A thoughtful insight on the impact of social media in human life.
As the most advanced, well educated and resourcefully plentiful society, we seem to be stumbling into a crisis of individual meaning. I have personally for the past few years, and know lots of people that have too. Psychological graphs on happiness and suicide rates, the rise of mental health problems, anxiety and other factors are proof of it. I was feeling meaningless and pleasure oriented, constantly procrastinating on Instagram, Youtube… I used to spend 4 hours a day on my phone, just the casual scroll after waking up, that ends in 25 minutes, skipping breakfast because I’m late for classes. And the quick before to sleep session, that ends with me whatching gazelles escape a lion attack at two o’clock in the morning. So I decided to get rid of it. I switched to the first mobile I remember seeing, an old Nokia, only calls and an ambitious snake that’s hungry for apples.
I’d like to explain why I made this decision, why I’ve decided to live without social media and its digital reality. I still love the internet, I’ve just chosen to distance who I am from it, to use it as a tool.
If Nietzsche was alive, he would have a bigger ego than Freud’s, he’d be proud and saddened to see his predictions on the individual’s future becoming true, he said we would have problems creating our own moral values, once religion didn’t give answers. Then came communism and the fascist dictatorships, with millions of deaths. With science, we created amazing tools and an abundance of resources, but scientism is agnostic as to how to live your life, which, in great measure, is the fundamental question we face. We’ve advanced from the lunatic political systems, the pointing nuclear weapons at each other, but the individual, generally, still hasn’t found it’s place.
I believe we are losing track of our own value, and there are structural reasons that seep into each of us. We need to start off with the fundamentals, how are we spending our most valuable asset, time?
There has been a major change in our day to day interaction with our environment. Only 15 years ago, smartphones didn’t exist, computers were noisy, slow and cubic, and the internet was a nerdy complex to use digital library. It used to be a tool, but it’s increasingly morphed into a second part of our reality. I think the major change was when we started integrating our social life into the digital world, when before, it was just who we faced in person, in the moment, in our surroundings.
This capacity of creating a virtual identity, is an experiment in which our psyche plays the role of God, creating as we please. Identity is divided into:
- Me, incomplete, in search of resolving my desires and aspirations, empty, in constant search of meaning. The subjective view.
- Me, as the figure others see, who you’d be remembered as, if you were to die now. The objective view.
- Me, unreachable, how I’d like to be seen by others, how I think I should be, the origin of all my desires. The ideal object.
Social media is a group of digital platforms, made to create your ideal object, with quantitative metrics in real time and constant feedback of approval. We project our ideal identity for the objective view. That’s the falseness we all know about social media; we are people that rise to our ideal, while actually being the incomplete subject, this creates a sense of isolation. There is a lack of realness, flaws, self-transformation and healthy adaptation with our thoughts.
I’ll try and lay out, to the best of my abilities, why I believe social media and digital life, is a greater problem than what we seem to be caring about.
We are primates, with the most complex piece of matter in the whole universe, in our head. With which we have created agriculture, language, and tools. On their own they’re kind of cool, but put together they create the fascinating phenomenon of civilization.
We’ve spent millions of years evolving to adapt to our environment. With civilization, environment changes exponentially, and our biology doesn’t evolve in a parallel direction to it, like it normally does in nature. This presents us with sudden important changes, the most recent historically being; switching from a society that was 90% food producers, barely 8 generations ago, to factory labour, which is now in our present, being overtaken by industrial machinery, and so, we are shifting towards services, computer work, technologically generating and administrating data.
Some people call it the economy of information. But economy studies the way society administrates its most valuable resources, its scarcest resource. If we spend 10 seconds on Instagram, we’ll see that information is neither valuable nor scarce. If you sum up videos, photos, memes, tweets… Every 2 days we generate more information than the rest of humanity combined, and its pure rubbish!
But there is something scarce and valuable in this ecosystem, something that is turning into the global currency exchange, we all look for it, and nobody would post without the hope of obtaining a little. It’s called attention.
We live in the economy of attention, it’s your most valuable asset. It’s not renewable, you only count with a 24 hour daily reserve tank, and you need to sleep and live your life in between. The attention you give to media, is attention another media is losing. And the giants in the industry know this. Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings once said:
“Our biggest competitors are Youtube, Facebook and sleep”.
The main structural problem is, offer increases everyday, while attention stays the same, so competition just gets more aggressive.
