Looking at headlines and social media posts is a constant reminder of the chaos of our modern world - rife with natural disasters, mass shootings, political unrest, and the feed goes on - but also of our inability to discuss difficult things in a meaningful way. Headlines fail to call terrorists "terrorists" - they prefer the innocuous "gunman" even in venerated publications like the New York Times. Social media is a jumble of your friends' honeymoon and hollow calls to action and political rants and pretty pictures originally posted on Instagram (my favorite form of social media).
Personally, I dislike posting my political opinions to social media, because of the way that they dissolve complex ideas into sound bites. You can tweet back, but you can't truly argue a point. I need to have conversations about complex subjects, one-sided posts make me feel frustrated that I am not understood, in a futile way that I have not experienced discussing difficult topics like politics face-to-face. Thankfully, I am not alone, and in the last few months have joined others to form a politically-minded book club and attended inspiring community events like Civic Saturday. It is easier to feel empathy when you are breathing the same air.
Avoiding Facebook and Twitter in my personal life (I still go on for work, and appreciate the platforms for discovering and spreading the word about local events) keeps me from going too crazy over the state of the world. A recent article by Peter Mountford in City Arts Magazine explained a theory - that reading and writing fiction increases empathy, an essential "imaginative power" that connects us and builds relationships. On the contrary, social media seems to be eroding empathy, making us react quickly before we understand situations or who is receiving the message and how they might interpret it. Mountford states the power of quitting Facebook, "The news since (the election of a "bellicose golf enthusiast") has been a steady disintegration toward the dystopian, but without Facebook in my face all day I’m able to metabolize this toxicity without falling apart. After a month without it, I began to feel like I was on a potent antidepressant." My goal this year is to read more fiction, to engage in political dialogues in my community more often, and to look at social media less often.
So how do we better engage with others? I am thrilled that the Seattle Design Foundation just opened the 2017 SDF Grant submission site to address this. The theme for the grant is Future Dialogues. The grant winner(s) will address questions like: "How might we open lines of communication between people of different socioeconomic, cultural, and generational backgrounds?", "How can we could create deeper discussions around these topics that define our day to day lives?", and "How can we facilitate community over the long term?"
In 1971 Charles Eames said “Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.” Designers in all disciplines are working to create a better world, and I look forward to seeing how we use our creative problem-solving skills to think about the next era of communication, in the "age of choices."