Dispatches from the Zombie Matrix Apocalypse

Three of my 2020 stories are on TangentOnline’s recommended reading list. This includes my Cold War alternate history thriller “Shadow Rook Red”, and two stories that appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction: “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” (cryptozoological monsters take on Martian fascism) and “The Dog and the Ferryman” (four-legged visitor to the underworld teams up with everyone’s favorite boatman to look for his missing master.)

“The Dog and the Ferryman” has prompted the most fan mail I’ve received since “Sparg”, and in fact those two stories share much in common. I am sensitive to the cruel indifference humanity routinely displays towards our animal co-inhabitants. Clearly it’s a message that resonates with readers: some of the rescue stories readers have shared with me have broken (and then mended) my heart.

And while I completely understand why Buster the Good Dog has become popular, animal welfare is not the primary theme in “The Dog and the Ferryman”. The story fuses fantasy and science-fiction, but its deeper concern is how Internet addiction is gnawing away at our humanity… which affects all of our relationships, pets and otherwise.

I recently removed Facebook from my phone, because I came to recognize the very things this interesting piece from The Guardian highlights: how people giving up (or dramatically reducing) social media have seen vast improvements to their sleep, memory, time management, and overall happiness.

I’ve personally witnessed social media degrade all these things in people I care for (and let’s be honest — so have you). There’s also the flood of disinformation, conspiracy theory radicalizations, addiction to outrage, cyberbullying brigades, hyper-partisanship groupthink, and disintegration of reasonable discourse that has transpired since the advent of social media. It goes well beyond personal anecdotes, and while many will roll their eyes and mutter “A Luddite, how edgy!” it should be noted that there’s ample scientific data showing the problems that high usage of social media wreaks on our emotional and social well-being. The Social Dilemma is only the start of the conversation.

Look, I get it: social media is a venue for communication and information, and it’s not going away. My concern is not with its existence, but how enslaved we’ve become to it. Playing video games is wonderful entertainment, but few people would say it’s healthy to play 18 hours a day. There is such a thing as video game addiction.

So why do our social media habits get a free pass?

It isn’t just the nightmarish way that people are glued to their phones during every waking moment, tapping away on a glowing screen like the undead pawing at a mall window. I mean, okay, it’s a little bit that. I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and there’s a chapter where he and his hiking buddy emerge from weeks in the forest. Their first visit to a shopping plaza prompts their wide-eyed astonishment. “Jeez, it’s ugly,” his friend says, vocalizing what Bryson is already thinking. A little time away can give us fresh perspective.

It’s perspective that we’ve lost when it comes to social media.

Collectively, it has turned us into an irrational rage monster. We hop online in order to get our anger-fix, like trembling junkies. For every fleeting bout of rational conversation and civil disagreement, there are ten thousand examples of cyberbullying brigades and puritanical mobs who by God will not abide the slightest micron-sized whiff of dissent. Productive dialogue has evaporated. Freethinking is blasphemy. TLDR will be chiseled on our tombstones.

Complex issues are reduced to Twitter-sized candy and prewritten buzzwords, devolving into duels between Catchphrase Tweedledum and Catchphrase Tweedledee. Memes and clickbaity witticisms erase in-depth analysis. Social media is a brace of echo chambers, and when the “enemy” isn’t available they turn their pistols on any “heretics” in their own ranks. Norman Bates said that “We all go a little mad sometimes,” but our online rage isn’t “sometimes”, and cat pictures are only a very fleeting pause between the next explosive scream. We aren’t interested in careful consideration of the facts. We want to burn and kill, look at some cute kittens, and then burn and kill some more.

All this is to say nothing about how disinformation brokers and conspiracy theorists have poisoned our communication channels, counting on our tribalism and “all opinions are equal” conceit to spread their lies far and wide.

I honestly don’t think most people realize how twisted we’ve become. And no, it wasn’t always like this. We’ve had contentious periods of American history before, and anti-intellectualism and mob “justice” are practically traditions here. But hatred and dehumanization are now the start and endpoint. We’ve become addicted. Anger is the lingua franca for our online world. We don’t want facts, we want to Hulk out.

And that’s the operative word: “online”. By the very nature of the internet, we are dehumanized. It’s the same principle behind road rage. The same divorce from common humanity that made the protagonist of Wells’ The Invisible Man become a maniac. This is not how things are supposed to be. Social media has turned us into sociopaths.

I know it’s not going away. I don’t think it necessarily should go away. But our behavior–and social media hygiene–is in desperate need of a change.

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