That fairly well-known phrase is a question that Benjamin Franklin asked himself every morning as he woke up. At the end of the day, he addressed himself once again: "What good have I done today?"
Too often, I think our fast-paced, newsfeed-driven world forces us to replace those deeply introspective questions with a constant state of "WHAT IS HAPPENING?" Our reptilian brains are hard-wired to constantly gather information and search for patterns, but as media has evolved over the last 100 years, the speed in which information reaches us has increased one thousand fold.
Consider: In Benjamin Franklin's time, the primary form of media was newspapers and town criers (for the estimated 10% who were illiterate...imagine a world where every 10th person you encountered couldn't write their name). There was no news that did not appear in the paper, everything else was just unsubstantiated gossip. The primary form of entertainment was not blockbuster films or Netflix queues, they were books and discussions. Music was not played on radios or even records, it was played live or it was not played at all. Most people's primary exposure to all of these things—news, books, and music—came through the lens of the church and the pastor. Public art then merely consisted of monuments and buildings for revolutionary leaders.
It is an understatement to say it was a simpler time in the late 1700's. It was a simpler time to the "modernists" who lived a hundred years ago and were just getting used to the idea of a radio box that could transmit music and news verbally across the world. Now, we live in a time where direct video connection is possible almost anywhere on the planet, and our media-obsessed minds are being bombarded with more entertainment and information than we've ever had to sift through before. We're affected on the macro and micro levels.
At it's smallest unit, the fact that all of my friends and colleagues are capable of creating any form of media themselves—Snaps and Periscopes and Instagrams and text messasges—means that the amount of interpersonal media we're asked to consume can feel insurmountable at times. Our interactions once consisted of a few tight relationships with people we saw every day, and the few people we considered close enough to write letters to (or, in the last 100 years, call on the phone). Now, our interactions have ballooned to every single person you've ever followed on Twitter or friended on Facebook. I can get a text from my high school ex-girlfriend who lives in Houston, Skype with my best friend in LA, post things on my mom's wall and IM with my co-worker on the other side of the office. We have scaled our ability to maintain constant communication with each other, but at the cost of intimacy.
And of course, at the larger level, media segmentation has allowed everyone to get their news and information from the source they care most about. In a single household, dad may be glued to ESPN, mom may only tune in to Fox News, their teenage daughter watches E! and their pre-teen son only watches what's on Youtube. 4 people living in the same house, getting vastly different media diets and interacting with entirely different subjects. These diets spread across screens and affect the people they follow on Twitter, the movies see, the games they buy, and the blogs they visit.
We ignored the warnings that TV could melt our brains, and while I'd argue that the screens have made us much smarter than we were 100 years ago, they have also made us much more skittish than we've ever been before. Like the movies, we are only drawn to news of explosions and gunshots, good guys and bad guys. Constant terror, constant breaking news. The world is a scary place, and we love nothing more than to remind ourselves of that. We watch helplessly as things happen on the screens in front of us, and then when the time for us comes to make a difference, the most we can be pressed to do is dump a bucket of ice on our heads...because it makes for great Youtube.
All this is not to say that we are a species doomed by our moth-like tendencies for screens. I do believe there is hope for us to deal with the issues we find ourselves facing every day. Racial discrimination, global warming, income inequality, women's rights, LGBT rights, national security, domestic spying, the middle east, gerrymandering, campaign finance, the war on drugs, antibiotic resistance, education reform, criminal justice reform, gun violence, free speech protection, Wall Street prosecution, drone use. The list of issues is endlessly long, but our current media ecosystem has no interest in addressing any of it. Not when Bieber is having a breakdown or a Buzzfeed has a new list of 23 Reasons You Should Count To 23.
That's what I'd like to see change. Let's stop simply consuming and acting outraged and let's start collaborating and figuring out how to unfuck ourselves in our lifetime.
My firm belief is that it starts with all of us asking ourselves a single question: What good can I do today?