After the recent upgrade of my Windows operating system, Cortana suggested lightening up on the cream cheese I was spreading on my bagel, or switching to a low fat variety. I asked her how she knew, since I don’t use Cortana for shopping, but she said she didn’t understand the question. I think the refrigerator probably told her.
I believe the refrigerator is in cahoots with Alexa and the Google Assistant on my phone. Before I could take the first bite they suggested that I purchase some different flavors besides plain for a more diverse dairy tray. Always the attentive helper, Facebook served up ads for three different brands.
It’s a good thing that the spring chores around the farm are burning up all the calories I can eat. For some reason I’ve been craving cookies, and every website I visit wants to talk about cookies. Some sites insist on having a discussion about cookies before I can read whatever it is that I came there to view.
Of course the cookies they’re talking about are the little packets of information which help track our online activity and let advertisers know the kinds of things we might be persuaded to buy. Websites used to hide their cookies or pretend like they didn’t exist. It was an open secret known by anyone with even a cursory knowledge of how websites work, and a whole business model was created to thwart their exploitation.
Now the community of corporate persons seems almost proud of their cookies. Having observed how easily we are manipulated, distracted, enraged, frightened and herded; how easily we follow whatever they say is “trending,” how we accept whatever rogue, thief or buffoon they choose to put on our ballot as a thing of our own creation which deserves our devotion and emotional attachment – having observed all this – they have decided that there is no longer any need to hide.
“Say ‘trending’ one more time!” A friend paraphrased from a famous movie. We were discussing how difficult it is to avoid the toxic narratives which propagate over the internet faster than a virus carried by a sneeze. “I hardly ever get on the internet anymore,” he said. “I don’t even like to check my email because if it’s not junk from some company then it’s junk one of my friends sent me. Here’s another meme they forwarded or yet another video for me to watch to make me mad and remind me how terrible things are. And forget Facebook or any of the other platforms. Even if I never went online at all, someone would want to talk about something they saw that made them mad.”
It is a challenge. The level of stress that can be induced by the ubiquitous flow of toxic narratives can elicit a Luddite reaction even in those of us who consider ourselves to be reasonably tech savvy and who depend on information technology for business and financial stability. It does take a measure of discipline not to click on the provocative headline or post, but it’s even easier to avoid the website altogether when you know a virtual bait shop awaits you there.
Peace of mind in the age of the toxic narrative requires that we curate continuously, and sometimes to conserve mental and emotional energy we have to approach the problem as a medic doing battlefield triage. The first thing I need to know in the morning is the weather. That much is easily obtained by a click, a phone app or by sticking my head out the door. I can get all the weather information I need without ever submitting to the crime and misfortune reports of television and radio, which are designed to integrate seamlessly with the toxic narratives that corporate has ordained.
If I need to know how interest rates might affect my retirement account, I’m not going to find that information on the front page of a website among the outraged opinions and obligatory obeisance to social justice. Website homepages by and large are bait shops, and we can quickly bypass them in our quest for the information we need. I don’t remember the last time I read an article from the front page of the New York Times, but there is usually some quality information to be found in the Tech, Science or Health sections. Even the Wall Street Journal has occasionally required me to dig deeper than the front page, though when they genuflect to the “trending,” they don’t bow as deeply as other publications.
If we’re mindful and can wield even a modicum of discipline, we can be fairly successful in curating our information to maximize utility and minimize inflammation. Of course we’re more vulnerable when we’re seeking entertainment, but the same principles apply. Even so, we can still be blindsided by that friend, family member or acquaintance who is addicted to the emotional states that the narratives produce.
The simplest remedy is to refuse to engage. Change the subject. Accept the fact that you cannot use reason to counter an emotional argument. The goal of the emotional-state addict is to perpetuate the state of excitation by either getting you to share in that state, or barring that, to engage in a confrontation which accomplishes the same goal. You can gauge the level of addiction by observing how far they will go to produce a response.
When all else fails, we always have the option of distancing, pausing or ending the relationship. Many times this is not practical or desirable, but we still have some tools we can use to make the situation more tenable. In the movie, “Where the Rivers Flow North,” Rip Torn’s iconic character would respond to an aggressive pitch by saying, “That’s a mighty fine offer,” and end the conversation.
In today’s pandemic of emotional turmoil, however, some addicts will not rest until they have achieved their goal. I attribute the following to my nephew who has successfully navigated the injection of politics and narrative into the corporate world. This verbal “Jedi” technique is simple and effective. It allows you to posture agreement without compromising your own opinions. When you’re cornered by an outraged opinion, pause. Look thoughtful. Rub your chin pensively. Nod your head and say, “You know, if everything you say is true, I’d have to agree with you.”
Walk away. If the person who confronted you is holding a smart phone, chances are they will never notice your escape.