As the list of things to which we have to say ‘no’ keeps getting longer, it feels like it’s getting harder to raise our voices.
By Matt Skoufalos
We lead lives of entirely customizable experiences.
From moment to moment, we engage in any number of always-on, semi-continuous conversations.
Text messages interrupt in-person meetings. Phone calls interrupt other phone calls. Work e-mails interrupt weekends.
Noise-cancelling headphones pipe in personalized replacement soundtracks for public spaces. Social media offer infinite, on-demand options for circles of engagement that widen and shrink, with controls refining the visibility of specific comments and commenters.
Personal information is volunteered, then aggregated, associated, and analyzed. Check-ins, shares, likes, favorites, retweets, up-votes, reposts, link-outs, and pick-ups; amplifiers that are themselves amplified, often in exchange for discounts, rebates, and freebies.
Some of these recommendations are exhorted, some are bought outright, and some are sock-puppeted, making it far more difficult to gauge the sincerity of an opinion than its momentum. These endorsements lead to more and more solicitations both hyper-personal and jarringly broad, milled from clicks and searches that are dumb-fired across a database of the endpoints each of us touches.
And then, for all the conversations in which we choose to participate, we are unwittingly added to millions more. Enter third-party partners hawking romantic encounters, wonder drugs, and heavily discounted meals.
Even unsold, our data may be breached by hackers and doxxers, or catalogued by government agencies and private corporations; for what ends exactly, we aren’t told. But when the roles are reversed, and sensitive information about government or business escapes, the talk always focuses on how the leakers are criminals–not what the information says about choices made at the highest levels of power.
The balance of law is clearly written: our compliance with zero-tolerance policies, roadside checkpoints, and insurance mandates is not only presumed but leveraged by threat of restricted freedom, financial penalty, or deadly force.
Respecting these systems doesn’t necessarily lower the stakes for existing within them, either (“Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”) so nowadays any resistance is carefully contrived to cause the least disruption to our personal comforts.
The language of organizing has softened “civil disobedience” into “opting out.” We have graduated from John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” which promises swift comeuppance for selfish harm, to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” which undermines its “People Get Ready” vibe with a what-can-you-do shrug.
Of course, it’s almost unfair to carp about such a deflated anthem when constitutionally guaranteed public demonstration can be restricted to “free speech zones,” and then promptly dismissed. Consider:
- Congress experienced the largest climate change march in U.S. history, yet will send the Keystone XL pipeline project to the desk of President Obama anyway.
- One-hundred thirty-two of 590 New Jersey school districts have developed “alternative refusal” policies for kids who opt out of PARCC testing, and a bill formalizing refusal procedures for parents is working its way through the state assembly; yet the Department of Education continues to beat the drum for mandatory participation.
- Last week, Chris Christie signed into law a bill that allows municipal governments to fast-track the sales of their water and sewer infrastructures without the hindrance of a public referendum. Now, with very little opportunity to object, entire communities can be “opted-in” as customers of private utilities, their elected officials opting out of a historic obligation to provide basic services.
What’s the solution? Eternal vigilance is wearying, and these actions aren’t shrouded in secrecy anyway. Disengagement and disinterest only guarantee an accelerated entropy. Neither approach seems likely to fix things.
Do we have the wherewithal to change the conversation from “Who benefits?” to “How can we all benefit?”
Or better yet: “How do we build a reality where something else is possible?”
We have to say no to so many things. It’s time to create solutions that are worth a yes.