There’s an idea floating around that smartphones, Facebook and hyper-connectivity have fundamentally altered not just the way we live, but who we are.
It’s simply silly to say “we need a Web that is less corrosive to our humanity because it’s a world devoid of empathy, fostering narcissism, disinhibition, and the failure to care about the feelings of others.” The Web is neither the cause nor the solution to these things; it’s a medium and a mirror, funneling and reflecting the consciousness of the people who use it.
Of course, many of the tech innovators are bad actors and mischief-makers, driven by the pre-digital fictions and fantasies of ego, power, money and fame. They blather on about ‘changing the world’ while designing ways and means of “capturing people’s attention and making it hard for them to escape.”
It’s no coincidence that the expanding field of product management and design at social media companies largely stems from the ominously named, “Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute” at Stanford, founded in 1998 by (I kid you not) B.J. Fogg.
He calls the diabolical field he founded “captology,” in which the explicit intention is to “use methods from experimental psychology to demonstrate that computers can change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways.”
“Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation. Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.”
As one commentator noted, “Posting to Facebook or Instagram contributes to the global accumulation of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), producing a closed cycle of anxiety creation and alleviation. What are others doing? What do they think of me?”
Some writers see the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves. Facebook and other apps trigger FOMO, and the social network relieves this apprehension with feelings of connectedness and validation.
The problem isn’t the lack of a “fully independent self,” but the desperate need to believe one is a fully independent self, in control of one’s life. The illusions of separateness, selfhood and control are the sub-texts that are being exploited by ruthlessly unethical deceivers in Silicon Valley.
The thing that makes digital age individualists different, and so annoying, is that though they are interchangeably the same in their separateness, in their superficial selfhood, yet each one really believes they are unique individuals.
In the film “Fallen,” starring Denzel Washington, evil is transmitted from person to person by the merest touch. But in actuality, it’s even more disturbing and frightening, because consciousness is like the Net—a vast, interconnected dimension in which we’re all embedded by vice of being human.
The superficiality of hyper-connectivity does not preclude the transmission of the underlying dark matter; it accentuates it. That is, darkness seeps and surges below the surface of identical borgs, each believing they’re unique individuals, though they’re actually un-self-knowing dividuals.
Social media is providing a context not because it supplants intact cultures, but because intact cultures have ceased to exist. Social media has merely exacerbated the erosion of culture and character that was already well underway in the West. That erosion is now a global phenomenon.
In other words, social media is filling a vacuum. But that vacuum also affords the opportunity to learn about oneself and create an entirely new kind of culture.
The collision between our brains and bodies and our machines is not going to end. Smartphones have already become an appendage for millions, if not billions of people. There is no way to control the interface by some illusory controller in our heads that stands apart from the onslaught of information and manipulation.
The solution is as it has always been—self-knowing, the moment-to-moment mindfulness of what one is actually thinking, feeling and doing. That requires self-honesty—skepticism about our motives, habits and patterns. The fact that so few people value and live that way allows the exploiters of human weakness to fill the vacuum. If and when people get sick of it, they’ll look for another way.
Many more people worldwide now have much more leisure time. It’s just being filled with inanity and empty busyness. When we disconnect from the false connection of connectivity, and are present, and do our own spadework, we grow in insight and understanding as true individuals.