Immortal views

In the dark ages - my late teens - I read a book by Dragonlance writer, Tracy Hickman. The Immortals, published in 1996, is a near future science fiction wrapped around the concept that a counter-virus to HIV ravages the population creating a dystopian America that incarcerates the infected in concentration camps primarily targeting the homosexual population. The underlying message that stuck with me however, isn’t so much the science - how the cure becomes worse than the disease - nor our societal bigotry exemplified by the poor treatment of the LGBT population. The part of the story that stuck with me is how the expanding communication options available to us actually lead to an even narrower and more propaganda-driven world view.

If you read my other commentary posts you’ll know that I view technology as a tool like any other and that it is neither inherently good nor evil.

I love how social networks enable us to keep in touch in a modern reality where family, friends and colleagues can be dispersed across timezones. I appreciate the ability to photograph, write and build and then to share my thoughts and creativity in a matter seconds to others who appreciate the same things I do. I host a number of digital groups formed around the trivial - Konmari, fitness, family news - and the professional where we share job opportunities and debate various sector-related topics.

In all this I am still acutely aware that, as Tracy Hickman cautioned in his fiction, we can choose to only expose ourselves to material which aligns with our existing world views and intolerance. As readily as I can find #inspo photos to help me organise my cupboards better, I can find content that adds fodder to bias and discrimination. I don’t even have to look any further than the comments on Facebook. Our digital world enables trolls to run anonymous and unchecked through our world spreading misinformation faster than an airborne virus infects.

The main character in the books says “You can have everyone in the country vote freely and democratically and still come up with the wrong answer - if the information they base that decision on is wrong.” This statement feels all too true at the moment. He goes on to say, “We told them ... that any problem - no matter how complex - could be stated clearly in a five minute news segment; that any discussion of issues could be made clear in a ten-second sound bite."

Forget 10 second sound bites: today we summarise key information in infographics, debate in 140 characters or less, and highlight the important with a hashtag.

My belief is that we are each responsible for how we use the tools at our disposal. We can use communications technology for healthy debate, to share ideas so we can continuously improve, or to pool resources to solve problems and provide support. Or was can use it to reinforce our existing perspectives without ever looking at the other side, we can engage in Twitter wars on the frivolous, or use it to bully people safe from physical retribution an ocean away.

The Immortals is set in 2020. When I was nineteen that seemed like such a long time away but now it’s only around the corner. I had hoped that if I ever reached my forties discrimination - gender, age, sexual orientation, race - would be less prevalent. I hoped that Hickman spun a good - if somewhat dark - yarn but wasn’t really prescient. Now, I worry that maybe he was on the point.
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