Escapism, Integrity, and Context

I woke up this past Saturday morning to a headline in the London Times, "World Powers Prepare for Attack On Iran." Given the climate following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iranian nuclear capability, and the ensuing ransacking of the British embassy, the news is somewhat unsurprising. Political sabre rattling, particularly with a view to Iran, is not uncommon. 

And yet, something felt odd about the Times' headline. With Israel ramping up military maneuvers, and Britain closing the Iranian embassy, it is not that the title of the article is incorrect. It is slightly sensationalist, but that is not surprising for a mainstream newspaper. What bothered me about the article was that I felt so sheltered from it.

During the week, I live in a world governed by Google Reader. In this world, the only socio-political news comes from various RSS feeds from The Atlantic. As such, I see long-form journalism discussing war with Iran, and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of an assault, but I am wholly shielded from the full-extent of the situation.

Before the question arises, I do read the news everyday. I get both the Guardian and the Times on my iPad, and I frequent various news websites. Having said that, I have little time to process and absorb the news that I read. Frankly, most news, regardless of the gravity, begins to blur together after a while. While it may say something negative about me, I would choose to spend my time reading something about literary criticism or design over any sensationalist, and overwhelmingly depressing news any day of the week.

The juxtaposition of serious world news and the self-contained mishmash of business-centric journalism and social media became clear to me today for the first time, and it prompted a rather jarring moment of realization for me.

Having closed the Times' article, I moved to Google Reader and was immediately confronted with a handful of articles from Hypebeast and Lifehacker. To be clear, I moved from an article emphasizing the political brinkmanship being carried out by Israel, Britain, and Iran, to seeing images of products and articles discussing the New York Times' new commenting system.

While that may not sound odd to you, I cannot even begin to articulate how strange it felt for me. I had leaped from a world of political strife into a world of unfazed consumerism with the mere stroke of a key. My eyes shifted from images of mid-air fighter jet refueling over Greece, to images of designer clothes and web design.

I think that is a strong indictment of the culture in which we live. The world that we all too easily take for granted. 

In decades past, such political news would be greeted with sincere reflection from a high number of the news-reading populace. And that may indeed be the same now, but with the rise of the Internet, we now have a ubiquitous bubble into which we can bury our heads, and dull our senses.

Yes, the Iranian situation is becoming increasingly dire, but Facebook bought Gowalla yesterday. Let's focus on that.

Maybe I'm being unfair, but I just find the discrepancy between consumerism and business, and the world of geopolitics to be growing. Where the newspaper reader may've once read an article about the potential for impending war, and then moved on to read some other goings on in the world, there was no capacity to completely shut it out. Today we have so many ways to hide.

Maybe that's a good thing? Maybe not? Maybe people don't want to read about politics in their technology blogs? Maybe people need that source of escape?

Regardless, one month after launching this blog, I have come to realize the importance of remaining in touch with the real world. It is increasingly easy to become all too entangled in the consumer world, and it is easy to feign ignorance to the political trends that surround us, and that should really not be the case.

In the morning, I read the news, I check my emails, and I skim through Twitter on my MacBook. Mere minutes later, I pull out my iPhone and check the same things again in the elevator on the way to my car. When I have a down moment at the office I do the same. There's rarely a moment in which I allow my brain to turn away from the enticing culture I've erected around me on the Internet, and that's a dangerous thing.

As with most content mediums before it, the Internet has become a source of escape for many, but the Internet is capable of so much more. The interconnection of people does not need to be reduced to "checking in" when arriving somewhere, following celebrity gossip, or incessantly chatting on Twitter -- it can also be used for intellectual dialog. As we saw in the Arab Spring, people took to the Internet as a means for sharing important messages. Onlookers in the West were quick to highlight the power of the Internet, and how Facebook has changed the world. There is some merit in such an argument, but I think it cheapens the nature of the conflict. Individuals sought to spread awareness, and to communicate. That is nothing new, it was just done using a new medium. And yet, news media seemed to use it as some sort of tacit justification of the perceived importance of social media. The use of Facebook in a humanitarian situation suddenly ratifies our apparent need to "check-in" and share status updates about our breakfast.

Worse is the reasoning in covering some technology news. For instance, on Saturday, Engadget posted an article highlighting the Syrian regime's banning of the iPhone. Zachary Lutz writes the following:

As Syrians come to grips with new economic sanctions against the country, the banning of the iPhone is, sadly, certain to escalate the unrest.

This perversion of news has taken serious matters and cast them askew. Focusing on the implications on BBM or the iPhone without looking at the larger, more serious picture comes across as irresponsible and immature. Sure it's important to cover the news, and yes, this is technology-related, but tacking onto one aspect undermines the seriousness of the situation as whole.

Perhaps I'm wrong. I'm new and I'm naive. I'm young and I'm unaware. But at the same time, I cannot help but think that our writing, and the world we see on the Internet is beginning to be diluted by the stifled experiences we elicit from social media and consumerism. There's nothing wrong with consumerism or social media, but any degree of reliance upon it, and the apparent inability we have to have a quiet moment sans-technology is something we should all reflect upon. Do not take the easy route, and escape the cultivated world you have built on the Internet, take a moment to reflect. Look at the world around you, read the news and digest it. Doing so takes more integrity than any iPhone app or status update.

Given the political and economic climate in which we live, we could all use some context. What we least need is a further means for escape.