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20140819 The evolution of man into a goldfish staring at the world through the cardboard tube in a toilet roll.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

Is social media turning us into a species akin to goldfish?

As notes pop up and disappear, chosen not by us but by some random algorithm, and then "expire" or simply get lost amongst the noise of hundreds of posts, issues become dangerously transient. Furthermore, as we develop on-line selection to feed us information on our chosen topics (even, dangerously, from our chosen standpoint) we are at risk of tunnel vision, knowing only about those things that appear in our news feed. It brings back the old question - if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it in fact fall? Have you ever noticed that no-one ever asks if the tree was ever there?

It's like the selective memories of governments trying to clean up their past by pretending chunks of it did not happen, are we now deciding that the world exists only insofar as we are part of it or interested in it and that, outside our own bubble, or outside the influences that directly affect our bubble, we don't know about it therefore it did not happen?

We ignore things we think don't affect us: information overload is creating a narrower not a more widely read society. Outside the USA, who really cares about the developing story in Ferguson. In the UK, who saw the name "Ferguson," thought it was to do with soccer, opened the article, saw that it wasn't and moved on without reading more? Worse, how many saw the name and, assuming it to be about soccer, didn't even look at the articles that were taking up so much of the web?

As we filter our view of the world, looking down the cardboard tubes in the middle of toilet rolls, using tools like Google Alerts, Google News personalisation, Flipboard and dozens more, we are using technology to reduce our knowledge not increase it; to reinforce our views, our prejudices, not to educate ourselves out of them.

As mainstream media increasingly tries to keep its quantity (not, note, quality) of content up and its costs down, analysis is increasingly to be found in what would, only a few years ago, have been regarded as radical press. Yes, they have an agenda but so does Fox News.

Philosophers ask if the world is real or simply an imaginary construct in which we, individually, create our own environment.

Those constructing their own environment are unlikely to have dreamt up Ferguson, a small town in Missouri, USA, and the problems it is encountering. One of those formerly radical and therefore largely marginalised magazines is "The Nation." It's a parochial US focussed publication with a left-leaning agenda. But, unlike much of the (in my view unjustifiably fêted) Huffington Post which is re-written from other news sites or - in the case of the UK edition - from a so-far-left perspective that I need a telescope to see it, The Nation carries carefully constructed articles containing verified and verifiable facts to back them up. What is says in relation to Ferguson, aside from the political posturing about race and poverty and its political correctness in talking about "communities of colour," is disturbing. It is disturbing not because of what it says about Ferguson but because of what it says about the increasing militarisation of main street USA.

There are at least two stories: one the killing of an unarmed teenager by armed police and the riots that have ensued. That is the story that the toilet roll emphasises. Behind that story is a much more worrying story. "The Nation" does not show up in the early listings of news searches on Google: they are packed with what is almost spam content, repeated by news outlets with little or no fresh input, the republishing of newswire stories.

So it takes a while to find the most important analysis: sure, for the family concerned, the killing of teenager Michael Brown is desperate. But, in today's America, in truth, he's just another dead kid, albeit one killed by those who were supposed to protect him along with the whole of society. Bad as that is, the real story, the one that the filters and toilet roll tubes have hidden is this: the US military gives, or sells at a nominal charge, its overstocked or redundant equipment to police forces across the USA. In 1997 - and so pre-dating the argument that the USA is at war with terrorists - a scheme has been in place under which everything from combat clothing to armoured - and heavily armed - personnel carriers are handed-down to local police where they find themselves in the hands of groups that are not the famed SWAT groups. The total value passed down in this way is, says The Nation, some USD4,000 million. The full story is at http://www.thenation.com/article/181307/how-end-militarized-policing. This is the face of the USA that the USA does not want the world to see. Paramilitary police performing a civilian role - it's a recipe for disaster. While the motives and the control mechanisms are different, the picture is not very different from that of Ukrainian rebels preventing access to the site of the MH17 crash - and where it is different, it's that those in the USA are more heavily equipped. Michael Brown may yet turn out to be an example of what happens when the militarisation of society is out of control: it's impossible to watch much US TV without bad language and / or the language of the former soldier trying to hang on to the glory he thought his uniform would bring him. The reference to all military personnel as "heroes" and the annoying "thank you for your service" for every oik that's ever donned a uniform perpetuates an attitude that life is war. It isn't.

