How we ruined Thai cave miracle
IN THE Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is basically the closest thing that nerds have to a bible, the late great Douglas Adams came up with the concept of the Babel fish - the most ingenious creature that ever lived.
Basically all you had to do was stick the fish in your ear and suddenly you could understand every single language ever spoken.
Alien races from all over the universe could suddenly communicate effortlessly with each other for the first time.
This was, of course, nothing short of miraculous.
There was only one small catch, as Adams explained: "Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."
The problem, when you actually think about it, is pretty easy to understand.
While we may not be able to choose our family, we can choose our friends - or so the old saying assures us.
And most people either live in the area they grew up in or move somewhere else that they prefer.
In other words, for pretty much all of human history people have been surrounded by people that they either like or have at least got used to.
Even if you hated someone it was usually at least someone you knew.
In fact the very word "xenophobia", unwittingly made famous by Pauline Hanson two decades ago, does not really just mean a fear of foreigners as was popularly said, but more a fear of strangers.
The Ancient Greek word "xenos" could cover anyone from an unknown barbarian to an unexpected house guest.
And so we have a fear of strangers so deeply rooted in us that the word for it traces back to Homer - to the very birth of modern language and Western civilisation itself.
Little wonder that when Douglas Adams' Babel fish came along, suddenly enabling all strangers to communicate with each other, a galactic bloodbath followed.
Thank God, you might then say - had the Babel fish also not disproved His existence - that the Babel fish is not actually real.
But there is, unfortunately, another catch. For while the Babel fish wasn't real when Adams invented it in the late 1970s, it is very real now.
Because what the world wide web has become is basically one giant Babel fish, a sprawling, limitless, effortless facility for people all over the world to say whatever they want to each other.
Of course at first this was imagined to be a good thing.
Initially the internet was supposed to enable vital military communications in the event of a global war or global crisis, then it was a platform for the planet's brightest minds to share their knowledge and research with each other and produce inestimably wondrous scientific breakthroughs.
And even the advent of universally accessible social media combined with affordable mass produced smartphones just over a decade ago was assumed to be a groundbreaking benefit for all of humankind.
For surely once we could all communicate with each other we would learn that we are not so different?
That we are all the same species on the same planet with the same basic hopes and fears and loves?
The internet giant Yahoo! even created the first free online translation service and actually called it "Babel Fish".
I guess whoever was in charge didn't read the bit about "causing more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation".
Because far from bringing people together it has become increasingly clear that social media is tearing us apart.
There is now a growing mountain of evidence that at almost every level of human existence social media is a net cause of harm, ranging from the nauseatingly benign to the brutally deadly to the potentially world-ending.
Let us just consider a few of the recent examples:
● So-called "influencers" buying followers so they can get paid for spruiking overpriced rubbish
● So-called "influencers" simply spruiking overpriced rubbish
● People getting clinical depression from feeling they are inadequate compared to the fake perfection they scroll through online
● Schoolkids suiciding because of the unrelenting reach of online bullying
● Terrorists using social media to broadcast beheadings and recruit, groom and communicate with radicalised youths
● Russians using social media to manipulate the election results of the most powerful nation on earth
● The leader of said most powerful nation on earth using social media to provoke an unstable rogue despot who may or may not have a nuclear bomb.
But the really scary thing is that you can't blame the people who invented social media, any more than you can blame the scientists who invented the nuclear bomb in the first place.
On the contrary, it is the nature of humankind that if something can be invented it will be invented and even bad things are created with good intentions.
No, as usual the problem isn't really Twitter or Facebook or Apple or Google: It's us. Humans have spent so long trying to figure out how to communicate with other people that no one has stopped to wonder whether we actually should.
For another example, let's step it back a couple of paces from kids killing themselves and World War III.
Last week I wrote a long, considered feature about proposed new consent laws and suggested that perhaps the government ought not legislate exactly what couples need to say before they have sex.
Knowing the sensitivity of the issue, I was at pains to praise the efforts of the minister proposing it and even opened by explaining that I, too, was once a young radical sympathetic to such ideological crusades.
I also, obviously, condemned sexual assault and its perpetrators and appealed for faith in the better angels of human nature.
Well, responded a feminist activist from New Zealand, that means you're a rapist!
Or for another grotesque display, consider the biggest social media story out of the Thai cave rescue mission.
As you will recall, Elon Musk offered to stick his submarine where the sun don't shine only to be told by a rescue diver to stick his submarine where the sun don't shine.
It should go without saying that there was no foundation whatsoever for this but of course in the world of social media nothing ever goes without saying and so I am legally obliged to say: There was no foundation whatsoever for this.
So here we have what is probably the most extraordinary collective display of humanity the world has seen this century and perhaps the most miraculous rescue mission of all time and somehow on Twitter it has become a story in which one of the heroes ends up accused of being a sex offender.
I mean seriously, how the f**k did that happen?
The truth is that some people probably just shouldn't have anything to do with each other.
Radical feminist uni students probably have little to offer middle-aged suburban dads and radical Pentecostal Christians probably have little to offer someone who has just been partying at the Columbian for 72 hours.
In other words, just because you can communicate with someone it doesn't mean that you should.
As your mother always told you, if you can't say something nice about someone don't say anything at all.
Maybe we should spend more time talking to the people we like instead of shouting at the people we hate.
And maybe it's more important to have a debate about ideas than a democracy of dickheads.
Or maybe it's just time for a new hashtag: #SHUTUP
- Continue the conversation with Joe Hildebrand on Twitter @Joe_Hildebrand