, often feels more like the land of the isolated and home of the cowardly tweet. We are more divided than at any point in my lifetime. It seems to be more than a mere lack of unity as an expression of national boredom. No, society is increasingly fragmented in deeper, more complex ways than at any point since the Civil Rights Era. Social structures quake as spreading fissures splinter national identity along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, political ideology, educational background, socioeconomic class, and even traditions. The resulting fiefdoms are profoundly fragile as individual identities overlap, causing tension within. 

Sure, these have always been sticking points of disharmony to varying degrees. In fact, one could convincingly argue the stress created by pluralistic differences has been the thread used to stitch together the very fabric of social progress in the United States since the beginning. Conflicts emerged in opposition to oppression, racism, sexism, worker’s rights, and competition for limited resources. And we are — or should be — proud of those conflicts, for they symbolize hard-won victories of the human spirit and goodness, and, yes, social justice. However, it has been quite some time since we have witnessed the level of vitriolic rhetoric, hatred, and vengeance seen so regularly today. It has also been quite some time since we celebrated together how far we have come in under 250 years. And as a consequence, Americans are retreating into their own private worlds, increasingly detached from those who are unlike themselves. 

Individualism and the subsequent stratification of society has always shaped Western culture, and contemporary times are no different. But in years past, the concept of life in a bubble was reserved for the elites. In that regard, times have indeed changed. To be sure, in many ways the post-modern aristocracy is much like its pre-Enlightenment cousin. The nobility, although a mostly elected ruling class today, operates within the power structures of a bloated government while continuing to take orders from the clergy. Only today’s bishops serve the Church of Money and Fame, for who could argue that the deification of the dollar has not shaped current social and political realities? Yet, the peasantry, the rest of us who do the majority of the working and buying and living and dying in this country, have only recently gained access to life in the bubble. We used to be excluded from that paradise. 

Everyday Americans are now born in a bubble structured by the ubiquity of technology. Many do not know anything else. All their needs are met within. They need not communicate with outsiders — news, education, and even general services are all consumed from preferred outlets that reinforce distinctions of worldview. The very dissemination of information, bought and sold to be sure, is a process of encoding ideas into the differential vernaculars within the different types of social bubbles. Ideas like privilege, racism, diversity, nationalism, and history, along with many others, mean one thing in one bubble and something completely different in another, galvanizing disconnections. 

A tornado of money and technology has left in its wake a barren environment in which people with fascinating and profound differences surround each other, yet the politics of identity keep them from being able to acknowledge any level of similarity or sameness of experience. And the commodification of victimhood has made enemies of good people by normalizing a race to the top of Mt. Marginalization in an effort to secure the most cultural capital, decreasing social stability in the process. 

Anger and rage are the most popular currency, the only communication between bubbles. The objective is to deplatform, silence, and destroy the opposition. Purveyors of thoughts, words, or ideas that do not perfectly align with every intersection of perceived injury, oppression, or objectification are banished from their bubbles. No discussion takes place, no reciprocation within a marketplace of ideas. Dissension is received as a personal attack, violence against the sanctity of the bubble, and therefore, must be punished. Nothing is sacred. Even humor is constrained, forced to pay the toll of scrutiny to the self-appointed arbiters of bubble culture — they stand at the gate armed and ready to defend against nonconformity. 

Our bubbles started out as safe spaces, the environments where we could decompress and allow the anxiety of living in this hateful world to settle. They have now become prisons, holding us hostage, insulating us from those competing ideas that would expose the flaws in our own. That safety has crippled us, stolen authentic emotional experience and replaced it with a kind of manufactured emotion that has systematically removed empathy, concern, and compassion for those unlike ourselves, those who reside in different bubbles. Legitimate attempts to understand, even to love and accept those who are different than us or to bear the weight of their struggles or even to allow them to understand us is far too risky. Real love is too messy, and the fear of rejection from our own kind too real, so we hide away from uncomfortable realities, too afraid to be vulnerable. After all, our own bubbles are strange enough. But doesn’t this bubble effect feel somehow wrong? It does to me. 

Social Needia

Social Needia

When I came to prison, it was commonplace for people to meet up at someone’s house for a get-together to watch the Super Bowl or simply hang out and converse. When it was someone’s birthday and they lived quite a distance away, it was standard practice to call and wish them a happy birthday. In fact, if you can imagine, people called their friends and family members on a regular basis to just catch up with one another, check on those they love and let them know they care. As time and technology would have it, this now appears to be an era of the past that may never be resurrected.

The advent of prominent social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to name a few, have revolutionized the way our society communicates and interacts even with those who are closest to us. This is a foreign concept to someone like me who has been incarcerated for 16 years and found camera phones to be space age technology when I started my sentence. But this is the way of the world and it will inevitably become a normal part of my daily life when I’m released in 2021. But I say this with some reluctance as I can readily see the disadvantages that accompany this luxury.

It’s obviously a great thing to be able to connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise due to distance or inaccessibility attributed to busy schedules that include work, kids, and daily life affairs. Social media outlets allow grandparents to see pictures of their grandkids as they grow up, and friends to keep up with the lives of their friends and acquaintances from high school that they likely would not otherwise. The many advantages of social media are uncontestable, but at what cost? What do we give up by having these advantages at our fingertips?

It appears that so many in today’s society have become overly reliant on social media for their “social interaction,” and have given up on or severely limited connecting with people face to face. They find themselves so engrossed in their Facebook pages that it no longer matters to go to Grandma’s house with the kids and sit with her for a couple hours to catch up, let her see and hug her grandkids, and show her that she’s worth your time. We no longer feel the need to court those who capture our interests at the mall or grocery store because we know it’s much easier to join a dating site or meet someone on Facebook and cut to the chase, have our immediate interests met with very little effort, never mind taking the time to get to know someone for who they really are. We assume sending a text to say we’re thinking of someone near and dear to us adequately conveys that sentiment, but we lose the tone and sincerity that can only come by them hearing our voice. We forfeit the opportunity to look them in their eyes when talking to them, allowing them to reciprocate and connect with us on a personal level when we communicate through social media. We lose the intimacy and personability that can only be transmitted through old fashioned face to face (or at least voice to voice) contact.

For me personally, I will admit that for years I was not a fan of the prospect of using these sites when I got out – until about two months ago. Because I will immediately look to brand myself as a credible public speaker upon my release, I would be a foolish, arrogant caveman to go at it without utilizing these tools. However, a part of me still very much opposes the idea of relying on them for personal contact with those I consider loved ones because I don’t want to depend on them for that sacred connection. During all my years in prison, I have called them and had stimulating conversations, filling them in on the latest with me and finding out what’s been going on in their busy lives. We laugh, cry, and everything in between. Would we have gotten this through Facebook? Why give this up just because my circumstances will change? I can still preserve these special moments by operating the way I have for all these years when it comes to connecting with those closest to me and even with casual friends. Sure, some may think I’m weird when I call them just to chat, but that’s okay because something tells me when they hang up, they’ll appreciate that I did. Something about physical (visual or audible) human contact makes us feel good on a soulful level. This could never be replicated through a screen and keyboard.

This is not to disparage anyone who finds great social value in the various opportunities provided by social media outlets, but the dangers of isolating and disconnecting more and more from physical human contact cannot be overstated. Perhaps there are also many who have found a happy medium between both forms of interaction. I certainly hope to be counted among them.