Remember the good old days when Californians were scared of the dark? When Hollywood was king and we all knew that there was no monster or ghost scarier than the one we couldn’t see—the one lying there in the dark?
Those days are over. Today, the light is scarier than the dark ever was.
It’s not just because the sunshine is so much hotter and longer now that California feels as if it’s drying up. It’s not merely that our days are so busy with traffic and meetings that, if you want to get anywhere or get anything done, you have to travel or work at night.
What’s scary is that Silicon Valley rules us now, and all the lights it shines never really turn off.
They are the lights of the smartphone and the tablet and the router, keeping us up with their glow. They are the lights of our digital appliances, informing their manufacturers about the details of our consumption. And they are the lights of connection, of social media, luring us to share and read and step into the light of a community, when we’d be better off exercising or resting or talking to friends or making love.
And they are the lights of transparency, that new god. The best companies are transparent. We must be transparent in our dealings. We demand that our governments be transparent. We, they, all pledge to be so—let the light shine everywhere.
But we pledge transparency so often we’ve turned it into a club. Politicians dump bad news in big batches on Friday afternoons and lawyers dump boxes and gigabytes of records on their opponents, hiding their needles in the haystacks. We obscure the important civic details in 271-page California budgets and delta conservation plans that run to 34,000 pages.
And woe to anyone who doesn’t disclose—you must be hiding something! Let’s convene a grand jury or a legislative hearing. Or file a ballot initiative to force disclosure. Of course, we all know it won’t end there. Transparency can pull things into the light, but it can’t make us trust each other.
It’s scary how much we can see now. At the same time, there is so much out in the light that we can’t see it all. So we struggle to prioritize what’s most important. And it’s downright frightening how hard it is to tell, in all that light, what information is correct and what’s perilously wrong. There’s too much dangerous stuff out there in the light where credulous people can see it. And so they might believe that immigrants are criminals or vaccines threaten children or that having a gun in the house makes you safer.
Remember the Night Stalker? Remember when danger came with crime or violence or drugs in night? Well, murders and violence are less common, and drugs are on their way to being legal. Now we most fear exposure, the scary reality that no matter how careful we are, all our personal information is out there for someone to grab. Identity theft is the crime of these sun-splashed times.
It’s not only the bad guys who can get you in the light. It’s the good people, too.
They want to give us fair warning of everything, and so our lives have endless forms to fill out, boxes to check, labels to read, means of confirming that we have acknowledged what they are disclosing. All those warnings are supposed to reassure us, but too much sunlight can be frightening and blinding.
If we miss anything, if we forget anything, if we read too fast—well, it’s our own darn fault, isn’t it? And so we toggle back and forth between all the screens and lists and emails we’re supposed to monitor, anxious that we’ll miss some message we’re not supposed to miss.
Online communities grow like weeds—every organization and hobby has one. In my own life, with a wife and three kids and a 21st-century job that’s really five different jobs, I’m supposed to be signed into and contributing to a couple dozen permanent online huddles—for preschool and elementary school and the after-school program and Little League and two different soccer teams and my main work (with its different email lists) and a global democratic forum I run on the side and the university where I teach.
And so someone is always mad at me, telling me I missed this message, or that I didn’t respond to something or that I communicated to the wrong list. And sometimes I’m the one who is mad at someone for missing my messages. People see all your failures in the light.
Outside my laptop, the light is invading the dark in California. Ten years ago, I’d drive at night up the coast on the 101 or through the Central Valley on the 99, and you could go for miles and miles in the pitch dark. Today, there are lights everywhere.
One recent dark day earlier this month on my way to Fresno, I pulled off the 99 and wandered into Wasco, a small town that was briefly famous last Halloween for “the Wasco clown,” a scary clown who showed up in places and spooked people. But then the whole thing went on social media, and hordes started looking for the clown, and pretty soon there were copy clowns and arrests of said copy clowns all the way down to Bakersfield. When I asked people in Wasco about the clown, they said they wished it had just stayed a small little local thing.
But the light swallows up everything, even Halloween. Remember when costumes were black and covered your whole body? Today—call me a prude, if you like—the nurses and witches expose so much skin there’s nothing left to the imagination.
With the light revealing so much, I take comfort in the dark now. I bet you do, too.
The dark doesn’t cause sunburn or skin cancer. The dark allows you to think and maybe, if the weather is right, search the sky for a few stars.
My favorite moments now are when I leave the mobile phone at home and steal away for a short walk after the kids have gone to bed. At work, I treasure sneaking out to lunch for a few minutes without telling colleagues where I’m going. I love hiding in the shady corners of theaters and coffee shops where I can feel safe from the light, in dark anonymity, for just a moment.
I hope you find some dark place like that during this very bright and big Halloween weekend.
I hope I don’t you see there.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.
*Photo courtesy of Brian Liao.