Behind the screens of social media, we have the smartest human beings of our entire generation. Experts in design, technology, programming and neurology, with the only mission of getting you addicted. To discover and utilize the weaknesses of your mind, to keep your attention on the screen for the longest possible time. Years of investigation in psychology, linguistics and design help them out.
You aren’t the client, the advertisers are. The service is free, because the product is all the attention they can extract from their users.
And honestly, it’s not that hard, we’re just primates remember? We are programmed to search for novelty, if we found it in nature, it meant learning about the world, recollecting information to survive and dominate. We are also programmed to socialize, because social organization in tribes is the only thing that keeps our species alive. But if you take those two primary instincts, and flush them into an infinite scroll of new social posts, it means we can spend hours of foggy procrastination, with no objective.
Isn’t our own willpower the solution?
You may feel like you can choose when you want to stop looking at memes, but it’s not that simple. Every time you scroll through Facebook, you face an infinite stream of rewards, and an A.I that knows you better than you know yourself, that learns about your preferences and habits with each second online, that watches the movement of your eyes while you scroll, listens to your conversations, and knows your location every time of the day. Its only mission, is to keep your attention on the screen, consuming adverts for the longest time possible. And to accomplish its objective, it has a library of infinite content, so, yeah, good luck with your mighty willpower.
I entitled the article as “enzombying humans”, related to the etymological meaning of zombie, that comes from the Kongo language, “nvumbi”, which is a body without a soul. I thought it was a beautifully horrific metaphor of our loss of direction, our nihilism, meaninglessness, unconsciously helped by social media normality as part of reality. I’m not saying it’s social media’s fault, but it’s deffinetely doing more harm than good existing. Our soul is known as that which makes our decisions, our animating principle, to change into caring about reality, our defining on writting our own story, choosing right or left. Hopefully for the better, but not necessarily, when in acts of rage, or hatred for example, one is commonly referred to as the soul being “possessed”. If our attention is being hijacked, our opportunity for change is diminished, and so is our spirit. It’s similar with addictions, not only is it bad for our health, it’s also simply taking chunks out all the possibilities we could be doing, if not repeating that addictive behavior. Our soul has less endevour in the unknown. The idea of zombie, is a human with no change in one’s self, eating other brains while it drags along life, already half dead. I can’t help but see that comparison when I’m in the subway, observing our society, repetitive, bored and lifeless with their face stuck to the screen.
But we still care and love for each other as humans, we’re together in this, right?
Probably the most important aspect of humanity is empathy, understanding we need to be united, we are the same, all in one, facing life and its difficulties.
In real life if you insult someone, they have an unhappy reaction, and that makes you feel unhappy. On the internet if you are being cruel, you don’t see the consequences, you just feel like you’re defending your ideas. And let’s be honest, if there’s no consequences, it’s kind of oddly satisfying. If you were face to face, you’d most probably find more things in common, but your news feed knows you don’t like different views from yours, nobody does, so it shows you stories that confirm your view of the world. The problem is all the rest are in the same position.
Ah, but this can be fought with communication, and social media is made for that right?
Essentially, it’s its only purpose, to share ideas. But it’s gotten more and more low resolution, like going to the cinema and it’s of 144p quality. Take Snapchat as an example, it has “snap streaks”, a little flame emoji that sums up every day you’ve communicated with another user, and if you miss out one day, you start from 0 again. This creates excessively boring, non-meaningful communication. Or take news posts as an example, before you bought a newspaper depending on the quality of the information. Now, it’s popularity is based on clicks, so you get clickbait headlines, and news posts when there’s no relevant news, “Trumps tweets” and “Cristiano’s new haircut”. Plato once said:
“The wise talk because they have something to say, the stupid because they have to say something”.
We have so much information, that we’re turning the ability to communicate into a trivial matter, instead of having a rise in wisdom. We are being given a feed of drugs for our ego, produced by corporations that treat their audience like laboratory rats. I’m happy Medium exists, and is pioneering a difference.
Damn, this is getting kinda sad, but we’re intelligent, we can overcome this, right?
Well, intelligence has two qualities; spontaneity and perseverance. You may be smart, sure, but it’s useless if you don’t have the patience to focus on a single task until finishing it. Potentiality on it’s own is nothing, its Peter Pan like, everything is possible but it’s not real. Concentration is a muscle, the longer you spend facing long and complex problems, the easier it becomes to concentrate in the future.
