Bringing more beauty into the world
On social living, networks, and ordinary beauty
An oddity of the always-on digital world is that we are enabled to remain in communication with tens, hundreds, and even thousands of other people on a sustained basis, yet nothing about human experience up to this point has given us practice in that kind of experience. Humans have always communicated with one another; indeed, the complexity of our interpersonal communication is one of the distinctive features of our humanity within the animal kingdom. But the fact that we can communicate with effectively unlimited audiences in real time -- right down to live streaming our moment-by-moment experience of the world -- is historically novel.
■ This connectivity raises the existence of an interesting new responsibility. We are each accountable for how much joy and beauty we create in the world. That has always been the case: Families and close-knit groups have always told us how we're doing with the help of visceral feedback. Did you make a child laugh? Did your co-workers greet you in the morning? Did your spouse blow you a kiss?
■ Now, though, if we choose to engage in the digital networks that are basically enmeshed with contemporary existence, we have to treat our extended networks with special attention to the balance of what we create. Some people still opt out of them, but for most people, the networks are almost impossible to avoid and often hard to resist.
■ Some people succumb to the temptation to treat all of those interactions as a sales opportunity -- think of the "influencer" culture that rewards people for living in TikTok mansions. And others fall for the lure of turning to their social networks instead of sharing their problems with trained professionals, like counselors and therapists. Neither approach seems prudent.
■ Instead, for most people, our best hope is to treat forays into our social diaries a lot like visits around a campfire, with pleasant company and light entertainment. While our social nature may compel us to share both life's ups and downs, beauty and joy should be the categories we consciously seek most often to fill -- whether with earnest humor or with those moments we are able to capture in still pictures, videos, conversations, or even paintings.
■ Just as it's wise to give other drivers grace on the highways (after all, we never know who, for example, is returning home from seeing an ailing family member in the hospital), so too is it wise to assume that someone encountering our moments online may be there in the midst of the worst.
■ We aren't practiced at it yet anthropologically, but as a matter of general principle, we ought to spend most of our time not sharing over-glossy depictions of life, but of the ordinary encounters with good we have in the world. Beauty has never been so easy to capture; it is a shame if we don't share what of it we find.