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If we look back about one hundred years, we see the Spanish Flu sweep a world riven by political turmoil, the second industrial revolution, and a cataclysmic war. That pandemic brought a fatality rate many times that of the coronavirus, taking the lives of mostly teenagers and young adults with its cytokine storms. Even by the metrics of the near past, it’s safe to say that 2020 wasn’t the worst year for humankind, anywhere.

Yet, we don’t experience life as statistics. As Author Will Self noted, “doctors say in medicine there are no such things as statistics, only individuals,” and individually, 2020 was a terrible year. For many, personal losses made it their worst. For all, it was a march of crises. Some—those connected to the climate crisis in particular—are ongoing. Others, like the Black Lives Matter movement, are crises of flux in MLK’s ‘long arc…toward justice.’ Still others, the pandemic and the violent attack on the Capitol following Trump’s defeat, are more immediate. But was accident-prone 2020 really a matter of bad luck?

It’s worth wondering, where these crises aren’t linked by kind, how they might nonetheless be connected, and arguably worsened, by the new environment in which they unfolded. I do not mean the natural landscapes or the local communities where they lived, but rather our new digital society, which, though only a few decades old, encroaches year by year on those physical societies and has begun not only to reflect our lived experiences but to shape and drive them. So is it making our real world worse?

A Changing Civil Society

To grapple with this question, we first dial back to the year 2000; that’s when Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his seminal work on civil society theory, “Bowling Alone.” According to the theory, ‘civil society’—that layer of society made up of people’s informal networks, things like neighbourhood associations, bowling leagues, sports clubs, and community centres—acts to mediate between the microcosms of our households and the organized superstructures of governments and private businesses that act on us as citizens and consumers. The interpersonal relationships we form when we meet up in our local communities around shared endeavours build social trust. These relationships reinforce norms, mediate our views, broaden our horizons, and strengthen our participative democracy. According to Putnam, however, since the arrival of television, Americans have begun to spend much less time talking to our neighbours at block parties and much more on our couches, passively consuming media. What, he asked, might this decline cost us?

When Bowling Alone was published, we were only at the start of the ‘digital revolution,’ which starry-eyed utopians promised would strengthen our societies and deliver vast knowledge to the masses. Twenty years in, we find ourselves, perhaps, in the ‘Gilded Age’ of this revolution—attempting to reign in the consequences of new technologies as they reshape economies and societies in real-time while worrying about the effects on human brains of corporatized media with little regulation and growing monopolistic power. Do the conditions and imperatives of our new digital society add to our ancient social problems?

Fire and Disease

In February, a report from the Lancet Commission concluded that Americans had seen 40% more fatalities due to the coronavirus than would have occurred given a coordinated approach to public health. By laying the blame squarely at the feet of former President Trump’s bigotry, the editorialists overlooked the networks which facilitated the spread of disinformation. Contra to the free knowledge utopia internet boosters prophesied, during the pandemic, digital platforms actively pushed on users a flattened out theoretical free-for-all. For instance, inaccurate medical information pinged directly onto the screens of millions of Trump’s followers in tweets. University of Washington researchers showed that on Amazon, of the top ten book results returned to customers searching for vaccine information, eight were authored by fringe anti-vaxxers. They concluded that medical misinformation was widespread and boosted all over the shopping site. The same study also showed that users rarely searched beyond the top ten results.

Fans of the digital society might respond that, on the whole, the internet also makes solid, peer-reviewed information widely available to a broad audience. Perhaps. However, it is difficult to discount how, in the places where users spend most of their time, consensus and spurious theories are promoted as equally credible. Far from passive consumption, disinformation is pushed into the way of users by algorithms that select content with no societal imperative beyond keeping eyes on screens as long as humanly possible. As frightening as this is with our current health crisis, the proliferation of unscientific theories becomes more terrifying still in light of the global climate crisis, where any hope of mitigation will require deep understanding and a broad consensus incompatible with the business imperative of holding users’ attention.

Election Crisis and Attempted Coup

But, it might be countered, America’s coronavirus disaster was down to Trump. A good leader would have guided better outcomes. Before agreeing to that, we should note the role of digital society in choosing our leadership. In Trump’s case, a senate intelligence investigation concluded that Russia and Wikileaks cooperated to help secure his 2016 victory using digital media, namely by hacking, then leaking, democratic party e-mails. This, in addition to the well-documented work of a virtual army of Russian users who, deploying with fake accounts, sewed dissent and circulated disinformation via social media ahead of the election. How instrumental they were in Trump’s victory is unclear. What isn’t is the fact that, in the digital society, barriers once posed by physical geographies and the requirements of transparency in publishing have evaporated by design. Direct, anonymous, and open to the world, social media platforms, Wikileaks, and fake news sites gave Putin’s team access to the hearts and minds of American voters on par with, or beyond, what their own local leaders, neighbours, and papers could manage. This access is a new feature of our political landscape, and it didn’t disappear with the election. Once in office, Trump used social media to speak misinformation directly to millions of followers, whether to tell them the coronavirus would end spontaneously or to retweet a comparison of mask-wearing to “slavery,” or following his election, to insist on vast election fraud and his own victory against all truth and evidence.

