In an essay I wrote six years ago(!), I highlighted Jeremy Rifkin’s idea that our empathic drives – sociability, attachment, companionship, affection, and belonging – help us deal with the reality we all face: life is short, fragile, and unique.
Then, and since, I wondered how technology can and should help us boost and evolve those drives. Yet right along with that question lurked another: What if the technology we are developing is aimed, intentionally or not, at obliterating those fundamental characteristics of life.
I’d argue that the brevity, fragility, and uniqueness of life is what makes it a mystery and so damned interesting. Still, anyone is free to try to overcome these built-in “limits” on life, and there is no shortage of real and huckstered effort to do just that. But if our technological goals include overcoming the limitations of our lives, what are the implications for our empathic drives? And what are the side effects of these attempts, including the consequences of the Internet itself?
The question popped up again reading Kashmir Hill’s view on how the Internet has become our collective digital closet, preserving all our digital skeletons. As the Internet evolved and our lives became intertwined with it, most of us seemed not to understand or appreciate what “sharing” meant. We uploaded and shared parts of lives as we lived them, not realizing fully that they were being preserved. If we assume at least some portion of social media users now grasp what “posting” means, then obviously many still don’t think before some of their posts and fewer yet attempt to clean up their messes afterward – admittedly a Sysiphisian task.
An optimist would look at this collective sharing as an opportunity to evolve those empathic drives Rifkin identified. That is, this global outpouring of likes, dislikes, fears, loves, and (let’s admit it, digital dreck) presents a chance to weave a new network of human understanding. But – and this is Hill’s point – the promised empathy hasn’t materialized in part because some people have viewed our shared digital archive as a source of ammunition.
There’s a lot going on in this online dance, including sociologically and anthropologically. We humans are compelled to share. It’s in our nature. But our nature has been warped, or at least changed, by the technology itself. Thanks to social media we now don’t know the difference between perfectly fine obscurity and celebrity. You can become famous for becoming famous, but we tend to be more forgiving of those who “earned” their celebrity rather than coming by it via notoriety.
Peer into the psychic jumble of social media and you will see we still don’t understand people – ourselves or each other. Again, the Internet ostensibly offered a chance to remedy this, even a bit. Instead, it continues to magnify our ignorance. Consider that in real life we do often forgive people and we do forget their transgressions. In fact, we should. People should evolve, and we should applaud people who acknowledge their past mistakes and work at being better today. We need to worry about the people whose views don’t change over time. Yet we continue to direct our ire on something else.
In her essay, Hill looks at this ire in terms of cancel culture and the new heights it is reaching. And she identifies the psychological payoff for those compelled to mine our digital history and selectively prescribe shame: Power.
But our treacherous relationships with power – with sharing and shaming, with fame and obscurity — are symptoms of our collective mental illness, one magnified by and feeding our two-faced relationship with technology.
Consider the Meme Queen, a QAnon acolyte. In many ways, QAnon doesn’t differ from most cults or conspiracy theories or even religions. Adherents come from all walks of life and, given a few minutes, they can weave any random selection of facts into an argument shoring up their worldview. To me, the troubling part isn’t that QAnon lives online, nor that it is an example of collective consciousness. These are, after all, what the Internet (quietly) and Facebook specifically promised – and I’m sure have delivered in positive ways millions of times. The problem for me is not even that QAnon is seemingly so large or influential. The problem is why is it such shit?
Yes, the disciples are willing to look reality in the face and deny it because they can take some comfort being part of a “community”. As the Times’ profile noted, when Ms. Gilbert (the meme queen) “solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her. This collaborative element, which some have likened to a massively multiplayer online video game, is a big part of what drew Ms. Gilbert to QAnon and keeps her there now.”
But it can’t be just that. Participation comes at great cost. “Believing in QAnon tends to clear one’s social calendar,” the report continues, “and Ms. Gilbert is no exception. She cut ties with her closest friends years ago, after arguing with them about Pizzagate. She is estranged from her sister, who tried and failed to stage an intervention over her Facebook posts.”
What this seems to hint at is that one thing people like most when they post is to be affirmed. What’s this mean? They want to hear more of themselves. Our online world is an echo chamber of our collective psyche.
So what does it mean that one of those echo chambers, one of the most prominent ones, is filled with babblings of the idiotic? Well, imagine we’re all together the dendrites in a global consciousness covering the globe. Us hollering into this chamber and listening attentively for the echoes is the mental equivalent of sniffing glue.
Is this where we now find our meaning? Some of us, yes. That makes it a problem for all of us. Those whose lives are ruled and ruined by an online world of hate, divisiveness, and idiocy are our guinea pigs, our early test results and the warning system telling us that whatever our stated motive for developing this technology, if in some sense we’re working to overcome the characteristics of life we are also working to eliminate Rifkin’s empathic drives. And if we stop striving for sociability, attachment, companionship, affection, and belonging, what do we have left?