The Death of Mystery?

A view of the Arctic ice in August 2012

Actor Bruce Dern was on a show recently where he mused about his first days in Hollywood rubbing shoulders with the giants of the entertainment industry. “They were larger than life,” he told the host, “because no one knew what they were doing after school.” He finished by offering: ‘now everyone knows what happens after school, and there is no more mystery.’

The end of mystery is one outcome in these early days of the ‘social era,’ or whatever we end up calling this time. The examples are all around us;

  • Russia claims hundreds of thousands flee from Ukraine, while social media points us to a webcam that purports to show a quiet border crossing.
  • A Congressman’s private extra-marital flirtations are a mis-click away from becoming global broadcasts.
  • Young entertainers behave like young people – and ‘news sites’ thrive like parasitical sucker fish on the visual evidence of their exploits.

This goes further, however. For every news event, social media offers reassurances that our gut reaction to the news is justified. News feeds are tailored to the items that attract us, and our nascent opinions are reinforced quickly by our Facebook and Twitter feeds. So quickly, in fact, that often our views are shaped before we can imagine. Before we can ponder what events mean, if anything.

And this may be the tragedy. With news media (in countries like the USA and China, based on personal observation) positioned to tell us what we should think about events over reporting the events, it is a simple exercise to believe the “analysis” over new information. Research shows that once we hold a position on a topic, new information that conflicts with that position is not welcomed, but questioned. The more new information argues against our position, the more entrenched our opinions become.

What happens when we form opinions quickly, edging out the imagination that is a natural response to partial information? When we receive confident “analysis” that supports what we wish to believe about an event, at almost the same time we learn about that event, we skip past the part where we struggle to make sense of the new circumstance. We miss the opportunity for novel thought.

Russian troops move into Crimea; so what does that mean? See if you can find yourself in this list:

  • This is obviously a result of President Obama’s weakness on the world stage
  • This is obviously a reasonable response to protect the ethnic Russians in Crimea, who are distressed that their democratically-elected leadership was forced from office
  • This is obviously Putin, still distressed by the end of the Soviet Union, reinforcing a “near abroad” doctrine (Russia is allowed to intervene in internal affairs of its immediate neighbors – a doctrine compared to the US historical stance towards Latin America, and discussed within political science as the phenomenon of “geographic fatalism” from the persecutive of the target nations.)

And so on. Within hours, blogs were written to explain the events, to include one creative author who notices the February date parallel between these events and the 1933 Reichstag fire, and we begin to filter and form our opinions – based not on imagination and our own experience, but based on the opinions made available to us. While blogs take hours in some cases, Twitter can be counted on for immediate reactions.

What happens when we forget to imagine? What happens to novel solutions, to that overused “innovation” word? If we are training ourselves to allow others to imagine for us, usually people whose world view already matches ours, what becomes of our ability to learn or debate or be civil to those who disagree?

In fact, mystery is not dead. Whatever early confidence we develop, whatever appears certain to us, the situation itself remains uncertain. Our opinions do not change facts. Mystery is alive and well, what may have eroded is our ability to revel in it. To consider, learn, and experiment with novel ideas. Our ability to envision is something missing at many levels. We need it back.

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