Historians have noted that we have passed through the Middle Ages, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the Age of Technology. I would like to propose that we have now entered The Age of Opinion, and I’m not sure I’m completely delighted about it.
We have all of the information amassed in recorded human history now at our fingertips and for the most part free of charge. As with anything convenient, it is tempting to discount its value. It is also easy to mistake information for knowledge, wisdom, or understanding.
We also have the ability not only to take in all the world’s facts, images, ideas, and information, we can also digest, consider and share its plethora of opinions, both articulate and well-considered and crude and half-baked. In doing so, and doing so so easily, with a lightning fast trigger thumb on our phone keypad or feverish fingers slapping our laptop keyboard, we can dash off our inspired if not thoughtful feelings, frustrations, elations, impressions, and inspirations to the entire digital world. We are empowered. We can be heard. We can let the world know exactly what we think, whether its on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or our own personal blog.
Well, good for us. Democracy has arguably benefited from this ability to communicate. But there has been a downside, in my opinion (the irony of those last three words is not lost on me, but hear me out.)
I think we have come to rely to heavily on our emotions, those handmaidens of our opinions, in our online communications, in our thought processes, and in our lives. I think it has handicapped our decision-making protocols. I think it has whipped us up into less-than-optimally functioning members of a democracy, and constituents in a world that, most often, we genuinely want to make better.
Let me quickly detail the potholes in our path: our attention spans have shrunk, and with that shrinkage comes the danger of not being willing or able to consider complex issues that are not instantly obvious in their nature or their potential solutions. Because the digital world has no boundaries, we may often unconsciously or consciously, adopt the behavior of someone who also has no boundaries. Why? Because things written or said on social media often have no consequences if they are inaccurate, hurtful, or dangerous to someone. We can be anonymous and distanced from our actions online (and words with their results are actions, as they are the result of writing, a very powerful action in some instances. Think: Declaration of Independence.)
I’m not saying anything new here. Psychologists and students of social phenomenon have proposed much of this before, on numerous occasions in various publications. What I want to point out is the danger that this proposes in our lives: we can easily evolve to making decisions based on our emotions rather than on information that has been critically gathered, reviewed, analyzed, and considered.
I’m not saying passion is not essential in any difficult, challenging, or worthwhile pursuit. It is. What I am saying is that passion is a poor guide to policy. Liking something on social media or retweeting it is not doing something about it. Being momentarily excited about something is not the same thing as being thoroughly informed about it. Making a donation is great, but making a difference is better.
Quick, emotional decisions rarely work out well in personal relationships, personal finance, or public policy. The reason that so many very smart (and often Old Money) people are so moderate in their opinions and deliberate in their approaches to problems and choices is because there are so many real and valid aspects of a particular issue to consider, and more than a few can seem contradictory.
Taking a step back from what seems obvious and easy to form an opinion upon and asking hard questions is not a pleasant task. It requires us to reserve judgment. It requires us to ask questions and listen for often uncomfortable answers. It requires us to be open to changing our mind or, worse, admitting we were wrong.
We must, in this Age of Opinion, grow back up. We must look behind what people have said, and examine objectively what they have done, and be honest with ourselves and others when we see daylight between the two.
We must question authority: the authority and integrity of the sources we use to get our information, which shape our opinions, which influence our choices. Here, specifically, I mean the government, the news media, those pretending to be the news media, so-called experts, bloggers, tweeters, and your run-of-the-mill, neck-deep-in-ignorance gossips you hear at the local beauty shop, barber shop, or coffee shop.
Don’t jump on the bandwagon just because something has traction (whatever that is) on social media. Don’t repeat things you’ve heard until you’ve verified the information yourself from two different sources, and, if it’s political, make sure one of those sources has a different political opinion than you do. (Ouch.) It will take a little time, a little research, but you’ll find yourself less likely to be misled, misinformed, and misguided into a bad decision.
Be the Old Money Guy or Gal who listens to it all rather than some one else who knows it all. Form your opinions slowly. Share them selectively. Change them if necessary.
We live in the Age of Opinion, it’s true. But it will pass. Hopefully to something better.