On “Weather Events” and Other Absurdities of the Digital Age
On Friday afternoon, as I was spinning my wheels on a sermon that just wasn’t coming, I did what I tend to do when the inspiration tap seems to have run dry. I began to click aimlessly around the internet. It’s an inspirational strategy, I know. Feel free to take notes. At any rate, I checked a few soccer scores. I scrolled half-heartedly through Facebook and Instagram. I visited an inbox that somehow, frustratingly, wasn’t magically whittling itself down. And I checked the weather.
Friday was a pretty balmy day here in southern Alberta. If memory serves, the temperature was above ten degrees and there was barely a breeze. I recall taking a walk around a city park over my lunch break. But that afternoon, the Weather Network had an ominous red banner across the top of the page. It warned of an impending “weather event.” Snow and cold were coming! Sunday would be the worst day (of course). I sighed and began to mentally prepare for bad weather and quite likely a sparse Sunday at church.
And so it came to pass. The Weather Network was right. On Saturday evening, the temperatures began to drop, and the snow started to fall. Sunday morning was a winter wonderland. It was quite beautiful, if inconvenient for our worship service. But we bundled up, we came, we shovelled some snow, we worshipped, we ate together. It all felt rather normal.
I thought back to my reaction at seeing the ominous red banner on the Weather Network on a balmy Friday afternoon. I thought about how it conditioned me to think about the weekend ahead. Did it make me anxious? Vigilant? Cautious? Worried? Resigned? Was I expecting an arctic blizzard of epic proportions? Whatever the case, I was probably expecting an “event.” We were, after all, warned that a “weather event” was coming.
Except, it wasn’t really an “event.” It was just the weather. It was a snowy November weekend on the Canadian prairies. And snowy November weekends are sorta what tend to happen on the Canadian prairies. We happen to live in a part of the world where the climate can be harsh and volatile. November can be pretty wintry here. Canada is not Costa Rica.
I’ve been thinking about that ominous red banner and about “weather events.” I suppose there is value in preparing people for nasty weather. Yes, of course there is. But I’m just enough of a cynic to think that red banners and “weather events” also reliably generate more clicks and more shares and, of course, more advertising revenue, the inevitable terminus of pretty much everything online. People are less inclined to pause and click further on the boring old weather. But a weather event? And a red banner? Well, that catches the eye. Something important must be happening!
The red banner and the “weather event” is, of course, a tidy visual encapsulation of the logic and economics of the internet as a whole. More clicks equal more dollars, therefore clicks must be secured. But how to generate clicks in an online context where there is almost literally an infinite number of clickable options? Well, content needs to be packaged to grab attention and convince people of an imminent threat or a sensational event or an outrageous claim or a celebrity doing something, ahem, noteworthy or, better yet—and most reliably—something to be outraged about. Ordinary people saying and doing an ordinary range of things may be what’s actually happening, but advertisers aren’t particularly interested in “ordinary.”
And so, “ordinary” is upsold a little.
That ignorant thing the guy you knew in high school posted on Facebook becomes not just an ordinary dumb opinion that could, in theory, be rationally discussed, but an example of a pernicious “ism” of some sort held by a “bigot” who needs to be called out.
The person whose politics skew to the left of your own becomes not simply a neighbour with a different view, but a dangerous ideologue with an agenda to obliterate the moral foundations of your religion and culture. They probably need to be called out, too.
The calcified opinions of a grouchy old blowhard who has a tired schtick on a hockey broadcast becomes a national crisis that dominates a wildly disproportionate number of headlines for days on end. He certainly needs to be called out.
People can no longer be wrong without being dangerous or right without being pure.
Headlines routinely race beyond actual content. Politics becomes entertainment and/or worship. We trawl around the internet searching for validation for the right views we currently hold and ammunition against the bad views that other people hold.
If something doesn’t generate either outrage or justification, it increasingly doesn’t make the cut.
(If the truth happens and it’s not exciting enough to generate a reaction online or isn’t easily repurposed into the identities we are constantly curating for ourselves and our in-group, is it still the truth?)
The news becomes less a reporting on what’s actually happening than a sharpening of ideological knives in the desperate attempt to create a headline that will convince hungry internet rovers to pause for a paragraph or two (particularly in a context of dying newspapers that can barely keep the lights on and pay their writers).
Clicks must be generated. Advertising revenue must be generated.
The net result of all this madness is that gradually, we are conditioned to think of the world and our neighbours in a particular way. We are trained by a system designed to make a handful people very wealthy to think of our shared discourse as a kind of pharisaical arms race in moral purity. There are no ordinary events or opinions, only fresh opportunities to prove that we are on the right side of the line in the sand, wherever that line happens to be and whoever happens to be drawing it.
I worry about what all of this is doing to us, collectively, and to me, personally. What is the net effect of an information and communication system whose very oxygen is sensationalism, triviality, outrage, and the meticulous scorekeeping of a rather suffocating moralism? How does a constant feeding of these tendencies shape us as citizens, as human beings? What kinds of people does this informational and discursive context produce?
How will we ever understand the world and our neighbours honestly (never mind empathetically) if everything needs to be upsold to make us buy or share it?