A recent New Yorker Magazine cover said it all. Titled “The Cloud,” it featured a Magritte-like picture of a man in a bowler hat whose face, and therefore his identity, is totally obscured by huge clouds, which also surround him. The sky is beautifully blue but vacant. He is Everyman, lost in the fog of modern life.
The cover resonated for me because I’ve been thinking a lot about the new gestalt, the often unseen but deeply felt forces that are affecting most, if not all of us as we struggle to keep up with, understand and function in a 21st century world as we are catapulted toward an unknown, and increasingly unsteady, future.
There are three phenomena that I believe are affecting us more powerfully than we may realize.
The first is our sense of political despair. Irrespective of party affiliation, I think a great collective sigh – a recognized sign of stress – is being exhaled as we drag ourselves toward another election and the inevitable political post-mortem once we cast our ballots. The “silly season” as Barack Obama calls the interminable lead-up to November voting, has us all feeling averse to one more night of MSNBC, CNN or Fox News. We’re fed up with hyperbole, lies and distortions, no matter their source. The lack of facts, civil discourse and meaningful analysis has even politicos and news junkies running to Netflix for relief.
But the larger point is this: We no longer believe our legislative or judicial branches know how to do their jobs (and many of us are terrified that a new executive branch might not either.) The thought that something might actually happen, through bi-partisan negotiation, to solve the problems and reduce the threats of modern life for regular folks is no longer part of our psyche. We have lost confidence that the political process can save us from the abyss and that is a terrible burden to bear. So we slump further into quiet despair, wondering where our energy and enthusiasm has gone.
Another force contributing to our malaise is information overload. As one friend put it, “You’re either caught in the spider web of social media and Internet technology where you get eaten up, or you’re stuck in old, pre-tech cobwebs where you’ll soon be swept away.” The fact is, there is only so much time, energy and patience in a day. Who can read all the newspapers, magazines, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts (let alone comment on them)? Yet, we feel compelled to do at least some surfing and sharing lest we feel completely out of touch and unnoticed. After all, aren’t we all co-opted into have our workplace successes, intellectual vigor, and fabulous senses of humor showcased in today’s competitive world before we become yesterday’s online detritus?
Related to this rush to be noticed and relevant is the deep fear, perhaps the knowledge, that technology is rendering us increasingly invisible — and deep down, don’t we all worry that if we can’t be seen, we don’t exist? Our growing sense of isolation from each other by virtue of emails, tweets, electronic commuting and the like, surely must be as palpable to others as it is to me as I sit here, alone in my office, writing this commentary. Sure, it’s nice to work in my pajamas in a quiet space that I don’t have to drive to, but how I miss the camaraderie of occasional meetings, work break schmoozing among friends, simple human contact! Nowadays, no one even responds to my emails unless they want something. Has human courtesy and connection become a luxury we can no longer afford in our Internet driven lives?
It is my contention that deep down, we all have a sense of the political ennui (i.e., our powerlessness) enveloping us, as well as the plethora of information threatening to overwhelm us like an Internet tsunami, and the isolation that renders us invisible. Bundled together, these three phenomena suggest a vision of a frightening future in which spider webs or cobwebs devour or inhibit us. (No wonder so many of us are on anti-depressants!) That vision is unacceptable to me. So I just have to believe that we can sweep away all those murky webs lurking in the dark corners of our communal house and that somehow we will raise the blinds to let the sun shine in again before it’s too late.
In the meantime I can but hope for happier covers on my weekly magazines.