A couple of years ago I gave a talk at a big NGO about trends in technology and communication, and how these trends might impact the way people relate to, and respond to the needs of, such NGOs. In that talk, I introduced the idea of "Massively Parallel Emotion," or the near real-time waves of emotional response happening around the world as we are able to "experience" the impact of major events—crises, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, sporting victories, cultural achievement, etc—through interconnected global networks.
At the time, Twitter was still relatively new, and the example I used was an earthquake in Mexico the week before for which on the ground reports were spreading faster than on mainstream media or via official channels. Sadly, the day of my talk, a gunman struck at Virginia Tech, and again, many of us shared the emotional experience of this tragic event in near real-time as TV networks, text messages and chat rooms spread the shock of it like a bell being rung. Since then we've shared the awe of sporting events like the Beijing Olympics, seen more bombings in Iraq, and now experience the day-to-day emotional tug of war of the US presidential campaign, where online emotions run high, impacting offline behavior such as voting.
Now we see a new twist on the phenomenon with the Great Correction of 2008. Technology and networks connect not only communications at an interpersonal level, but deep inside the workings of the global economy. When the emotional panic of freefalling markets hit, we saw this shock spread instantaneously, and move from concern and risk aversion to pure fear. For better or worse, this emotional layer is now connected to the nervous systems of business as well, only they, as John Robb points out astutely, are programmed to respond by cutting, closing, dumping, selling, and basically preserving themselves. And these responses just create more fear, setting off another turn of the wheel. Our amygdalas are a few clicks away from our ERP systems.
What we are finding is that real-time global connectivity, whether at the personal or business level, is a double-edged sword. Connecting people, things, assets, money is great on the way up, and it's a powerful way to spread ideas, share feelings, gain efficiencies, and put power where it should be, but we must be aware of the side-effects on the way down.