On Monday, October 8th, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (yes- THAT Dalai Lama) graced the Syracuse campus with his presence. 77 years young, he surprised the crowd with his sassy comments and contagious laughter that rang through Goldstein Auditorium and the Carrier Dome during his lectures. One of the most interesting questions put to discussion was about social media's role in spreading peace and changing the global consciousness. NBC's Ann Curry, the moderator of the panel, acknowledged the power of social media in revolutions like the Arab Spring, but also asked whether the opportunity to care about the world can be dulled by social media.
While the 77-year-old holy man was (expectedly) not able to give tremendous insight into this question, Roxana Saberi (wrongfully-imprisoned journalist) sparked a great dialogue on the issue that continued in classrooms and coffee shops across campus. Roxana rightly pointed out that the impact of social media, in terms of either a dulling or positive effect, depends on how we use it. Ultimately, Roxana believed that social media is a powerful tool for giving a voice to the voiceless. "People are searching for meaning beyond themselves," she said, "and they are finding their oneness with others through faith, education or hardship...when we don't have a voice, we need other people to speak out for us, and we should use our skills and technology to be those voices."
However, I happen to believe that social media absolutely does have a dulling effect on the global consciousness. To understand my perspective, we have to look to the past. During the Vietnam War, Americans protested vehemently against the war. During the first and second World Wars, protests were few and far between. Why the difference? The Vietnam War was the first time America saw the real, on-the-ground violence of war. Nightly news shows covered the war with foreign correspondents and graphic video of the violence, and America's consciousness was shocked. Thousands of Americans were moved enough to protest the war and call for peace.
Today, images and news of violence have become so prevalent, that I would argue our consciousness has been dulled. We hear every day about soldiers and citizens losing their lives, and see almost daily vivid video depictions of the violence in Syria. But just minutes after the news ends, we casually return to our family dinners. We've seen it before, and we'll see it again tomorrow, and we accept it. "Just the way it is," we say.
I'd like to think social media will play a powerful role in a long term trend toward world peace. Sadly, the cynical academic in me quickly kills that optimism. The more we hear bad news, the more routine it becomes. Rather than being awoken by social media's spread of news of world violence and unrest, we are lulled back to our perpetual state of what I call "functional unconsciousness", and the world spins on.
" Functional Unconsciousness: The state of being by which one functions through submitting oneself to a sleep-like state with regard to global events and problems. "
Video of Dalai Lama panels: http://oneworld.syr.edu/webcast/