I think it’s likely that Mark Zuckerberg genuinely thought his social media networking of the planet would connect people in a positive way, which ultimately would be for the good of the world. It seems an obvious point. How could linking people together have any downside? The benefits look clear: easy communication, bringing sundered families and communities together, and much more.
But Zuckerberg did all this on an inaccurate understanding of the state of humanity at the moment. He naively thought all our good points would be accentuated by connectivity; and it’s true that some of our more humane motives are aided by online connection. But what he failed to see was the underlying metaphor of humanity at this moment in history. We remain a somewhat primitive species, whose ethical development in some places hasn’t progressed much since eras BC. Some of the rest of the world retains at best a medieval outlook.
Before I continue, I just want to digress and emphasise that, unlike some modern commentators, I believe a clear trend of human ethical progress can be discerned over the very long term – let’s say twenty thousand years – which for one main reason will continue over similarly long periods, barring a global human catastrophe. People basically have two options here: either believe human beings are born good but need teaching, or believe that we’re born in sin and need saving. You won’t be surprised to learn that I think the former option is correct. My reason for saying that ethical progress will continue is that understanding – of our environment and of ourselves – is in the long term a one-way process.
In the first of my ‘Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises’ blogs I wrote: … social media style interactions increase narcissism. I use narcissism here in the sense I’ve used elsewhere – “human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself. Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable precursor to psychological development.” Because narcissism acts through self-deception, the slow sophistication of ourselves via the viewpoints of all the people we meet throughout our lives does not happen via internet interaction. There is no time during such interactions for reason, for the viewpoints of others to manifest themselves. Commonly this is described as ‘internet bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ but the effect is far more profound than merely pushing people away from one another. Narcissism is tough. Narcissism acts with brutal strength to protect itself. Human beings only overcome it because we are a profoundly social species. Social media therefore, with ultimate irony, is in fact the exact opposite. It is anti-social media. Slowly, it is fracturing and infantilising humanity. I say this because it seems to me that narcissism can act with far greater reach and depth through the internet.
What Zuckerberg failed to grasp was that our current, quite primitive mind-set is amplified online far more than any humane tendencies. He created an online environment in which narcissism thrives. It would have been far better for humanity if he hadn’t invented Facebook.
There are three main ways in which narcissism acts online. The first is via the perceived lack of authority, which encourages users to do what they like without fear of admonishment or judgement. This effect is the origin of trolling. Trolls are inadequate narcissists lacking empathy, whom the internet fosters. The second way is via behaviour amplification, which occurs because of the immediate, swift and intense qualities of social media especially. Because narcissism is so tough, acting through self-deception, it usually wins out over humane qualities. The third way is via non-reasoning. Because online behaviour is being internalised – especially by younger users – our natural abilities to think, reflect over time and use reason are being lost. This is the origin of modern social polarisation.
We currently therefore are living in temporary backwards-moving times, in which the progress of liberalism during the 1950s – 1970s is being undone. A similar thing happened during the 20th century because of the social consequences of mechanised industrialisation – in Germany, for instance – undoing a lot of the work of the Enlightenment and what followed. Online-mediated narcissism is fuelling the rise of extremes, of polarisation, of unreasoning thought and behaviour – behaviour which, as Dr Mary Aiken pointed out, then migrates back into the real world.
I do think this is likely to be a temporary blip, however. In the long term, ethical progress moves from primitive and non-understanding towards humane life, where understanding is the main foundation.
As many have observed, technology is a double edged sword. The problem is – as with nuclear weapons for example – that humanity has created something for which the negatives are too dangerous to remain unregulated. We regulate the use of nuclear weapons, so why not online life? At the moment that is a new, powerful and highly dangerous scourge.
We need to recognise this, both as societies and as individuals.
I never post anti-Daily Mail content for instance because such postings are exactly what the Daily Mail wants. They want polarised, irrational debate because it perpetuates their position as a beneficiary of such behaviour. I do think however that at last a sense of perspective is emerging regarding social media especially. Alas, the peril of deep (video) fakes is almost upon us, and ordinary people seem powerless to stop it, despite the fact that the developers themselves have remarked (eg on BBC News’ Click programme) on the obvious dangers. Yet, still the reckless, unregulated development continues…