The dual crises of the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been testing our governments, our institutions, our diplomacy — and our collective sense of time. In part because of social media, both events already seem intolerably long, even though the Russian invasion of Ukraine is less than a month old.
One of the most prominent words of the last few years is “doomscrolling.” People can now easily imbibe new information 24/7, about Covid or the war, simply by scrolling through social media on their phones.
In the case of Ukraine, every day there are scores of events to learn about and react to. I can pop into my Twitter feed and see that Russian missiles have started hitting Odesa, the Ukrainian city of Mariupol refuses to surrender, and a shopping mall in Kyiv has been destroyed. I can read multiple analyses of how the China-Russia relationship is evolving, or get the latest about rumors of a coup against Putin. And all this is without even making much of an effort.
Once upon a time, news of war was lumpier and more periodic — people watched the nightly news or read the morning paper. They could turn on the radio and hear more frequent bulletins, but due to the absence of the internet and other means of modern communication, there were far fewer reports from far fewer sources.
The now-neverending stream of information shapes our perception of time. For many people, especially America’s news-intensive elites, it may make the war feel much longer than it actually has been.
This greater sense of witness to atrocities cements this impression. Each moral outrage, no matter how small, is taken in. Several generations ago, people may have heard that there was a big battle over a place called Dien Bien Phu. Nowadays, they can see, replay and share videos of people who died or were injured in the bombing of a theater in Mariupol. Each terrible event somehow feels more intolerable than the last, fueling the feeling that something must give and that the war has to end soon.
That is a dangerous feeling, if only because it makes it harder for leaders to pursue strategies of patience. Polls show high US public support for a no-fly zone, although in my view that would lead to an unacceptably higher risk of escalating the war. This hawkish stance is not hard to understand. If the current situation feels intolerable, then surely something dramatic and decisive has to happen very soon — and better to act than be acted upon. At the very least action will imbue a feeling of having “done something.”
Doomscrolling-induced impatience also induces people to underrate Russian military prospects. It is true that Russia failed to achieve its objective of an immediate Ukrainian collapse. Still, it took Hitler five weeks to conquer Poland, and that is usually regarded as an extremely successful military campaign.
It’s just not clear yet how well, or how badly, the Russians are likely to do. It is hard to embrace that fundamental uncertainty when everything else feels so intolerable.
Covid is a much longer-running story, now more than two years old, but it has engendered similar reactions. People feel that the pandemic is or should be “over” by now. I myself favor a resumption of normal activity, but am distressed that Congress is treating the matter so cavalierly and refusing to make haste with additional Covid funding. The voter outrage simply isn’t there, in large part because the public has decided that the pandemic is over.
At one level that is a very healthy reaction that will help reboot economic activity. On another level, it is extremely dangerous. If a new and more serious variant were to come along, the USmus would simply not be ready, not even after two years of suffering and more than one million deaths.
It is possible that, over the long run, people will become numb to all this detailed reporting of suffering from both the pandemic and the war. They might forget just how much those events commanded the world’s attention. These moments might come to feel like time-slices rather than eternities.
But for now, we are not at peace with our grasp on time — and this runs the risk of being a major problem for America and the world.