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My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers

1 killed in shooting at New Hampshire hospital, suspect dead: Police / Headline from the Google News app on my phone

The MAPS app on my phone tells me New Hampshire is about eighteen hundred miles from Beaumont, Texas. New Hampshire is so far away and out of my thoughts I didn't even know there is a “p” in Hampshire. Yet, someone was murdered there in the last day or two and I know about it. If I choose, I can immerse myself in the details of the crime and, within fifteen or twenty minutes, be a veritable expert on the subject. I would argue this expansion of information – not knowledge, but information – these last twenty years or so is a core reason so many of us walk around this twenty-first century world with a distinct feeling of unease; why we have a gnawing feeling everything is going straight to you-know-where.

Some eighteen years ago a young woman named Natalie Holloway disappeared while on a senior trip and was never found. To my knowledge, I have never read an article about Ms. Holloway, have never watched a documentary about Ms. Holloway or had the slightest interest in pursuing information regarding her life or disappearance. Yes, I acknowledge what happened to her was tragic, but tragedy is in no short supply just outside my front door. Yet, I know the state Ms. Holloway was from, where she was when she disappeared and have some idea who authorities think is responsible for the disappearance and know the suspect was recently in the news and, basically, confessed to her murder.

Virtually every sensational, infamous, sleazy, scandalous and tragic event that unfolds around this planet appears in one form or other, literally, in my back pocket. That, folks, is a fundamental change in our world in very recent times. It's not like going from the horse and buggy to the automobile. Yes, times are always changing and, yes, progress is often accompanied by the inconvenient and the unfair, but this is different. Let's face it, the world has always been full of the sensational, infamous, sleazy, scandalous and tragic   Only now, we get to see it in the 3-D, twenty-four hours a day, no matter where we may be. Human beings have always had an appetite for such stories, but now they can be indulged at a university research level and our power to resist the inclination seems non-existent.

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist and author (among other things). He is famous for books such as The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now. He argues, quite logically and convincingly, the world is not getting worse in modern times, it's getting better. He points to areas such as violence and poverty to exemplify the ways society is improving. Both are in decline on a global level. I don't doubt his findings for a minute. He argues the modern population should be optimistic about the future.

But I don't feel optimistic. Do you?

I come from a rural area. When I was a kid, we had one TV and three channels. We received transmissions from networks via a tall iron antenna that was mounted outside our back door. If reception was not clear, I went outside and turned the antenna until my dad yelled from inside that the picture was clear. There were no twenty-four hours news channels, sports channels, cooking channels, cartoon channels or music channels (to name but a few examples). We watched Uncle Walter (ask your parents or grandparents, kids) and went on with our lives. Watergate was out there. Vietnam was out there.  They were front and center to be sure. That said, if a person was murdered in a hospital in New Hampshire, we didn't know about it. That was a good thing. We had our own adversities and challenges, plus Vietnam and Watergate. That was enough.

This might sound like a diatribe against modernity and, as is usually the case, younger generations. It is not. The modern age as we know it was brought to bear on the year 2023 over time by many of those same folks who watched television via tall metal poles back in the day. The much-maligned millennials have virtually no responsibility for the world we see around us. It just turns out they were the first to have to grow up in it. You give it a try.

So, is Steven Pinker correct? Should we be optimistic about the future?

I would argue no. If anything has been made clear by the last one hundred fifty or so years (and certainly the last twenty or so) it's the part of our brains that develops technology far outpaces all other parts of our brains. Sure, it's possible to see a story about a tragedy on the other side of the planet (not talking about war here) and put in its proper perspective, but it was a lot easier for humans to create the technology to deliver the story than it is for us to ignore it.

Of course, that story is then followed by another tragic story, then a seedy story, then a greedy story, then...well, you get the point. If we could walk away maybe we'd have a chance, but we can't. It's right there in our back pockets and purses and nightstands and the tables at Whataburger. And it's not going away. It's going to keep coming at us faster and more furious and some of it, well, we won't even know if it's real.

I think the fate that awaits us is not waiting at all. It's happening right now. Seconds and minutes at a time. It is the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People used to die from tooth infections, great plagues wiped out entire populations, infant mortality was mind boggling. People used to open and close letters with phrases like “hope this finds you in good health” because health was uppermost in their minds. They could reasonably expect to die in their forties. A bad cold could go sideways in a hurry.

Yet, for all of that, in a world where we wiped out polio and mobilized to defeat Nazis and sent human beings into outer space and created jobs to ensure our freezers are full and the A/C is always buzzing and you can visit Aunt Lucille in Spokane in a matter of hours...for all of that, because we know the intimate details about the downfall of complete strangers and all the tawdry details of human beings we've never heard of, we're convinced we live in the worst times ever.

And because of that, we do.


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