In the digital society, Trump’s disinformation disseminated uncritically through fansites was bolstered by extremist groups and evinced on fake news outlets. This is critical because the counterargument to these critiques tends to be that social media is nothing but a neutral purveyor of information—no guiltier than the old telephone lines were for words spoken across them. However, in a broad study, researchers at Princeton found that Facebook directed its users to untrustworthy news sites more than twice as often as it did to valid ones. Studies of YouTube by the Anti-Defamation League determined that auto cueing of videos determines at least sixty percent of the content viewed on the site. And for nearly a quarter of YouTube viewers, that content includes videos from extremist ‘alternative’ channels touting QAnon theories, white supremacist ideologies, and other extremist content. The appropriate analogy, then, would have digital platforms work more like a landline in your house that rang ten times a day—six of the times it would be the company calling to tell you something it guessed you wanted to hear, and a quarter of the calls would try to convince you of something outright crazy.

Ultimately, rather than bringing disparate people together on the basis of shared activities and common interests, as with Putnam’s bowling clubs, AI and algorithms, operating for profit on the basis of keeping our attention fixed on screens as long as possible, actively push users into contact with the most extreme and provocative versions of their views or interests. The de facto guide them into contact with fringe believers who share their beliefs. This organizing principle was undoubtedly helpful to Donald Trump who, after losing the 2020 election by an overwhelming margin, was nonetheless able to galvanize a dispersed collective of followers, hammer them with an alternative reality, in turn, supported by unreliable websites and news outlets, and subsequently direct them from the four corners to converge on the capital, where they made a deadly attempt to overthrow the government.

Police Violence and The Black Lives Matters Protests

In some ways, the Black Lives Matter protests show us the flipside of social media. Though horrendous (and some argue unethical) to watch, videos of racist violence and police killings of Black citizens have forced American society to confront the anti-Black structures built into their country from its inception. Furthermore, social media has helped activists to organize demonstrations, increase visibility for marginalized communities, and find affirmation for realities that have long been aggressively ignored. Inasmuch as traditional civil society worked to promote norms and consensus, those norms and consensuses were often racist, sexist, and discriminatory beyond. At its best, social media can work to undo those norms.

However, even there, it is not without its shortcomings. In the BLM movement, for instance, questions arose with the advent of the ‘defund the police’ hashtag. The slogan blew up in online discourse but empirically did not represent the perspective of the Black community in real life, where Gallup polls carried out in August of 2020 showed that eighty-one percent of Black respondents (and eighty-six percent of the population overall) wanted to see the same or increased police presence in their neighbourhoods. Adding to the dissonance, house majority whip, James Clyburn—a democratic veteran and long-time activist in the Black community of his home state—speculated that the slogan had hurt democratic candidates at the polls. It is worth noting, in this, that strong, bipartisan support for police reform existed due largely to the work of BLM activists. The slogan, however galvanizing on social media it was, transferred into real life, was so unpopular that the right was able to weaponize it to their advantage.

Though perhaps a small example, this dispute is arguably emblematic of the problem with social media activism. The reductive, trending, extreme nature of a hashtag, however understandable in light of videos of police violence and murder, does not translate well into practical social change. Video clips and slogans, divorced from any deep history or education, upset viewers justly but also lead them to easy attribution errors. In this case, the idea that the police are the cause, rather than a terrible effect, of systemic, anti-Black racism. It is simpler to overlook the vast structures undergirding systemic anti-Blackness. Reforming the school-to-prison pipeline, historical discrimination in housing, in higher education, in the job market, and in the judicial system (far beyond policing) will take much more than a hashtag and shell game with public funds. And yet, real redress and reform requires on-the-ground work over time, pressure, campaigns, and consulting with communities themselves, not just progressive activists.

This brings us to the universal problem of social media activism: though well-intended, it is still fed through algorithms that favour provocation, punchy slogans, the drama of conflict, call-outs, and cancel culture. Its attention spans are short and thirsty. Reality is nuanced and complex to change. And the modes are poorly received by the audience activists need to persuade. In offline society, forty percent of Americans report being harassed online—shamed, threatened, or even doxed. Sixty percent report witnessing such behaviour. While much of that is down to trolling, the modes of activism online are too often not experienced as enlightenment but as harassment and alienation. As satisfying as calling out does feel, public humiliation is a poor tool of real persuasion. Worse, such methods have no practical effect on actually bad actors. The powerful racists, sexists, and bigots of the world revel more than progressives themselves in this model, correctly deducing that call out and cancel culture will never work on them, and operate, primarily, as a circular firing squad for the woke.

