He just looked at me.
"The Americans will start bombing Syria tomorrow night." No recognition. "You don't know about it?"
I was in shock. How could someone not know about the chemical weapons, the 1,400 killed with them, including the 400 children, and the five American missile destroyers sitting offshore right now waiting for the order to send in the 200 cruise missiles? When? Tomorrow. (Okay, it was going to be tomorrow, but then Obama surprised everyone by deciding to let Congress vote on it first. But that hadn't happened yet.) So I told him about the whole thing, not just the deaths and the fear and the anger and hatred and aggression, but also the good and bad, the endless deep thought, the attempts to do right, to make good decisions, the pressures from everywhere at once, not least from the weight of the hundreds of years of civilization all pressing down on this moment of history.
But I was still in shock. I shouldn't have to tell him about it. Surely he would have read about it or at least seen it on TV. And this particular young man (let's call him Kevin) is well read. He reads more than I ever did. He has probably read more books of literature and philosophy in his twenty one years than I have in my sixty three. Nor can his ignorance be explained by Facebook, by his continually being distracted by its social minutia, as so many are. He has no interest in it. He stays away.
Well, my shock was obvious. So Kevin filled me in about his generation. He said nobody his age knows about this war situation at all. "If you asked someone if they knew about Syria, they'd say yeah, of course I know Miley Cyrus." Uhh..."Are you serious?"
When I was his age, there was no internet. I read the newspaper. Voraciously. I loved it because somebody had always pre-sorted the news in advance. You knew that anything that was on the front page was important. If you didn't have time to read more than that, you could leave satisfied that World War III hadn't started without you knowing about it. And the most important news of all had the biggest headline at the top. And the most important things about the most important news were all squeezed into the headline itself. You really didn't have to read any more than the headlines if you were really in a hurry. And then inside you had the local page, set up the same way, and the national and the international and the sports and the business and even the features and funnies, all organized to give you the most bang for your time.
I don't buy the paper anymore, because I managed to find a free news source on the internet, Yahoo News, that is organized at least a bit like the old newspaper.
But what does Kevin have? He has an internet full of billions of bits of democratically equal information. Endless distraction. You sort it yourself, according to whim, instinct, social pressure, what your friends like, even your imaginary Facebook 'friends'. Banter. Bits of data. Miley Cyrus's butt, and anything anyone has to say about it, is at least as interesting as the discovery last week that life on Earth may very likely have originated on Mars. Or that tiny toxin-filled particles of plastic are in high concentration in Lake Erie and are rapidly moving up the food chain. Or impending war.
So where are we heading? How will things hold together, how will democracy survive, when a whole generation that knows little of big reality suddenly finds itself in the centre? Democracy is a fragile thing. If there is no deep value placed on it, and a little fear is injected and a strong leader calls out, we would have fascism. Without even knowing it. That seems obvious. Civilization would wither and die.
But no. No way. That's just pessimism. That's just the past brought forward into a future it can't exist in. No. Civilization will survive. The question then is what will civilization look like in this new age? How different can it be than what we're used to and still be a healthy democracy? Or something approaching it.
That's a nice little thought experiment. But to do it, we'll have to ignore the problems I've created with my massive generalizations, like for instance we'll have to ignore the fact that these young people will at some point grow up and into a world of responsibility and will suddenly find that knowing about the important things in the world is an important thing in itself. And also for instance that these are all very bright people, all these individuals, and even though they don't seem like it sometimes, they ARE all individuals who will in the end work through that morass of info to find the best possible place. The optimal place. No, for this thought experiment, let's ignore these bits of reality and try to imagine a democracy built on the backs of people who live their lives totally in the Facebook model. Whose highest priority is the simple things close to emotional home. And less and less the dryer and more distant things, like international politics. Happenings in foreign countries with unfamiliar names.
Now suddenly a future takes shape. It's a democracy built from the ground up instead of from the top down. These people don't start with the big headlines, but with their local habitats, which are actually vast but vast only in the internet sense. When the pressures inevitably come down from above and affect them, they will find they have to interact with others. They will group for strength, much as in the old failed socialist models. As these groups begin to actually see where the pressures are coming from, and why, and think about how to change them, they will vote.
Of course, in reality, this could only be a part of the whole, because at the same time the young people will have grown up and life will suddenly look so very different to them, as has always happened, and, of course, even though they may be loving the internet life, they are hardly robots themselves. Each of those brains is the most complex thing we know of in the universe. By a long ways. And I am so excited!