Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sick of Pendulum Swings...

If I had a grandfather clock, I probably would have taken the pendulum out for the time being so I wouldn't have to think about pendulums.  I'm just tired of hearing about "pendulum swings" in the news:
The Washington Post
The Economist
The Wall Street Journal 
The New York Times
Oregon Public Broadcasting
The National (Australia)

And books:
Turkey: The Pendulum Swings Back
Pendulum Swing
The Pendulum Swings: Transforming School Reform
Resisting the Pendulum Swing

And even academic journal articles:
Intrauterine Contraception: The Pendulum Swings Back
Less Sedation in Intensive Care: The Pendulum Swings Back
The Enablement Pendulum Swings Back
Psychology Today

It's strange to me that this analogy about ourselves has so taken hold of our imaginations, especially in an era where very few people use grandfather clocks to tell time, or otherwise have operating pendulums in their lives.  We tell time by our digital media: flat, sleek, cool instruments that do not depict time as motion. 

But the pendulum swing is mostly motion and has, in the past, been somewhat nice as an analogy precisely because of its motion: it suggests that people change their minds.  Pendulum swings were once seen as slow social change, however.  My natural history museum in Denver where I grew up had a very large pendulum that also moved quite slowly - but it could tell time.  Society is something even bigger than that and of course we would lumber along and slowly change when it comes to things like racism or the industrial revolution.

Given how often "pendulum swing" is popping up in blogs and news and everywhere these days, it would seem that we are a nation of very, very frequent mind changers.  Perhaps we think that this frequent mind changing business goes hand in hand with the ever-faster technology that we now have.  "Things just move so fast these days," people say.

But I'm not convinced that we change our minds quite that frequently.

Instead, I'm reflecting on the time pieces we do actually use as analogy: the cool, sleek, motionless ones.  Time, for us, is nothing but a packaged byte, a blip on the screen as we pause momentarily in playing i-pod games or halt briefly in mid-conversation on our cell phones.

Vince Miller spoke at the Catholic Theological Society of America talking about the ways in which internet groups allowed people to maintain enclaves with other people who think exactly like they do.  Catholics now see each other in terms of liberal and conservative, rather than just "Catholic" in part because groups band together around pet issues and the Catholic voices that had the most influence in the last election happen to also be ones that had significant internet presence.

  Carl Elliot writes about apotemnophiliacs, people who believe their lives will be better if they have an amputation of an arm or a leg; the internet has allowed them to cluster together.  In the absence of the internet, no apotemnophiliac would have been given credence in their communities, in part because they represent an extremely small portion of the population.  In the internet age, however, they have a voice, and now a means by which they can persuade surgeons that amputation is really no different from plastic surgery in terms of peoples' rights to be who they want to be.

In other words, in many ways the internet exposes us to more people like ourselves rather than less. And, we have the freedom to congregate at websites that represent more of our own thinking rather than less.  You will see gadflys at various sites, people arguing about hot button topics, with the conversation in the comments sections always ENDING LIKE THIS, WITH PEOPLE YELLING AT EACH OTHER TRYING TO GET EACH OTHER'S ATTENTION EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW THEY WON'T CHANGE THEIR MINDS.

But no real evidence of a pendulum swing - no people who change their minds en masse.

Just people who believe that there are either more people like them or less people like them, depending on the emphasis of that day's news shows, which in turn leads people to be either apathetic or to join in the noisy throngs that profess what they profess.

Am I being too cynical (or too stupid) about this? Likely.  Let me just wait till the intelligence pendulum swings back, here...

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