Sunday, July 22, 2012

Social Media: Meaning or Madness?

© Charles D. Hayes

A radio news broadcast recently reported that we are using up natural resources at a pace that exceeds our planet's largesse by half; if we continue, by 2050, we will require three planets to cover the deficit. This was followed by a discussion about our enormous budget deficit and political gridlock. These are formidable issues, although the evidence is overwhelming that few people are paying close attention.

Albert Einstein was quick to argue that the thinking required to solve problems needs to be greater in substance than the thinking that allowed them to occur. And yet today, at a time when deep reading and critical thinking are desperately needed, more and more people are devoting time to 140-character hot-button discussions, leaving too little time for serious analysis. Nietzsche's herd mentality comes to mind, and I can imagine Emerson spinning in his grave at the very notion of a world consumed by chit-chat. He was so incensed by small talk that I can picture him summing up today's chatter with something like "twits tweet." Nietzsche, I suspect, would have burst a blood vessel at the thought of millions of people following one another for 140-character tidbits, when 140 pages of serious study would barely get the job done.  

Now I am not a luddite. I love technology. I'm not blind to the positive effects of a world connected by broadband. There are too many upsides to list. But there are also downsides. Increasingly I see young people (and some not so young) spending their days flitting this way and that, like subatomic particles being moved by unseen forces, while focused on a hand-held gadget. An alarming number of teenagers spend their days in a frenzy of texting that goes on into the night, sleeping with their phone at the ready. This flurry of activity makes David Riesman's notion of "other directedness" in his 1950 book The Lonely Crowd seem quaint and the very idea of inner-directedness historically irrelevant.

In Hamlet's Black Berry William Powers puts it succinctly: "Digital busyness is the enemy of depth." He even suggests that in today's world deep reading sometimes "feels subversive."  

I retired from Alaska's North Slope oil field in the fall of 2011. In the camp, it was not unusual to dine in the evening with people holding a fork in one hand and a gadget in the other, seldom taking their eyes off the latter. Many of these same people, even during work hours, could not seem to go but a few minutes without checking or sending text messages in dialogue so trivial in content as to amount to an inappropriate distraction and an egregious waste of company time.

Consider the public fascination with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. No doubt, there are positive things that can and are being accomplished with these kinds of media, but right now polarization seems to be a major benefit. Political echo chambers abound as group members share email assaults on out-groups, relentlessly making fun of their opposition while continuously upping their levels of contempt. It's hot buttons 24/7. Us, us, them, them. Then we wonder why we have become politically dysfunctional.

Beneath the surface of all of this frenzy of nonsensical communication is the underlying reality that there are literally millions of people subtly coming on to us under the pretense of friendship with the covert motivation to sell us something. I, too, have books and essays for sale on Amazon and other vendors, and like many authors I figure that if people like my web posts they might be interested in reading my books. I'm not by any means against commerce, but I can't help but think that something is deeply disturbing about a market growing exponentially for books promising to tell sellers how to come on to customers without seeming to, so the seller can set the hook before the buyer recognizes the artificial pretense. So much purposeful deception is as disappointing as it is disingenuous.

Add the scams and data phishing going on in cyberspace to the insincere dialogue and the vicious partisan politics underway, and it makes one wonder where we are headed. Today's gadgets are going to become obsolete and give way tomorrow to new ones. No telling how we will use them exactly or whether they will compensate for our Stone Age minds or add further to the venomous political contempt we are witnessing as our current technology exacerbates our primitive political predispositions.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes our human condition as a rider/elephant predicament in which the rider represents our conscious ability to reason (with emotion) while the elephant represents our emotions, which operate to a large extent at an unconscious level. I would add a self and a robot to this analogy. The self, which is a fuzzy concept neurologically, is home to both the rider and elephant, while the robot represents our tools.

Long before the creation of cyberspace Marshall McLuhan warned us that what enthralls us about technology is that it represents a narcissistic extension of ourselves. The existential danger in our enthusiasm for the latest in gadgetry is in becoming so distracted that we let the robot take over, thus becoming lost in a maelstrom of confusion and subservient to our tools.
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  1. Good - I just read THE SHALLOWS - What the internet is doing to our brain - & thought it excellent - good pro's & con's(not just anti tech) and a good update on McLuhan & "extensions" plus maybe info on future sandtraps we may not be seeing right now. Greg S

    1. Greg,

      Thanks. I read The Shallows a while back and I agree.