To concentrate on a task takes, on average, 23 minutes, and when you’re interrupted by a notification, it’s more probable that you’ll interrupt yourself the next hour. If we consider the fact that on average, we consult our phone 221 times a day, every 4.3 minutes, nobody is concentrating on anything.
You might think that even without much perseverance, you can get good ideas. When though? When was the last moment of silence? It’s no coincidence, we revise our phone every 5 minutes, it’s a fast and instant solution to loneliness and boredom. The problem is, we get our best ideas in boredom and loneliness; in the shower, in traffic, queuing, with nothing to do, our minds wander off, it’s the state in which ideas start connecting, you contemplate your life as a great story, where you’re going, what your goals are…
But we escape that only to avoid being with our own thoughts. A screen is the last thing we see before going to bed, and the first thing we see when we wake up, it’s crazy, when the hell are you going to listen to yourself, if you’re always looking at and listening to something else?
Oh, you’re being so pessimistic, chill out, social media makes us laugh and see beautiful things, who are you to say it’s negative?
Well. I don’t think I even need to answer this, but here we go.
Our suicide rate is the highest it’s been in 30 years, but that’s only a symptom, we also have higher drug overdoses and alcoholism. Our young generation, that’s been and is going through adolescence with social media, are the most depressed, lonely, with high levels of anxiety and stress, not to mention eating disorders.
What really made me shift in my sleep was a simple comparison. We’re now working in jobs like “private consultancy for digital marketing”, when just two or three generations back we would have been working 80 hours a week in a coal mine, months off on a fishing boat or sent to war. So why the hell are so many people depressed in the best times for humanity? We have access to all the art and entertainment in the world, literally in our pocket.
Instead we use it to see other people’s lives, which always seem better than ours, find out bad things from the world (we are wired to center attention on what could be a danger, that’s why we click more on a link like “16 year old teen brutally stabbed to death” rather than a link like “new art museum opened to public in 2021”, and as said before, clicks are what matters to the news), even if there are lots of happy patterns in life’s experience.
Happiness is relative, and if you have a feed where people’s lives are better than yours and the world is getting worse, you will be depressed. It’s not an error, it’s the business model of social media that gets richer from our anxiety and depression. They give you a world full of tragedies, and they give you enemies with different opinions, so you can point to as the reason of your suffering. Media makes you believe your only mechanism for defense is your opinion, when it’s actually your actions, this world is real. The great masses of humanity live lives of quiet desperation. We have important issues to solve like climate change and ongoing wars, but in order to take action we have to wake up from our drowsy attention.
There isn’t a clear solution, if Zuckerberg said suddenly:
“We aren’t going to use algorithms that exploit the weaknesses of the human mind to capture their attention”.
The competitors would have to do the same, and nobody can give the first step because the jobs and careers of all depend on the system. Lots of people realize there’s something wrong, heck, even tech mogul Steve Jobs, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, said they have strict screen time for their kids until they are responsible adults.
As addicts, the first step is to accept and integrate that we have a problem, in a world that has kidnapped our most primal impulses, the only ability we have left is our discipline. Give your attention the value it’s worth and the reward will stagger you. We do have the opportunity to convert the economy into what it should have always been; a mechanism to interchange human value, human value in it’s most abstract meaning, an economy of love, that which makes us feel alive, the principle that unifies individuals into communities, that which makes us collaborate and reach better, more complex realities, to grow in face of the infinite. Why are you doing, what you are doing? Why do you wake up in the morning? It’s all for love, or for ambition to gain success, so people can understand our inside universe, and love us.
Let’s stop working in jobs we hate, to get stuff we don’t need, to impress people that don’t care. We’re doing it all the wrong way round, and meanwhile destroying the planet with useless materials. We should do things we enjoy, for the people we love, to find our place in this universe.
It’s not actually attention we’re looking for, when we post. Tomorrow, when you upload your selfie, in that delicious exercise of vulnerability, remember you’re only looking for love, there’s nothing else, nothing else is worth in this disposable world, hopefully in the future, with a collective effort, our medium of exchange shifts towards our true value, without it being a generic hippie vibe.
This article is a mix of thoughts I liked from different people, but mainly a translation of a Mexican Youtuber named MIGALA, he spreads great philosophical thoughts in a divulgative manner that is highly appreciated, if you understand Spanish don’t doubt to check him out and support his channel. Thank you for your valuable attention.