This isn’t the fault of activists. It is prescribed by the business model. The deep goal on social media is not social change but attention-getting and attention-keeping. The great victory for users is going viral, but it is a victory with no reward. The work of educating people, building intimacy, showing humility, mustering generosity might profit society but doesn’t make online platforms money; thus, virtual community members in these profit machines masquerading as communities will always be pushed away from deep relationship-building towards its opposite: the provocation, the simple statement, the harsh judgment. Regardless of intent, when the goal is only approval, and not persuasion, when idealism is used to score points without pragmatism, the result is unlikely to be more than self-congratulation.

If this seems like a screed against technology, it is not. The role of technology in human thriving has been great. This is about nothing more than the sly colonization of civil society by digital businesses, professing to bring us closer while building a world where everything that binds us together is cast into doubt, and the relationships that have brought us through are undermined for likes. Without intervention, that world could become the worst yet.

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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | A Comment on Our Times, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Revenge of the Fringe

Is internet culture driving America to extremes?

In December of 2020, historians in The Washington Post weighed in on whether 2020 was the worst year ever. Materially, the answer is clear: even in a year of tumult, we live in an era of superabundance. Since the turn of the last century, Americans have added decades to our lifespans, easy-to-source food to our tables, and secured health outcomes that, even in a bad year, remain better than anything our ancestors enjoyed.

By Jen Hollis - Former Teacher of IB History, St. Stephen’s School
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Understanding the Origins of BLM and the World’s Outrage Over George Floyd’s Death

"I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter... Our lives matter."

- Patrisse Cullors, Founding Member, BLM

By Tatiana Lima '15
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice

Opinion: George Floyd’s Killing and the Black Lives Matter Protests Against Police Brutality

On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was arrested and killed by Minneapolis Police after being accused of stealing from a store. Outrage followed when footage of the arrest revealed one of the officers--Derek Chauvin--placing his knee on Floyd’s neck during the arrest for eight minutes and forty-six seconds and ignoring Floyd’s desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe… I can’t breathe…” 

By Sofia Ghilas '21
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice

Opinion: The Rise of Anti-Asian Sentiment

After the recent fatal shooting of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, Georgia, last month, there is increasing alarm about the proliferation of anti-Asian racist memes, posts, and other online activities that may have set the stage for real-life violence.

By Lixuan Du ‘23
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

Bloom Where You Are Planted: How and Why We Persisted During Covid

“They won’t let you board the plane?” I responded on my mobile phone, rubbing sleepy sand out of my eyes. It was 6 AM on a Sunday in February 2020, and half of our school was at the airport – or soon to be -- for Spring Trips, heading out to destinations like Oman and Morocco (the other trips had gotten out the day before).  So began my intimate relationship with the virus. Though we had been tracking the virus for weeks prior, that moment is the moment it all really began for me.  (And, yes, those trip participants literally pulled their bags off the airline conveyor belts, redialed the rental van, and returned, despondent, to their homes in Rome.)

By Eric Mayer - Head of School
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

Reopening After a School Closure and Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Dateline: 25 January, 2020

On January 18th, St. Stephen’s students and teachers returned to the classroom for the first time since late October. At 8 am on Monday, a line of excited students wound its way down Via Aventina, each student waiting their turn for morning temperature checks. All around them, teachers weaved in and out of the line, stopping to greet groups of students and remark on how surreal it felt to be back.

By Vittoria Giusti ‘22, Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

At War With an Invisible Enemy

The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most challenging issues the world has collectively faced in recent history. We are essentially waging war against a silent enemy--one who has no national borders, knows no social bounds, political systems, nor cultural norms or values. This silent enemy of ours has inflicted harm on whoever crosses its path, upending life as we have come to know it, surreptitiously taking lives, decimating industries, and destabilizing the world economy.

By Xara Al Said ‘23
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

The Disproportional Impact of Covid on Black Americans

 Last year, as we watched the United States attempt to tackle the Covid-19 virus with mixed messages from the former President, spotty stay-at-home orders, at will mask-wearing, and widespread Covid testing, we observed a great divide between those catching the virus and recovering and those catching the virus and dying.

By Tanesha Alexander - Assistant Librarian, EAP Teacher, and DEI representative
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Media and Bullying

Teens and Bullying

Bullying occurs a lot more than one would expect. Injuries, abuses, humiliations, threats, teachers offended while the class videotapes them, kids kicked, teenagers arrested for serious acts against peers.

