Developing Healthy Discussion in the Time of Social Media

I blame the Mysterious Cities of Gold, this charming Japanese-French co-produced animation which charted the adventures of a band of ragtag children and adults in the new world, the Americas in the early 16th century, made me think differently about past civilisations. Was there such a place as Mu? Did the Olmecs, Mayans, Incas and Aztecs have a profound knowledge of the world which was beyond our comprehension?

Searching in the Ancient Civilisation sections of my local book repository, Barking library, I found the works of Erich Von Daniken, author of bestsellers like Chariots of the Gods. In his bestselling books from the 70s he postulates that aliens brought advanced technology and knowledge to the humans. Were aliens really the reason that these ancient civilisations had such profound and deep knowledge of the cosmos and achieved feats of technological marvels that we would have trouble recreating in this modern age? I blame Von Daniken!

Or do I blame the glut of quasi-science/alternative history offered by authors like Graham Hancock, Maurice Cotterell, Robert Bauval at al. In the 90s and early 00's they sold many millions of books and offered 'evidence' and 'scientific proof' of the origins and age of the pyramids at Giza, how they lined up to Orion's belt and how the different shafts within the pyramids pointed at specific constellations in the sky. The technological know-how and mathematics involved would be way more advanced than scientists and archaeologists would ever have suspected of such an ancient civilisation. The fact that the Mayans had developed a calendar and 2012 was potentially the end of the world or at least the deadline of a seismic change shook me, and millions of people who came up with doomsday scenarios. As for Atlantis, did it exist but due to the shift in global temperatures it sunk without a trace under the oceans and due to the shifting continental plates might now be under the ice in Antarctica? I blame Graham Hancock and the quasi-scientists of the 90s and 00s.

Then David Icke told me it was a massive government conspiracy by an elite few shape shifting blood drinking aliens from another dimension who want to keep the world silenced and take our resources for themselves. I blame David Icke.

Then I read The Da Vinci Code, the international bestselling fiction book which took the premise of the bestselling book by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors of The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, which provided 'evidence' that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene and the bloodline continued in France. Was there a secret society protecting the lineage whilst another group, maybe the Illuminati, Bilderberger or Freemasons were seeking to control this ancient bloodline for their own nefarious means? Well I blame Dan Brown!

... And then I realised, there was a pattern emerging here.

We started off with the whimsical (MCOG) moved onto the fantastical (God was an alien), moved onto the 'analytical' (pseudo-science), then the dreadfully macabre (bloodsucking shape-shifters) and then the more sinister (secret societies controlling the world) and now we're moving to the neo-technological (post truth). This is an era where we have more information than ever at our fingertips but also live in a world with the knowledge that we are monitored, watched and scrutinised more than ever before. In this era I blame no-one but me, or us, the individuals. We have the wherewithal to research and look at facts carefully and concisely and with this information we can say or share something that can have a profound effect on individuals or the world- be it positive or not, yet many of us pursue the path of 'truthiness', a knowledge that certain views and opinions may not be actually based on fact but as they feel comfortable and truthful we hold on to them e.g. Trumps rhetoric of 'Make America Great Again?' To which the logical question would be, when was America great and how do you quantify this? Was America great for everyone in this period? Do African-Americans and other people of colour agree?

I've also noticed that with social media we have created a stage for constant artificial high dramas. To quote Jon Ronson:

Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It's all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush overpowers us at times like these (to judge and shame people)? What are we getting out of it? .... Nobody wants to ruin it by looking at the cost...

Where's the cognitive dissonance? The price for the lives ruined and broken in the court of social media? With fake news and conspiracy theorists being given free reign we live in a time where the Nazis are back, Science is seen as an opinion rather than empirical fact and those escaping persecution and death are seen as a 'swarm.' We live in a pretty apathetic age, yet we are surrounded by a huge amount of information about other people. If you felt like it you could gather that information yet we still hardly seem to know anything about people.

The former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined in 2007, and became its vice president for user growth, recently said that he felt  “tremendous guilt” about the impact his former employer has had on the world; “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works... The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops (like thumbs-up or hearts) we’ve created are destroying how society works...No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

I think the rise of online harassment, social shaming and constant sense of outrage is due to the powerlessness people feel about the world around them, who do we blame for the economic crisis in 2008, Wall Street and the City sure, but who individually is to blame? It's much easier to be a SJW (Social Justice Warrior) when you see an individual as doing the wrong thing... Maybe we are aiming our ire with impunity at the wrong places and at a disproportionate level.

We live in the most amazing of times, we have the possibilities to change the work profoundly through our inter-connectedness ... But are we utilising it in the best way? I don't know but as a teacher I want my pupils to know the profound impact they could have on the world, either through their direct action or in the virtual space. I want them to be a force for good and look at things critically and evaluate the evidence presented rather than being in a constant state of outrage. There has to be a better way and we need to educate our pupils to be that better way.