A World Grown Too Small and Too Large

Last night I stared at Twitter while chaos erupted in Boston for the second time this week. I am still trying to make sense of the events—not as a narrative, but as part of broader trends that underlie all of these insane rampages, from Loughner in Tucson to Lanza in Newtown. This is probably futile, but I want to explore an idea…

Our world exists on multiple, simultaneous scales. The increase in random, violent outbursts results, in part, from tensions created by changing geographic and social scales since the industrial revolution.

The world is too small: beginning with the steam engine and telegraph, accessibility has made the physical world feel smaller. All land is accounted for. The Earth has been mapped, enclosed, and made accessible through transit. For those who feel constrained by society, there is no escape. More recently, information technology has demystified much of the world. We can travel without motion, making the exotic cheap and commonplace. In the process, sharp cultural distinctions are slowly mellowing into global homogeneity—our inability to escape physically is becoming mirrored by our inability to escape culturally.

The world is too big: global population has increased hyperbolically, growing from roughly one to seven billion in the last century alone. Concurrently, we pack ourselves into cities (often forced by economic necessity) more tightly than at any previous point in history. The weight of our numbers devalues life and the immense volume of our creativity renders us unable to keep pace with the present. Inundated by a flood of our own species, we are forced to confront our limits in new ways, not only the limits of our empathy, but the eerie limits of our biology—our most creative thoughts are common to hordes of others and a quick search on YouTube exposes our most practiced talents as commonplace. Elsewhere, our greatest thinkers and most powerful organizations flail about in efforts to make sense of the world and, even when they command our respect, we view them with a tinge of contempt and pity. Everything is cliché. In the big picture, personal agency feels dead.

Trapped on a postage stamp-sized planet, suffocated by numbers, marching to the tune of bureaucracies seemingly conscious yet inhuman, our old explanatory narratives ring hollow and farcical. Millenarianism is debunked weekly, sending believers scurrying hysterically to the next phony apocalypse. Glassy-eyed pimps of techno-rapture sell an ill-conceived future that is always arriving yet never here, never satisfactory. Even war has been stripped of its phony pretension to meaning. It has been a long time since we’ve had the purposeful joy of killing Nazis and today our enemy is a vague concept defined by politicians we hate and mistrust. What are we left with? Plastic surgery and sacred underwear.

As our narratives implode around us and we are dwarfed by careening systems of our own design, we retreat into micro-narratives of control like bulimics exerting power over the most basic aspects of their lives. In its best manifestations, this control-drive can be sublimated into career, family, local community, or a fixation with health. It can be a positive interior journey that is spiritual, philosophical, or artistic.

There can also be micro-narratives that offer meaning through violence. Because state sponsored war is too anonymous and pointless (and probably scary) for the violent egoists among us, they hallucinate enemies at schools and marathons. With sufficient brutality, their personal micro-narrative can explode onto the media landscape and, briefly, give us a collective narrative. The Tsarnaevs, Lanzas, and Loughners of the world lust for this moment and bask in our attention—they’re living out a fantasy war with their own ludicrous grievances, foes, and justifications. They are desperate to impose this narrative arc on our post-narrative world, to be the story we talk about. They will do this if it means murdering innocents, psychologically destroying their parents and dying, broken and alone, on the concrete of a sidewalk or a cell.

All of these young men are sadists and might have been so in any era, but they are uniquely visible today because we inhabit a world which gives them nothing to believe in, no space to be feral, and constantly pricks their soft egos with reminders of smallness. In a disgusting twist of irony, their deranged bids to achieve meaning through violence only highlight their ultimate meaninglessness. Families will spend lifetimes grieving for irreplaceable and senseless losses, but the media will bury the spectacle (it’s really not a story) under a million fresh banalities, Twitter will revert to solipsism, and the shape of the world will remain unchanged.

We are all casualties of this world, not just because we could get shredded in the crossfire of another zit-faced madman, but because we encourage them. Even when our micro-narratives are satisfying, they don’t fulfill all of our needs. They can be repetitive, dull and, if we step back from them, lose their meaning entirely. Spectacles like the Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing shootout give us a break from routine, a common story, and a simple plot: there are clear villains and the solution is to kill or capture them. We get off on determining truth from gossipy tweets, cliffhangers, and the death of strangers. We bond over a common story with friends, delight in casting judgment, and quietly relish the horror—as long as the people we know are safe. “Voyeurism” doesn’t capture the perversity of our fascination with distant tragedies.

It is temping to glance back in nostalgia, to imagine a primitive and undeveloped time when we could naively enjoy the psychological comfort of big narratives, feel like we objectively understood reality, and go on a good adventure. Yet we know those eras were violent and senseless too, albeit for different reasons, and every one of today’s shooters could have been the foot-soldier burning your town. The answer is not to turn back the clock, but to focus on how our challenges differ from the past.

We live in a historical moment when we can no longer vent our worst element into an imperial army or spew them across the West as greedy and sanctimonious homesteaders. Unfortunately, coliseums are out of style, too. But we can reign in our love of simple, dramatic narratives and stop rewarding bloody outbursts with fawning attention. For those of us out of the line of fire, we could use our much-vaunted social media to start a conversation about the root causes of violence rather than titillating ourselves with the irrelevant details of an unfolding story. Should we examine class and social mobility? Depictions of violence in media? Gun control? The alienation of cities?

A real conversation would demand research and thought—neither of which we like—and comes with no guarantee of solving anything. But here’s the deal: talking about substantive issues can’t make things worse. With luck, the right conversation might even help us find better ways to ease the tension of a world that is too small and too large.