Mercy in the metaverse — ancient wisdom and the attention economy
Barron Segar, head of World Food Program USA, recently raised an important point of concern: The fragmentation of media — all those websites, all that social media — poses a threat to public awareness of humanitarian crises. Segar wrote, “as our news consumption becomes more curated and built to keep us scrolling, plugged in, or exploring the metaverse,” the risk is that some click-hungry algorithm will shunt aside “the faces of the hungry.”
Yes, that’s a potential danger, and yet it’s only one of many dynamics within the so-called “attention economy.” The underlying issue, of course, is that old media “mainframes,” which once dominated the discourse, have eroded: magazines, newspapers, and broadcast TV networks have lost much of their agenda-setting power. And now, even cable news — which never had a truly large audience but was certainly influential — is being cut into pixelated slivers. Just on Jan. 10, CNN’s Oliver Darcy lamented, “If people are tuning out what’s going on in cable news … they’re just, you know, ignoring everything and living their lives and we’re not really getting the information that they need to them.”
Some will say that this is just the sad bleating — and special pleading — of old-media dinosaurs, even if, of course, they’re not very old.
In any case, it’s hard to see how this trend toward niche-ification is going to be reversed; the whole thrust of the internet, after all, is to allow people to have exactly what they want — or think they want — whenever they want it.
Furthermore, it’s never been easy to deliver a message. It was hard to get a point across in the era before the printing press, it was hard in the era before electronic communication, and it was hard in the era of world wars. Yet nevertheless, in those olden days, people managed to come together to do good; according to the National Philanthropic Trust, the first transnational humanitarian charities emerged in the 1640s — during the Thirty Years’ War, in fact. So we can see: The human desire to help can always find a path.
In fact, the internet, multitudinous as it might be, offers the promise of new ways to blaze a trail. And paradoxically, part of the solution can be found in the rediscovery of old ways. Twenty-four hundred years ago, Aristotle identified three keys to effective communication: logos, the appeal to logic; pathos, the appeal to emotion; and ethos, the credibility of the communicator.
All these eons later, nothing has really changed: We are still persuaded — or not — by the quality of a piece of advocacy, and the qualities of the advocate. Yes, digital witchcraft can bamboozle some, and yet bamboozlement is nothing new. And the cure to mystification is still to be found in that Aristotelian trio: logic, emotion, credibility.
Yet, even as would-be persuaders should be brushing up on the basics of the classics, we can also observe that the internet, by its nuanced nature, provides new opportunities for people to connect with each other. This is the age of search, and it’s also the age of being found — and that’s how new communities of interest spring up, including those based on mercy and charity.
Indeed, the internet has one singularly sensational strength: Interactivity. So, if influencers and “influencees” can find each other, they can develop a relationship in a New York nanosecond; they can exchange ideas — and resources — with the simplicity of a click. Indeed, we’re already seeing the rise of relationship-based systems on the web, including Patreon, GoFundMe, and even — admittedly on the naughty side — OnlyFans.
On each platform, a relationship is being made, some need is being met — and billions are changing hands. So yes, as Segar says, we may all end up in the metaverse. And yet even if we’re there, many of us will still care. And if we do care, we’ll be glad to know that the ability to help is just a click away. Perhaps such helping apps need more scale; of course, the internet is all about logarithmic scale. And yes, too, in the metaversal future, it will help to have a jazzy avatar.
Still, to read Aristotle is to be reminded that human nature is a constant — and that’s an encouraging thought, that humanity will always include humanitarianism. Moreover, thanks to the internet — including the coming metaverse — it’s never been easier for those who wish to help to connect to those in need.
James P. Pinkerton served as a domestic policy aide in the White Houses of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
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