A very different time

It is hard to remember life before smartphones and social media. But in 2001, my TV was my main connection with the outside world. I was unemployed after June and had no internet connection at home. On 9/11, I was just dallying at home all day with the TV off. I did not turn on the TV until 8pm PDT — and suddenly there was a lot to catch up with.

I am trying to imagine how the events would have unfolded with the technology of today. We are so much more reactive now because we get so much more information so much more quickly. Instead of an unlikely accident on an otherwise ordinary day, perhaps the situation would already have been escalated to a horrific extraordinary day on which anything might happen; and the South Tower would have been evacuated immediately after the first plane struck the North Tower; and people would have streamed out of Lower Manhattan by any means possible. Perhaps both towers might have been evacuated at the first suggestion of highjacked airliners headed for New York City. But the outcome might have been even worse, with terrorists leveraging social media to creat panic and chaos.

I watched the 9/11 movie recently released on Apple TV+. It documents how the events unfolded from the perspective of the Bush White House. Hard to believe now, but in 2001, Air Force One relied on terrestrial TV broadcast signals — so the president only got a viewable signal while Air Force One was over a city.

A very different time indeed.

Not necessarily a waste of time

Neighborhood blogs have replaced the local newspaper in many communities. Where I live, we are fortunate that the local blog is operated by professional journalists with more than thirty years of experience reporting the news in Seattle. So serious news does get professional treatment.

And then there are the comments.

Some people I know are rather smug about not reading the comments — what Dave Gorman refers to as “the bottom of the internet”. But I find the comments equally as important as the reported news itself.

When Seattle gets hit by a rare snowstorm, I can find qualified nowcasts, forecasts and outlooks on weather sites. I am signed up for transit alerts. And I can always look out the window. But what will determine how smoothly, or not smoothly, my day will go, is not just about the weather conditions and the direct effects on traffic and transit; it is also about how other people are reacting to it. And the comment threads on the blog are an excellent barometer of the mood I can expect to encounter should I need to venture out in the snow.

And that is true with everything that goes pear-shaped in Seattle. Of course, I would like to know how elected officials and agencies are responding. But I really need a sense of how angry people are — and how many of those angry people are on the brink of becoming unhinged. As an autistic person, I find this kind of “eavesdropping” very useful. Under Covid-19 restrictions, I have found this invaluable. Very often, the way other people are reacting to the situation causes more trouble and inconvenience that the event that caused it.

So please do not judge me for skipping over the news I already know about to scroll down and read the comments. 🙂

The bad news, the bad news, the bad news, and the good news

Doom-scrolling has been a bad habit of mine for years. I no longer use social media, but I can kill a lot of time in the Apple News app. And because I am the kind of person to “lean into” topics that scare me instead of running away from them, my Apple News feed is always full of things that scare me! This is not good for an autistic person with high levels of anxiety.

The problem is, bad news has a way of coming all at once. When a company is losing money and needs to reduce its workforce, it typically lays off people in the thousands and it makes a big headline: ACME To Lay Off 20,000. But when things turn around at ACME and they start hiring again, it is a handful of people at a time, as individual departments are given the go-ahead to start filling positions that have gone unfilled in the meantime. You never see an announcement of rehires: ACME hires IT Support Specialist, 3 Customer Support Specialists, 2 Shipping Clerks and 2 Entry-Level Engineers. When employment levels recover as an economy gets moving again, we know about it largely from monthly employment reports of hiring data aggregated across the entire economy. Even there, the good news comes in more slowly than the bad news did. In the early months of a recession, an economy can lose 1 million jobs in a month. But even when the economy is growing well, we rarely see more than 400,000 jobs added in a month (in the US) — and in a lukewarm recovery it can be much less than that. But eventually, it adds up — and one day we are told that the unemployment rate has dropped below 4 percent, far below the 12 percent it topped out at in the recession — good news for the economy as a whole — but for those who have remained unemployed for the duration, the news is still bad.

Basically, bad stuff seems to happen in big doses — which we usually hear about, while good stuff happens in a lot of little doses — most of which we never hear about. Bad news also seems to have a bigger ripple effect. A plane crash can lead to the grounding of the entire fleet of an airline. A bad week on the stock market can drive companies and individuals to cut spending. Data breaches and cyber attacks reveal vulnerabilities many of us never knew existed and throw us into a panic. And this is without a pandemic to worry about. Conversely, a few little pieces of good news are never enough to encourage most of us back into water.

Perhaps those of us who engage in doom-scrolling are literally hoping to find those little green shoots of emerging good news; the silver lining around the cloud; the light at the end of the tunnel. But they are hard to find.

When the two Covid-19 vaccines were announced in close succession, it did seem like a rare occurrence of good news coming all at once. But in reality, the vaccine will be doled out one person at a time — so we are unlikely to see a positive outcome for many, many months. And the economic recovery we are all hoping for will probably be even slower to materialize.

I am not a historian — but history does tell us that this will pass. One day, it will be normal again to write a blog post from a coffee shop where one was lucky to grab the last open table and had to wait fifteen minutes for one’s drink to be ready. But coffee shops will reopen one at a time. And baristas will be hired one at a time. And so it goes for the rest of the economy. And there is no way of knowing how many years that will take.

In the meantime, we just have to keep looking for the good news.