We are increasingly driven by sound-bites and headlines, by catch-phrases and buzzwords. Politicians employ writers to grab our attention in 20 seconds or less.

And we are increasingly ignorant.

We can only validly take part in society if we know and understand society.

We cannot understand people if we live the life of a hermit, with only a computer monitor as a window on the world.

It's a big world, a much bigger world than the screaming headlines designed to capture the attention of a news-search algorithm and much bigger than the narrow target that we set for our reading.

If we ever hope to understand the world around us, including so that we have any chance of identifying suspicion, we first need to look outside the obvious. We need to toss away that toilet roll tube and to broaden our horizons. We need to remove our pre-conceptions and to be open to new ideas. We need to scrap the filters that automatically hide things we have not pre-selected.

We need to give ourselves fresh information, fresh stimuli, fresh thinking.

It's not easy, especially with the exposure to so many news sources we now have in our daily lives. But by doing it, we can learn more, be educated more, have more valid and reasoned opinions and we can make representations that would allow us to change society for the better. To the world at large, Michael Brown is just another dead kid. He won't be the last nor even close to the last. But it would be good if his death marked a review of the broader issues that undermine effective policing and the relationship between society and its protectors.

We cannot do anything about that if we don't find out about it or if it disappears from our awareness like a photograph of the lunch someone had yesterday. And so, we have a duty to society and to ourselves, and to the shape we want the future to be. If we want Robocops and paramilitary police on every street, then fine. Don't read the papers, do nothing. But if we want a civilised society where ordinary people live ordinary lives in ordinary ways, then do not sit still. Do not simply say "Michael Brown is just another dead kid." Say "it's a step on the way to a police state and I do not authorise government to go in that direction." Discuss it with colleagues. Because, next time, that unarmed kid might be one you know. It might even be your own child. Far from escalating the arms race with criminals, governments should be removing weapons from all sectors of society with one or two very limited exceptions for those that live in rural areas and for which a single-shot gun is necessary.

Michael Brown is just another dead kid. And while the media attention put the riots in his home town in the centre of the toilet-roll for a short time each day, he, rather than the riots, is already not the story. Michael Brown is just another dead kid But we are behaving like goldfish viewing the world through a narrow tube. We see little and what we do see we quickly forget. In doing so, we do him and all those like him a disservice. And we allow the authoritarians to take ever more of our freedoms, like incursions into territory, occupying it to the exclusion of the residents and then claiming an entitlement to be there.

Michael Brown is just another dead kid. Unless something is done to de-escalate the attitudes of police and their tendency to resort to military tactics and procedures, even for small matters, he will never be anything more. For people like him, there are no stars on a wall in Langley, no carefully tended headstones in Arlington, no flag on the coffin and no 21 gun salute. Michael Brown is just another dead kid. He had no government-sponsored uniform that would raise him to the status of hero in the eyes of those who debase the term. Michael Brown was just another kid walking down the road. And now he's dead. And his home town is, in effect, under military rule as the National Guard take over from heavily armed local police. That was not what he, or the officer, expected when they left their homes earlier that day. It's difficult to see how either of them can be blamed: they are both conditioned, arguably the officer more than Brown.

It's in our hands to say we don't want society to go down that path. All we have to do is tell our politicians that we want specific policies in place, a pull back of routine weaponry for police and the removal of weapons from the civilian population amongst them. And we have to tell the politicians that these are our red lines, that we want undertakings in writing from both them individually and from the party they represent. We want time frames, short time frames, for that to happen. And if we do not get those clear and unequivocal guarantees, we will not vote for them. Of course, interested commercial parties will threaten to withdraw funding. So what? The funding is only there to advertise and promote a politician on tour. There is no need to tour. No need for debate. Just a clear commitment to unravel the terrifying situation generations of failing to address these issues has created.

Michael Brown is just another dead kid. But he should not be. He should be the line in the sand where we, ordinary people, stand to say we want our society back. And we should all, regardless of race, colour or creed, bow our heads for his funeral. Others have died in the past few days. Only Brown has the capability to take society with him - and all he did to deserve that awful burden was to walk down a road in the small town where he was born and lived his short life.

Michael Brown is not just another dead kid.

© 2014 Nigel Morris-Cotterill
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