Numbly Scrolling in The Age of Technology

Host: And welcome to another episode of In the Age of Technology, where we invite guests to talk about the social issues revolving around modern-day technology! Today we have with us researcher and psychologist Doctor Roselle White, Professor of philosophy Christopher Munn and Masters student in anthropology Olivia Thorne.

Doctor Roselle White (RW): Thank you for having us! (*The others echo her sentiments.*)

Host: Before we begin, we’ve just been notified that dozens of Syrian civilians have been killed and wounded by Russian airstrikes on a village and camp for displaced people in Al-Raqqa. Moving on, today we’re talking about desensitisation – specifically, the way we have become desensitised towards media violence on our social media feeds. Even if you’ve simply liked a couple of news pages on Facebook or Twitter, you’d be familiar with seeing tragedy after tragedy on your newsfeeds. These posts are undoubtedly a great opportunity to raise awareness but many would also agree that we’ve been overexposed to this sort of content to the point where all this violence seems almost normal.

What do our guests think? Does social media encourage more awareness than impassivity around the tragedies that occur in our world? Roselle, if you could start us off in conversation.

RW: Of course – such an important issue to be talking about. I’d say that generally we’re becoming increasingly numb towards the prompts broadcasting companies throw our way. The 24-hour news cycle shows us image after image, video after video, suggesting that the world is coming to an end. We also live in the age of technology where there’s just more news coverage in general and, to add to this, journalists are forced to employ graphic visuals in an attempt to maintain their ever-dwindling audience. But shock-value only decreases by the post. We’ve just become a bit too used to it all. So, to answer your original question: I’d say social media makes us more impassive than aware.

Olivia Thorne (OT): Plus, I’d say that the real issue here is that we’re no longer given a chance to reflect on whatever stimuli we’ve been exposed to. It’s hard to understand the true repercussions of the violence we see without being able to spend a few moments digesting it. It’s like food. You take a bite, you chew, you digest. If you eat too much and too quickly not only is it difficult for you to fully taste what just went in your mouth, but you also end up throwing up – ‘rejecting’ – all the food you’ve eaten.

Host: What a good analogy. Sorry to interrupt – we’ve had reports come in of a coalition bombing on Raqqa that has killed more than 30 civilians. Anyway, please, Olivia, continue.

OT: I’m overwhelmed and demoralised when I see endless posts about terrorist attacks, war, famine … especially because I feel as though I can’t do anything about it. My brain would rather watch videos of cute puppies and, because when I’m online I always have that option, my mind automatically shuts off the moment it even catches a glimpse of videos of people shooting and killing each other … You know what I mean?

Christopher Munn (CM): Yes, I completely agree with you.

Host: Christopher, would you mind answering me this: Roselle and Olivia have both acknowledged the desensitisation we experience, but would you say that it’s necessarily a bad thing?

CM: That’s an interesting one. I personally think that all this media violence has just helped uncover what was always there but not necessarily incite increased violence. You could look at it like this: media violence has helped us come to terms with an innate aspect of humanity: violence. There’s no use in pretending it doesn’t exist. It needs to be acknowledged.

RW: I’m not sure if I agree –

CM: Have you heard of the German term weltschmerz? It refers to the pain and sadness that one experiences once they realise that the world isn’t exactly all fairies and rainbows. Empathy isn’t a remedy to all the hurt in this world. It’s a by-product of having to comprehend all of this violence and a burden on our mental health – especially when left unresolved.

RW: I understand the value in accepting reality, but frequency should not render any type of event less important. It’s so easy for us today to dismiss another attack as ‘just another one’ when we’re inundated with all this information without considering the individual lives that have been affected.

OT: And to address your point on empathy, professor. Empathy is crucial in inciting much-needed social change. Take Vietnam for example. The media played a huge role in sparking the anti-war movement in the US. To be precise, media coverage made us empathise, and empathy made us believe in a cause and fight for it. If you’re looking for something more recent, just look at the Black Lives Matter –

Host: Again, my apologies for interrupting, but we’ve had reports of airstrikes targeting several hospitals in Idlib, Syria. The number of dead and injured remains unconfirmed. Please, go on.

OT: There was something extreme like 29 million tweets made surrounding four cases of police brutality. We need technology to shed light on the recurring social issues that are constantly swept under the rug. This empathy is what encourages the collective action needed to get petitions and fundraisers going and incites the support that organisations like the World Health Organisation and the Red Cross need to be able to continue operating. It’s what’s enabled us to even get this far.

Host: We’re running out of time, but briefly – we’ve all come to a consensus that desensitisation is a thing. Whether we think it’s bad or not, are there any possible ways to prevent this from happening? Or is it inevitable?

CM: I guess you could restrict the number of violent posts present on a newsfeed at one time, but there are just too many inefficiencies associated. Who would decide which posts are worthier of exposure than others? How much exposure would each post get? It’s all too complicated.

RW: I know what you mean. What we can do, though, is just be more aware in general. Being aware of our media consumption, refraining from mindlessly scrolling through our feeds, taking a few minutes to reflect on the true meaning behind some of these violent posts… and considering what we can do as individuals to make a change.  

Host: Alright, that’s all for today. A massive thank you to our guests, and I hope that all our listeners have enjoyed this episode of In the Age of Technology.