The Rough and the Smooth, Part III: Amplification of Mayhem + Irrationality

I have all my normal, smooth mile splits for the 2013 Boston Marathon.  I’d finished long before two guys with crock pots in their backpack transformed the normal to extremely abnormal in a heartbeat.

At first, I experienced the impact at the human scale of my ears and eyes, and at the human distance of a few city blocks away.   Normal probabilities were on my side: a few hundred injured on a day crowded with hundreds of thousands meant that even within a stone’s throw of a terrorist attack, I never felt any immediate danger.  Indeed, when I heard the blast, from the basement of a nearby building, I thought someone had dropped something big and heavy on the floor above my head.  I emerged from the building to a world changed, but it wasn’t full of mayhem and trauma.  No, hundreds of people wandered around, confused and uncertain, separated from the site of the bombing by block of massive buildings.  Unless you were getting news from your phone, you had no way of knowing what had happened a few hundred yards away.

And therein lies the rub: disconnected from networks and media, we wandered, strangely unaware and unafraid.  Once connected by media, however, everything changed: the shock waves of the bombs spread almost instantly across networks and devices; the images flowed ceaselessly on every screen; and the direct effects on millions of people didn’t end until four days later, when the entire city of Boston shut down for a manhunt, ending in an old boat, in the back alley behind someone’s house.

Thus freed from the physical constraints of word-of-mouth, the daily cadence of newspaper presses, or much of any limiter at all, fear and anger, human heroism and villainy, suffering and melodrama, created and amplified global mayhem and spectacle. Therein lies the recipe for sowing disorder, for destabilizing and disrupting: media deliver endless access to experiences that activate our strongest human instincts—fight and flight, anger and fear, hope and despair–and we can’t resist.  Without the endlessly looping video to tap into, our emotions would simmer down and run out of fuel, and we’d more easily put events in a larger perspective of the rest of our lives.  Without emotions to inflame and without our instinct to be constantly alert to threats and anxiety, we would grow fatigued and move on, regardless of the drama.

The dynamics of an age when we’re constantly connected mean that our instincts are always available to be activated, and that we’re more vulnerable than ever to manipulation.  Small events sending out global shock-waves isn’t the same as a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane thousands of miles away.  It’s not about some indeterminate, complexity dynamic.  No, it’s the natural human survival instinct to be sensitive to threat, then amplified by media—paid for by clicks and ratings—that render local threats universal.

This is what it means to hack the attention economy (Boyd): it’s that our attention was designed to be hyper-vigilant to threat, and that makes us vulnerable to a media and political interests whose success depends on their ability to hold our attention.

We are deeply ambivalent about “going viral”: it’s the holy grail to marketeers and celebrities; media and technology companies try to monetize these ambitions; and intelligence services and state actors manipulate these dynamics to wage cyber war, exposing the extreme vulnerability of democracy under these conditions.

While my friends at home had the entire internet to figure out what had just happened in Boston, I was dependent on their texts to figure out if I was safe, which T lines were running, and what I could tell those families waiting for runners, diverted off the course a mile from the finish.  I got my information about the bombing from friends in Virginia on Reddit.  For a few, being so close to the bombings cost them dearly in blood and physical suffering.  For the rest of us, the effect was virtual, situated in space both physical and electronic.  In the subsequent weeks and months, we all felt how easy it is to sow disorder and spread anxiety, and every time we pass through a metal detector at a parade or outdoor festival, we are reminded how hard it is for anything to go back to normal.

Mayhem and fear scale.  Calm and mindfulness don’t.  A single crockpot can transform the normality of every other crockpot, when it blows up at a major sporting event, much the way Taleb’s single black swan can can redefine an entire species, if the species had previously been defined as entirely white.  And now it can happen unobstructed by the barriers that had previously defined the human local (mountains and rivers and oceans; barriers of language and culture; the time it takes to travel or for mail to arrive; etc).  It happens at the velocity of media, of signals across a network.  Don’t fool yourself that this future is speculative.  It’s happening.  Where?  Right in front of you.  Too fast for you to see, at the speed of cyborg neural networks and in markets moved by algorithmic trades that happen in microseconds.  Threats are a million times faster than you can react to, unconstrained by obstacles like geography and compatibility, or by the limited bandwidth of human senses and communication that used to isolate dynamics in localities and slow their flow around the globe (and all the while, you’re told the threat is people of this skin color or than religion).  Black swans are no longer single instances that defy categorization while remaining local, swimming in a lake somewhere, disproving all swans are white, without actually changing the swan universe.  In a cyber world of zeroes and ones, white can become black with a single flip of a switch, and massive changes can be completed before anyone is even aware that they’ve begun.

In this world, the question isn’t “What’s going to happen?” but rather “What just happened?”  It’s not about seeing things coming, but about how we respond to them when they do.

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