A fascinating article in yesterday’s Guardian previewing the new Netflix film The Social Dilemma outlines the scale of the problem humanity faces in the internet:
“… the tech industry’s tools, most predominantly social media, aren’t promising tools but too-powerful entities fragmenting attention and rewiring brains by design; that addiction to phones and social media is a function of their business model; that this divisive, degrading status quo is driving us straight to dystopia.” (The Guardian, 9/9/20)
Over the last five years I’ve pondered more and more the qualities of the internet, and become more and more dejected about it. My novel The Autist hypothesises a grim future, while other as yet unpublished works do the same. I’m not optimistic. An encounter with an ex-colleague in my local park a couple of days ago confirmed this mood, my friend, in his sixties, remarking that because of his decade of birth he felt he had lived through a golden age of liberalism and humanism – roughly the beginning of the 1960s to 2010. His hasn’t been the only voice I’ve heard making this observation.
I now think the great danger of social media in particular is the question of belief. The mushroom-like rise of conspiracies is just one symptom of the state we find ourselves in. Other symptoms include 50/50 polarisation, the rise of the anti-Science and anti-expert movements, and the proliferation of absurd cults amplified by the particular qualities of the internet, qualities so well summarised by Dr Mary Aiken in her book The Cyber Effect.
Human beings derive meaning about their world from the stories they tell. In millennia past, those stories were broad and monolithic: spiritual traditions and religions. What was believed by the masses came from particular sources: Buddha, christianity etc. The latter, religious, were dogmatic and enforced, but they were simple and fairly constant. The former, spirituality in prehistoric times, were local meaning frameworks; lack of understanding about the natural world’s laws, for all that prehistoric people had phenomenal environmental knowledge and powers of interpretation, led to belief in spirits, souls, spiritual realms, mystical beings and so on. All these beliefs were promulgated by stories – origin stories, moral stories, stories about behaviour, fate, the sky and the land.
In the 1960s in the West religious faith began to decline, as liberal, humane views spread – the liberal story, as Yuval Noah Harari observed, was the only tale in town. But now, as he went on to say, humanity has no story.
The internet has created a human social environment which by virtue of its particular qualities – immediate response (i.e. active as opposed to traditional passive participation), the potential for anonymity, its overly visual style and the parallel reduction in the value of the word and therefore reason – has allowed any individual to choose what they believe. This is, therefore, a startling and exceptionally dangerous moment in human history. There being no overall ethical authority in their lives, people have diminished to herd mentality, either following whims or disbelieving everything except their parents’ fundamental values.
This, then, is the danger. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, believing in a christian god has all the sanity of believing in a teapot orbiting the Earth. Neither belief is based in the truth of the natural world. Both are human belief systems that are attractive because of the narrative they tell – that the world was created by him on the cloud, or that teapots can fly. Such narratives appeal variously: to Westerners, to hippies.
The internet has become a vast, fragmented, semi-random, whimsical collection of belief stories. Everybody needs a meaning framework to survive – to live without one is to go insane. Lacking any other obvious ethical source, and seduced by the exploiters of the internet, the majority have chosen whatever out there takes their fancy. But those belief stories are lies. Worse, they are trite, semi-random lies.
Facts won’t mend this disaster. The only option is to tell the real human story based on our truth, which is itself based in the natural world. We can understand ourselves and the origin of consciousness. We can make sense of the human condition in a rising tide of chaotic digital noise. Unfortunately, such stories aren’t attractive when compared with life-ever-after or teapots in space.
A shame. The real thing is wonderful.