These days, when I cross the water between Halifax and Dartmouth, I sometimes find myself denying the existence of bridges, especially during rush hour. This is despite the fact that I am evidently travelling on one and, from my perch in the passenger’s seat, I can see boats in the harbour and buildings on the near horizon – that is, if I care to look.
Naturally, I don’t care to look because my eyes are otherwise occupied by my smart phone, that tiny blinking box about the size of an old-timey dime-store novel from which the “real” news of the world, the “true” nature of reality, froths forth by the microsecond thanks to so-called social media.
“Apparently, some guy has proof that climate change is a hoax,” I mutter.
“Is that so?” my driving companion inquires absently.
“Yup,” I reply. “He also rejects claims that the Earth is spherical, that NASA ever sent men to the moon and that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.”
“Okay,” my friend says, “I’ll bite. Who did build the pyramids?”
“Aliens. . .I suppose you’ll want to know why.”
“Interstellar travel lounges.”
Why not? Who are we to begrudge weary Alpha Centaurians en route to Betelgeuse for the biannual lotus festival taking a well-deserved load off their tired dogs in north-Saharan Africa? Not everyone flies first class, you know.
I kid, of course. But there is a point.
In a world where fantasies increasingly supplant facts and rank opinions replace measured judgements, how long before we imagine that the state of things as they actually exist is far less absorbing (and, therefore, less legitimate) than the mechanics of our own tortured hallucinations?
Worse, perhaps, for the health of our public institutions, economy and the democratic rule of law, how long before this type of infantilizing meme-merchandising infects the body politic at the most basic level and in everyday ways?
How long? How does right about now sound?
In a 2016 piece, “Why are people so incredibly gullible?”, David Robson, a feature writer for the web magazine BBC Future, wrote, “Cast your mind back to the attack of the flesh-eating banana. In January 2000, a series of chain emails began reporting that imported bananas were infecting people with ‘necrotizing fasciitis’ – a rare disease in which the skin erupts into livid purple boils before disintegrating and peeling away from muscle and bone.”
The scare was completely. . . well. . .bananas, but that didn’t stop scores of people from rejecting an official report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control debunking the bizarre story. Or, as Robson reported, “Within weeks, the CDC was hearing from so many distressed callers it had to set up a hotline. The facts became so distorted that people eventually started to quote the (Centers) as the source of the rumour.”
Still, you don’t have to be a flesh-eating banana to know how easily and far we are prone to slip. Here in the Canadian Maritimes, we regularly replenish our various silos of stupidity with the cloyingly sweet elixir of self-righteous certitude.
Somebody writing on the Internet declares that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will kill us all – as will, indeed, fossil fuels in general. Somebody else, scribbling in the ethersphere, rejoins that environmentalists are nuts and that there’s nothing wrong with cracking slate to get at the good stuff to power our industrial lifestyle.
They’re both right and wrong – something they would know if they actually chose to talk to one another, rather than bury themselves in the popular “literature” of half-truths.
Fact: The science of climate change says we must reduce our consumption of petroleum products. Another fact: The science of engineering says we still need the junk to intelligently transition to a cleaner, more renewable future. The only question that should remains is: Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?
Fortunately, in many other ways many can and do here.
Consider the enormous amount of consultation, collaboration, tolerance and good will that was required to begin transforming the Petitcodiac River in Moncton, N.B., into a vibrant waterway that is quickly becoming the envy of nature lovers, commercial enterprises and local governments, alike.
While we’re at it, ask the question: Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?
Think about the non-stop talking and sometimes-disputatious mediations that paved the way for Moncton’s freshly minted downtown event and cultural centre or the new marine sciences initiative on the Dartmouth waterfront.
These were not bridges too far to cross. And I can only assume that in the rooms where their construction began, all the smart phones were, for once, mercifully silent.