Fast Culture in the Age of Trump

In the Age of Trump, what are the political costs of our fast culture? Consider our fast politics. We have so much day-after-day political scandal—Russia, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump’s alleged abuse of power and obstruction of justice—that we become numb. Fast breaking and scandalous news, I’m afraid, is the new political normal. In a speedy culture that affords us no time for reflection, our president doesn’t even seem to know the details of the mean-spirited legislation or the arithmetically incorrect budget he has proposed. In our fast culture, Trump has little time to read or study detailed position papers, let alone daily briefing papers. Many of our legislators, also pressed for time in our speedy culture, don’t read the legislation on which they are charged to vote. In the absence of time, though, there is the ever-present tweet and the possibility to reduce complex domestic or foreign policy to a mere 120 characters of time and space.

Fast culture, however, reaches far beyond the realm of politics. Each and every day we struggle to dig out from under an avalanche of texts, tweets, Facebook posts, and e-mail messages. Videos go viral and people are “live” for one hour, or maybe even one day.

What are the social consequences of fast culture?

In an era of connectivity, we seem to become increasingly disconnected—from each other and from reality. In her important book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle, a sociologist, argues that it is face-to-face, time-consuming, and unpredictable conversation that makes us human. “But these days,” she writes on the first page of her book, “we find ways around conversation, we hide from each other even as we’re constantly connected to each other.”

Turkle goes on to discuss the social consequences of our fast-paced, media-saturated culture:

We say we turn to our phones when we’re bored. And we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment. We are forever elsewhere. At class or at church or business meetings, we pay attention to what interests us and then when it doesn’t we look to our devices to find something that does….
We begin to think of ourselves as a tribe of one, loyal to our own party. We check our messages during a quiet moment or when the pull of the on-line world simple feels irresistible….(p.4)

In fast culture our on-line connection creates social disconnection. In fast culture, we are flooded with information and yet we seem to become more and more ignorant about the world of politics, culture and social life. Consider a few of the disturbing items presented in Ray Williams’s June 7 Psychology Today article, “The Cult of Ignorance in the United States: The ‘Dumbing Down’ of America.”

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public school students. A surprising 77% didn't know that George Washington was the first President; couldn't name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; and only 2.8% of the students actually passed the citizenship test. Along similar lines, the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix did the same survey and only 3.5% of students passed the civics test
18% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, according to a Gallup poll;
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities report on education shows that the U.S. ranks second among all nations in the proportion of the population aged 35-64 with a college degree, but 19th in the percentage of those aged 25-34 with an associate or high school diploma, which means that for the first time, the educational attainment of young people will be lower than their parents;
74% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53% in the House of Representatives deny the validity of climate change despite the findings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other significant scientific organization in the world;
According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 68% of public school children in the U.S. do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. And the U.S. News & World reported that barely 50% of students are ready for college level reading when they graduate;
According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it "very important;"
According to the National Endowment for the Arts report in 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later only 67% did. And more than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book--fiction or nonfiction--over the course of a year. The proportion of 17 year olds who read nothing (unless required by school) has doubled between 1984-2004
Gallup released a poll indicating 42 percent of Americans still believe God created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago

As we sprint from topic to topic and scandal to scandal in our fast culture society, we become more and more isolated, alienated, ignorant, irrational and angry. Fast culture seems to have set the stage for the election of our Tweeter-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump, who apparently doesn't read books or articles. In the Age of Trump, we increasingly celebrate our ignorance. In the absence of vital human face-to-face conversation, as Sherry Turkle points out, we lose our capacity for empathy, our ability to take the other’s perspective. Turkle doesn't suggest we eliminate our reliance on digital technologies, but argues that we approach social media from a different perspective. At the end of her book, she writes:

We had a love affair with a technology that seemed magical. But like great magic, it worked by commanding our attention and not letting us see anything but what the magicians wanted us to see. Now we are ready to reclaim our attention—for solitude, for friendship, for society (p. 361).of

In a sense Turkle is suggesting that we all become anthropologists who in their desire to understand other people build empathetic relationships all of which take time to develop. In this way, we build degrees of social trust, the foundation of the social contract. In the fast culture of the Age or Trump, perhaps it is time to slow down a bit, engage in conversation and take the time to reclaim our humanity.

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