As I write this, we’re one day away from three full weeks of combat in Ukraine, and it’s safe to say that little of this war has gone the way Russia hoped at its onset. But as the men and women of Ukraine continue to defend against the Russian invasion, those of us comfortably removed from the violence face a new conflict of our own: a war against our short 21st-century attention spans. And as difficult as it may be to swallow, victory in their fight is heavily reliant on victory in ours.
I’m far from the first degree-dangling writer to opine about our modern love affair with trending outrages and social media warfare, but I may be among the few whose arguments aren’t based on a wistful longing for simpler times or a general distaste for modern culture. From my vantage point, culture—particularly popular culture—has always been much more than a reflection of the popular sentiments of a day. No, pop culture doesn’t just reflect our feelings about the world; it shapes them, helps them to form and harden until the bubble-gum content of today becomes a part of the cultural foundation of tomorrow. Our shared culture is the fabric that binds us as a people, a nation, and increasingly, as an international community.
Today’s Kim Kardashians complaining about people not “wanting to work” are yesterday’s Marie Antoinettes suggesting her people just eat cake as they starved for lack of bread (though, I feel it’s important to point out that attributing this quote to the French princess is likely apocryphal). Today’s blockbuster Marvel films dismissed by auteur filmmakers like Martin Scorsese are yesterday’s tales of Gilgamesh, Zeus, King Arthur and St. George.
Today’s Vladimir Putins are yesterday’s Genghis Khans, Vlad the Impalers, and Joseph Stalins.
That’s not to suggest that the world we inhabit today is the same one once occupied by these legends, heroes, or villains. In fact, chances are good that all of the historical figures I’ve listed—real or otherwise—would struggle to wrap their heads around the digital kingdoms that have sprung up in the invisible ether that surrounds and consumes us. Dialogue, discourse, and damnation no longer simply share analogs in cyberspace, they’ve moved there full time, only spilling into reality on the rare occasion that it’s you or someone you know holding phones in the air to capture history in a box for the rest of us to experience in real-time.
I don’t lament our mass exodus from the physical—hell, I’m a card-carrying member of the digital media these days; over the past year, more people have found my work in places like YouTube than in issues of Popular Mechanics. But despite how much I love getting to do my job in comfortable pants from my home office, there is indeed a dark side to moving our town criers and city squares into a virtual environment: the steady shortening of our collective attention spans.
We embrace trending outrages today like hit songs, playing them on repeat at louder and louder volumes until we sicken of them. At first, we keep the song on our “favorites” playlist as a signal of our support and in remembrance of our former fervor, but our behavior shifts. When the first few notes of the song reached our ears a week ago and we’d turn up the volume, but now we simply press skip.
Until we find ourselves a new song that can evoke the emotion, the excitement, or the drama we once felt as we listened to old favorites and start the process anew.
That isn’t some deep-seated human failing or devastating societal woe in need of correction. It’s human nature to experience diminishing emotional returns on increasingly familiar experiences. We’re no more at fault for losing interest in trending topics than we are for outgrowing our shoes as kids. It’s our natural state of being.
But as we enter into this third week of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign democratic nation, that natural process poses an indirect threat to the men and women of Ukraine, fighting to defend their homes. As time presses on, and the tragedies out of Ukraine mount, the same mental wiring that made the Macarena an international sensation one week and a generation-spanning embarrassment the next now conspires to blur the edges of Ukraine’s plight against a brightly lit backdrop of new and old outrages percolating toward the surface of our collective consciousness. Familiarity is the enemy of interest, and the longer this war rages on, the more normal news of Ukrainians’ pain becomes, the harder it becomes to discern against other issues that warrant our interest, focus, and attention.
When Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against targets in Erbil, Iraq over this past weekend, the world took immediate notice. The United States has a military base and a consulate in Erbil, after all, and an unprovoked ballistic missile attack against American targets could represent a sudden and serious development in a world feverishly working to prevent global war. But when it turned out Iran was targeting Israeli intelligence facilities—retribution for an Israeli airstrike that killed two Iranian IRGC members in Syria days prior—the world’s focus moved on.
The stakes, the drama, just weren’t there. After all, at this point, nations exchanging rockets or even the occasional ballistic missile over the Middle East has become a song we know too well. As soon as we realized this new song was just a remix of an old one we all already knew by heart, the world clicked skip.
And to be clear, Ukraine is already working its way to America’s metaphorical oldies stations, with more Americans clicking skip each day the war wears on.
Of course, this chart doesn’t reflect everyone’s genuine interest in Ukraine or their concern for its people; it represents nothing more than people Googling the nation… but it’s indicative of our attention span beginning to wane, and of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fading into the white static of normalcy.
In most cases, waning interest isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it’s just a thing. But in this case, the world’s attention genuinely matters. Ukraine has led an incredible campaign to unite much of the world against Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression. That groundswell of support has pushed policymakers and diplomats around the world to leverage all sorts of tools to punish Putin’s regime, some that have or will even result in higher prices for common goods like gasoline. It’s encouraged Russians to take to the streets, interrupt news broadcasts, and more to speak out against an unjust war. Popular support for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, while ill-advised, has forced NATO officials to look for and justify other more realistic means of helping the war effort, and for the first time in history, civilian analysts and open-source researchers are helping to highlight the atrocities of this war in real-time and in ways the world has never seen.
But these efforts are paid for in the currency of our collective interest. It’s our clicks, our shares, and our @s that propel these things out of the digital ether and into the very real world by way of military equipment deliveries, policy decisions, and economic support for Ukraine, as well as international sanctions and financial penalties for Russia.
So, as those in Ukraine continue to fight for their homes, their government, and their freedom, those of us fortunate enough to look on from the comfort and safety of nations like the United States have a choice to make. Do we let Ukraine fade into memory as just another battleground where travesties are normalized and seemingly dismissable… or do we steel our resolve each morning and give Ukraine one more day.
One more day at the top of our trending outrages. One more day on the tips of our tongues. One more day with the volume turned up to 10.
In the months to come, Ukraine as the free democratic nation we know it to be may cease to exist. Popular support from the Western world may not be enough to change that… but much of this war has been unprecedented.
We owe it to Ukraine to see if the outcome can be too.
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Feature image courtesy of Alisdare Hickson via WikiMedia Commons