Inauguration Day has come and gone, and democracy has prevailed, though not without national pain. A week after a violent, bloody and deadly insurrection at our United States Capitol, our new President and Vice President were sworn in on the steps of that same sacred building before a sprinkling of spectators in a city on near-total lockdown.
It is both reassuring and horrifying that at least some on the podium, including President Biden and Vice President Harris and their spouses, were reportedly wearing body armor and other protective clothing.
This unprecedented American inauguration begs the question, “how on God’s green earth did the people of the United States find ourselves in an uncivil war with each other?”
Social scientists and historians will debate this long after we are gone, and there are surely many factors. Our immediate past President, an active combatant in the uncivil war certainly stoked its fires by both his policies and incendiary language. He did not, however, invent our differences, many of which go back to the earliest days of our nation. He did make it acceptable to voice opinions not acceptable in the past, and that has shoved many Americans into hard and fast positions we find difficult to change.
Another, harder to pin down, factor is a gift from expanding technologies, social media. This general category includes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tik Tok and others used by millions around the world but which digital immigrants like this writer may not know even exist, much less use. As best I understand the technologies, they are powered by algorithms, which allow social media platforms to tell us what they think we want to hear, based on choices we make online.
A simple example of this phenomenon is if I search for “blue sweater, size M,” it will not be long before ads for blue sweaters, size M pop up on my computer screen. No harm done, and I just might order one.
More ominous, though, is information fed to us that a is less fact-based and more opinion-based. "The Social Dilemma," a Netflix documentary, explores how the choices we make online, such as “likes,” create our “digital tattoo.” This tattoo identifies us in certain ways and affects how we are perceived both by people who read our posts and also by the technologies that power them. For example, if one person searches for and/or “likes” mainly conservative information or posts, and another person searches for and/or “likes” mainly liberal information or posts, both will find themselves in echo chambers, getting more and more of the same and less and less of the other. This means that if a skeptic and a believer both search for “climate change,” they will get different answers based on their past search behavior. Both answers will be tailored to the user, and neither may be factually accurate.
Think of it this way. Unless you search for a hard fact such as “how many quarts in a galloon,” the answer you get is going to be based more on how you are perceived generated by algorithms created just for you.
It is like we have siloed ourselves in two separate Towers of Babel. Those in one shout at those of us in the other, but we do not understand what those in the other tower are saying. In 2021 reality, MSNBC viewers cannot understand Fox News and vice versa.
Calls for social media regulation are increasing, and rightly so given their worldwide influence and inability to regulate themselves. Congress is expected to take up the issue this session. At the end of the day, though, it is we the American people who must reach out to each other from our separate Towers of Babel and seek common ground.
Let the healing begin.