Dystopia Now Redux: Opportunistic Indignation and the Rush to Judgment

“…what if we all behaved as if we were being watched? It would lead to a more moral way of life. Who would do something unethical or illegal or immoral if they were being watched?” — David Eggers, The Circle

“Who am I to judge?” —Pope Francis I*

Our media effect us in unseen ways…

Who will watch the watchers?

Who will watch the watchers?

I think I liked the Internet more back when it was an unexplored wilderness of untapped potential. Now that it’s a fully domesticated homeland, umm… maybe not so much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love ordering merchandise from my lap instead of going to the mall. I do think that having instantaneous access to most of the world’s recorded music is a worthy marvel (even as the “content providers” continue to rail against the emerging business model). And I love having all of my documents synchronized so that I can open them anywhere, on any device – even if I know that means that the Corporate Intelligence Complex can also open and read them at will.

But I do try to tune my antennae to sub-surface effects and tendencies, and some of the things I think I’m detecting now are, well, a tad disturbing – even for an old guy who likes to humor himself that he is readily adaptable to new technologies.

So what follows is said, hopefully, with all the deference that a self-ware junkie should have for his own needle. These are the observations of somebody who has been “online” in one form or another more than thirty years. I have personally seen the digital universe evolve from 300 baud dial-up and a prehistoric service called “The Source” (that was before Compuserve, which was before AOL…), to the global network of networks at 25Mbps. So maybe I have some idea whereof I speak.

Now this network has woven itself inextricably into almost every facet of our modern lives. Indeed, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show the dominant theme was “The Internet of Things,” which apparently means having the your computers connected to everything from your automobile to your shoes and socks.

But before our self-driven vehicles ferry us off to the Internet of Things, this is what seems to be happening: We are becoming insufferably judgmental. Amid all the LOL cats, cute kids doing funny things, “holy shit it’s winter!” apocalyptic weather commentary and everybody-is-a-political-pundit, etc., social media have given us all a medium by which we can mount our chariots of righteousness and hurl our flaming spears of judgment.

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when I picked up on the reaction to an unfortunate pre-holiday incident at the Morton’s steakhouse here in Nashville.

What perplexed me about that whole scenario was the rush to pile-on — the branding of an entire institution with the inexplicable actions of a single individual. As I said at the time, somebody fucked up, and the infinite troll parade used that as an opportunity to chase the whole company off the bridge.

All kinds of people – most of whom, I’d wager, have never been to a Morton’s, would probably not think about going to a Morton’s, or give Morton’s a second thought – chimed in with their insistence that they would never go to a Morton’s.

You’re going to #boycottmortons? That was, literally, a hashtag meme. Well excuse me…do you even know the meaning of the word? Not feasting on an overpriced steak at Morton’s is not an act of civil disobedience.

What it is is a new form of public shaming that I’m calling “opportunistic indignation.” And it’s starting to show up a lot.

Shortly after the Morton’s incident, the whole “Duck Dynasty” thing erupted. I tried to avert my eyes from that one, it seemed so absurdly familiar, but it was hard to avoid; everybody had an opinion one way or another. Either Bill Robertson was a jerk for expressing his opinion, or his network acted capriciously for ‘suspending’ him from his show.

But there it was again, the opportunistic indignation: “I’ve never watched an episode of Duck Dynasty, I was never gonna watch an episode of Duck Dynasty, but now that this furry serial mallard assassin has said something I don’t agree with, I’m really never gonna watch his stupid show….”

For a week or so, we all got to express our outrage one way or another. And then we moved on to the next social atrocity.

That would be poor Justine Sacco – a PR operative from England who tweeted something ostensibly racist before leaving on a business trip to South Africa. When she arrived at her destination she discovered she’d set the world afire with her remark; her plane was greeted by virtual torches and pitchforks.

That’s how the world works now: You publicly reveal some half-formed thought, and then you get off an airplane and discover that the greeting party is a lynch mob.

Has anybody thought for a fleeting moment, “boy I’m glad I didn’t say that”? Whatever happened to “There but for the grace of God….”

By now my antennae are tuned in, and I’m starting to see it all over the place. And then just before Christmas I found myself in the middle of a scene that could have come straight out of The Circle:

The Friday before Christmas — in a rare instance of poor planning — I decided that was the day to venture off to the Green Hills Mall. Apparently everybody in Nashville had the same idea. There was no place to park at the mall. There may have been no place to park in all of Nashville.

After driving around the parking lot for about 20 minutes I finally decided to park in a space that was big enough for my car but not really a parking space. I went inside, bought the gift I came for, and left. Total time in the mall: roughly equal to the 20 minutes I’d spent looking for a parking space.

When I returned to my — admittedly, inappropriately parked — vehicle, I saw that the car in the — yes, actual — parking space next my mine was occupied by its driver, who was doing something with his cell phone. When he started his engine, I presumed he was about to leave.

I needed into get to the back seat of my car, and didn’t want to trigger an unwanted encounter between my car’s door and his moving vehicle. So I waited a minute or so while he sat in the car, still fiddling with his phone, the engine running. Finally I gestured to him to get his attention. He rolled down the window and I asked,

“Are you about to pull out?”

To which he replied, “You know that’s not a parking space, right?”

“Yes, I know. So I’m leaving.” What else could I do at that point but vacate the space?

“Well, I’m in a parking space, so I’m not in any hurry…”

OK, fine. Whatever. So I wrestled my parcel onto the floor in the back seat, and got in the driver’s seat.

That’s when things got really bizarre: I looked up and noticed that Mr. Parking Lot Vigilante was pointing his cell phone at me. He was video recording me as I settled into my car and got ready to leave the garage. And then he continued to film me as he followed me out of the garage.

Suddenly I was a character in a scene in “The Circle” and I’m wondering if the guy is going to use my license plate to track me down and post a video of my egregious holiday parking transgression on the Internet for all to see and condemn. I wondered what the hashtag would be… #parkingviolator? #evildriver? #holidaymiscreant? I don’t think any of those are trending…

So that’s what I’m starting to see: opportunistic indignation and judgment in every comment. Does it look like that to you? See if you can tune your own antennae. Let me know if you think we’re becoming a culture of socially-mediated judgement, constantly watching others with the expectation that the watching will produce a more “acceptable” form of behavior like “The Circle” imagines.

Just please, don’t judge me for being so judgmental.

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*I never thought I’d live to see the day that I’d be quoting a pope in one of these missives, but…. there it is. We live in interesting times.

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This post is a sequel to an earlier post entitled “Dystopia Now.”