Before We Completely Lose It
I didn’t know what to call this blog, mostly because there is no way to title it without contributing further to the problem described herein. If I called it what it really is, no one would read it. And here we have yet another deceptive practice in the new world order of information dissemination.
We have lost the ability to communicate and importantly, to listen.
We have lost our frustration tolerance and this includes the ability to tolerate the uncomfortable space created as new information is assimilated into the mind, tested against existing information, evaluated, researched and carefully filed away somewhere along the spectrum between hell yes and bullshit. We are losing the ability to intelligently cultivate that space.
For greater depth into the impact of steadily advancing technology on the brain and social norms, I recommend reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brans by Nicholas Carr, and Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. The scope of arguments and research presented in these two books can not be adequately summarized in this blog, no matter how badly I would wish to give into the 21st Century impulses of condensing them into their lowest common denominator. And besides that wouldn’t be the purpose.
The purpose of this blog is to explore what it means for us as human beings and as a society to be condensed into our lowest common denominator.
And what we are losing of ourselves and each other as we strip away all that is complex and beautiful and illogical and emotional and spiritual in order to create the psychological and spiritual equivalent of Spam (the edible substance, not the stuff that fills your junk e-mail).
What are we losing when we spend hours each day riding a tidal wave of ‘information’ designed and cleverly crafted to produce two results?
1.- Manipulate the emotions of the reader- particularly outrage (outrage produces more sharing resulting in more ‘viral’ posts than any other emotional response)…..
2.- Monetize said outrage.
While this process could easily be another blog (though it doesn’t need to be, Ryan Holiday did an excellent job detailing this process in Trust Me, I’m Lying, Confessions of a Media Manipulator), for the sake of laying basic foundation, it is important to understand this: social media has the capacity to help create networks of connection, foster learning, help people keep in touch and build relationships etc., however it is also a powerful marketing tool. Unlike the old days in which commercials would cut in to a “regularly scheduled program” to make an obvious plea for your dollars to get rid of ring around the collar with Wisk, or to ask that you contemplate where exactly the Beef had gone to when considering your next meal, or to remind you that dark thirty in the morning is ‘time to make the donuts….’
These commercials, though playing on a range of psychological factors and human emotions, were obviously intended to sell a product or service and their insertion into a program was clear, unlike the insertion of sponsored brands into a movie, for example.
The landscape has shifted with social media however. Advertising has become more insidious. Those Facebook quizzes that I love to do for giggles when work is slow? A means of collecting demographic information to target future advertising. Those amusing, or outrageous blogs, videos, memes and stories that seem like news? Very often linked to herding audiences toward one product, service, or political candidate, or away from another.
And as tedious as it can be to fact check, it is also quite difficult to discern what the true agenda is behind information spread on social media.
So what? You wonder. After all, we are all intelligent adults, can’t we figure things out for ourselves?
For more information on the ways we deceive ourselves into believing we are better at discernment than we are, I suggest Predictably Irrational The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely.
But the real reason I am writing this is not to expound on the evils of modern marketing, but to point out a perhaps unintended but serious side effect of the practices that have turned social media into a business and political (which is to say…business) marketing machine.
We are losing our ability to connect with each other as people.
We are losing our ability to listen and to empathize.
I would even go as far as to say we are losing our own humanity. Our own ability to allow ourselves to be multidimensional.
We are becoming flat and perceiving others as flat.
We are becoming the least common denominators, and shrinking others to fit a mold of convenience so that we may file our understanding of ourselves and others into a mental box and slide it to the background in our newishly programmed drive to keep scanning, keep scrolling, keep clicking.
Social Media allows us to consume ridiculous amounts of stimulating information- constantly. Before we can adequately process and react our limbic (survival) system is being triggered- constantly. Before we can weight what we are seeing within the context of who is sharing, how/where and from whom the information originated (and to what end?) the nature of this media forces us to draw hasty conclusions based on bare bones information doctored up to appeal to us on a visceral level.
We are self selecting our realities. And communities. And declaring in a public (or semi public) setting who we think we are and who we think deserves to be labeled part of our community- or not. Social Psychologists describe inherent biases which we all have. Two examples of this are the Fundamental Attribution Bias and the In-Group Bias.
Fundamental Attribution Bias is at work when one assumes another’s behavior is caused by an inherent personal trait or flaw (ie John was late to the meeting, he’s lazy and disrespectful) while ignoring the fact that one would attribute the same behavior to external situations when it is you committing the ‘offense’ (when I am late it is because I was stuck behind a funeral procession, not because I am lazy and disrespectful).
In-Group Bias describes our tendency to look at those we perceive as part of our group to be favorable regardless of their effort to ‘earn’ such designation. A ‘group’ could be unified by any factor from race to age to similar interests to sharing the same birthday. Put simply once we determine there is something we have in common with another person, we consider them part of our group and view them more favorably, generally speaking.
Both of these phenomena are part of everyday life yet the “on steroids” version of these biases can be seen in social media behavior. Combine the two, and we see how easy it becomes to perceive other human beings in favorable or unfavorable ways based on superficial criteria (sharing or not sharing ideologies for example). But while traditionally, our social connections were buffered by numerous protective factors, these cushions don’t exist online.
Of course people are able to discriminate in the physical world, we are able to get blinded by our biases and prejudices, we are able to act in divisive ways, but there are certain threads that connect us in the physical world which evaporate in the social media landscape.
As much as Facebook can show us our commonalities (the friends we are surprised to learn we share in common with others, interests, groups etc.) the platform also comes with the ability to self select for our own biases and systemically eliminate from our realities those who aren’t common to us enough, or in the ways we deem to be important. Anyone who has ever gone through a breakup in the digital age and watched as their history has been eliminated from the virtual reality of the person who once shared a special status in their life knows how surreal and painful it can be to watch yourself wiped from anothers’ world, a concept that would have existed to some extent pre-social media, but one which none of us really got to be a spectator of for the most part.
And not just couples, families, friends, neighbors, communities are voting each other off the newsfeed, blocking, censoring, hiding, deleting blacklisting each other. Cutting the threads that connect us to each other and creating an insulated world.
That is, when we aren’t busy attacking each other. In the absence of body language and the ability to look each other in the eye, the ability to recall each other as the complex, multifaceted beings we are, the absence of reminders of our sentience and empathy, it becomes easy to digress into trolling each other.
Goodbye discourse and debate, hello pissing contest.
What will become of us?
Will we step outside of the programming that has convinced us that labels and nametags are more important than regarding each other as human beings? Will we resist the influences that strike at our limbic drives and prod us to tear each other apart? Will we reach beyond the manipulation of marketing and honor the divine in each other?
Or will we continue to vote each other off of our island of virtual reality, casting aside those who contribute to the world in positive ways and instead emphasizing only the weakness, differences, perceived hypocrisies and fallibilities of our fellow human beings.
We are losing sight of the meaning of unconditional love, and with it our ability to empathize and connect with each other.
Perhaps we will wake up before we completely lose it.