By Emma Jansen ‘24
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Media and Bullying

A Social Media Guide for Teens

The use of social media has become an inevitability of modern-day life. Whether you’re following your school’s Facebook account, chatting with your family on Whatsapp, or sending your friends pictures on Instagram.

By Sofia Ghilas '21
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Service

In the Spirit of Service

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope; you will fill yourself with hope.”
― Barack Obama

By Dr. Helen Pope - Former Director of The Lyceum, Classics Department Chair and Teacher of Latin, St. Stephen’s School
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

IMDB Rating: 7.6

‘You can kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution.’ Words from the great activist for black rights, Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party from 1966 to 1969.

By Luca Vanderson '22
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: What We Started

What We Started on Netflix is a beautiful documentary about the history of electronic music that follows its origins from the early 1970s until today. The film explores the genre through interviews with DJs and music producers.

By Matteo Scarfini ‘24
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: Seaspiracy

The newly released Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, explores the damage the fishing industry is causing the blue planet.

By Gustav Franklin ‘21
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Gone with the Wind: A Film Review for Our Times

I saw this film for the first time three years ago, and it is one of those movies that you cannot only watch; you have to think and read and write about it to understand it and its impact on you.

By Benedetta Bosco ‘22
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age drama film directed by Stephen Chbosky, starring globally known actors Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller, and was released in 2012.

By Anita D’Alisera ‘21
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching | Digital St. Stephen's

Our Favorite Online Events

This past year has challenged us to move our events online, from Zoom olive oil and wine tastings that transported us to the Tuscan countryside to gallery openings that brought us to the heart of the New York City and Roman art scene; we have made the best of this pandemic, seizing it as an opportunity to experiment with new mediums and new activities.

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Chapter 3: Creative Writing | Creative Writing

PAndemiNK

As the school's only student-run literary and artistic magazine, INK provides the grounding for your creativity to thrive.

By The INK Team
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Chapter 3: Creative Writing | Creative Writing

A Selection of Creative Writing

You’ve probably seen that meme: a child in a big armchair, cozily reading a book. All around her head are thought bubbles full of knights and dragons, maps and mountains, ships and seas. And below, the caption: “Reading Takes You Places.”

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Chapter 4: Departments | The Lyceum

New Initiatives at the Lyceum Take Off During the Pandemic

"All men by nature desire to know." (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.980a22).

Nevermore than during the last seventeen months did these words from Aristotle ring true for me. We are so fortunate that through the Lyceum, we are able to create special opportunities for our students to learn about the ancient world, whether it’s through weekend trips and lectures or by inviting scholars, writers, and poets who through their workshops, lectures and readings enhance our classes and broaden our students' horizons.

By Inge Weustink - Director of the Lyceum, Classics Teacher
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Chapter 4: Departments | Exploring City of Rome II Class

Exploring the New City of Rome 2 Class

Between 1400 and 1700, Rome was reborn as a global city, capital of a growing world ‘empire,’ so to speak, for the first time since antiquity. The city today owes much of its historical appeal, its most eye-catching artworks, and monuments, to this, the Early Modern era (c.1400-1700 CE).

By Dr. Rebecca Raynor - Art History, Dr. Paul Treherne - History
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Chapter 5: The Arts

The Arts

This year our students have embraced the digital world, moving their drama and art shows online.

Image: Credit in here mentioning that the art work was selected for the cover

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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Nicola Formichetti ‘96

Fashion Designer / Stylist / Creative Director

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Margherita Stancati ‘03

The Wall Street Journal reporter

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Galen Druke ‘08

Host and Producer at FiveThirtyEight.

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
Diva Tommei.Photo credits Ilaria Magliocchetti
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Diva Tommei ‘02

Investment Director Information Technology ICT at ENEA Teach

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Elizabeth Blackwell ‘86

Author

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Rachel Sadoff ‘15

MA Candidate in Public Health at Columbia University

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight

Alumni serve as our Healthy Campus Team

With Italy’s many COVID restrictions, we’ve needed additional staff to greet and temperature check arriving students, walk the campus for compliance, assist classes if the teacher is working remotely but the students are here, and various other activities to keep us safe.  To our great fortune, four alumni came forward to help us for the year: Michael Alonzi (2013), Tatiana Lima (2015), David Rosales (2016), and Alessandro Cosmo (2017). We asked about the experience, and they had this to say…

By Eric Mayer - Head of School
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Digital Alumni

Alumni Events Online

From alumni trivia and virtual reunions to happy hours and afternoon coffee breaks, our digital alumni events have enabled us to bring together alumni and current and former faculty members from around the world.