Me, myself, and I

... is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

A few years back I wrote how disturbing it was that everybody nowadays, even just doing ordinary things in ordinary places would unthinkingly, dramatically perk up upon having a camera thrust in their faces. You see it everywhere, people moseying along, bored expression on their faces, and then suddenly somebody takes a camera and people just switch on and start posing and projecting like mad.

Everybody now is a celebrity in their minds. People that normally would have (and should have) no claim to fame (or even notoriety) would find their faces and their most mundane activities on the Internet. Being ill informed, unread, or without any semblance of writing skills doesn’t stop them from airing their views extensively on Facebook.

Some people believe this is a good thing. I don’t. While indeed the democratization of information, the full utilization of the wisdom of crowds, and the greater participation of the public in the marketplace of ideas is ostensibly beneficial, not so if it leads people to sloppiness in thought.

Writer and Cambridge lecturer (never mind Oxford) Edward de Bono certainly thinks so. In an interview with news.com.au, he said: “There is danger on the internet and social media... that you do not have to think to be very dangerous. Social media causes laziness, that we feel will get more information and do not need to have his own ideas. We got the idea from someone else, we do not need to look at the data, we only see what others have to say.”

Reality TV is perhaps even worse. The behavior exhibited by the so-called “stars” often verge on the bizarre: every little thing results in violent arguments, no opportunity (even the lack thereof) for public sexual antics is wasted, and every mundane (actually stupid) opinion is aired out at the highest possible volume. While, of course, the rationale for such over-the-top behavior is understandable from the ratings perspective, it may (alas oftentimes does) sadly encourage (consciously or not) similar conduct from its fans.

Which makes me think: what effect does this instant celebrity (or whatever it is) have on the population? Without the need to acquire the skills, humility, and patience garnered from the constant supervision by one’s superior, the burden of redoing repeatedly a piece of work until it’s properly done, without the need of honing craftsmanship, researching and verifying the credibility of sources, the constant nagging and disciplining by an elder whether a work has logic and methodical train of thought, how does that affect the development of their character? When all they have to do, by way of example, is copy and paste obscure articles on the internet, Google and Wiki their way through research, then publish their works to the admiration of their peers who wouldn’t know any better? What’s the point of hard work and a demanding experienced mentor if one can be an instant star on the internet or reality TV anyway?

Ironically, having a “me,” self-centered, “if it feels good then do it” mindset (along with the capacity for instant gratification) has not made people any happier. In a 2009 study (reported in the Telegraph) involving Britain, for example, it was found that while its individualistic mindset made “for a dynamic and innovative population, it also appears to make it more anxious and unhappy, claim psychologists. The study by Northwestern University in Chicago compared levels of depression and anxiety in individualist societies like Western Europe and America with collectivist societies like China and Taiwan. They were surprised to find that there was a direct correlation between the two. The more individualistic the country, the higher the levels of depression.”

This reminded me of what Helen Alvaré, associate professor at George Mason University Law School, pointed out: the US sexual revolution had “four to five decades to prove itself.” And yet, “were increases in sexual liberty for women a key determinant of happiness (sufficiently key to raise birth control above even life-saving medicines for federal favor), a simple time-series graph correlating the percentage of women using contraception in the United States with the percentage of women reporting themselves as ‘happy’ would show a direct relationship. Instead, we have more women accessing birth control but less female happiness as described above.”

So much for the insane assertion that “satisfying sex” is a human right.

It would be great — to borrow from Paul Kengor — to have a leader who tells us that while “liberty is enshrined in our laws, but liberty should not be license for opportunities for the flesh. Our liberties, protected and permitted as they are, should not be exploited to do anything and everything we want, including things harmful to oneself, to one’s family, to one’s neighbors, to one’s culture, to one’s country.”

But, really, we can’t really blame people for indulging in madness if even our presidents, senators and congressmen, or even tourist guides, act like lunatics themselves.