For some time I’ve been convinced that, for all social media’s benefits, which I have enjoyed and made use of, they are on balance outweighed by the disadvantages and even harmful effects on human beings. In this essay I’m going to compare two brain/mind conditions with what is known about the psychological effects of social media.
Blindsight is an obscure but fascinating mental phenomenon which offers us a unique and deeply significant view into consciousness itself. It was first dealt with in depth by the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose most notable work was in the field of neuroplasticity – he was an early researcher into it – introducing in perhaps his most famous work the idea of sensory substitution as a tool for treating patients suffering from neurological disorders.
Blindsight is a very strange thing. Some patients suffering from brain damage or brain disorders believe they are blind when in fact there is no damage to their optical systems at all. When the gifted psychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey approached this phenomenon, he realised there was a deeper level to understanding it. A human being with blindsight, he noticed, believed they were blind despite being able to navigate a room filled with objects, a task for which they felt profound ambivalence. A monkey with blindsight on the other hand simply navigated the room filled with objects. So human beings with blindsight have to invent explanations to give meaning to this unsettling experience, such as possessing ESP powers. Animals do not need to do such a thing – no ambivalence shown.
This experimental observation caused Humphrey to hypothesize that the sensory pathway and the perceptual pathway in conscious human beings are separate entities. In his ground-breaking book A History Of The Mind he explained that because we experience sensation and perception simultaneously (or, at least, almost simultaneously – there is an element of temporal juggling to consciousness) we don’t realise the two are separate. We believe we are navigating the real world when in fact we are relying on our mental model of it. It is only through blindsight that the two systems are revealed to be separate. In his subsequent book Seeing Red Humphrey developed his idea, showing how it might have evolved, and giving a full philosophical and psychological basis for the theory, including sensory modality, which complemented Bach-y-Rita’s work nicely.
When recently I was reading Robin Waterfield’s excellent book Hidden Depths about hypnotism I was struck by an extraordinary similarity. Some hypnotised subjects, when hypnotised into believing they cannot see, still navigate rooms with chairs placed randomly as though they can see. These were called chair/no chair (real/simulant) experiments, the results of which are identical to blindsight experiments.
Could this be coincidence? Possibly. But let’s think about what hypnotism is. Hypnotism has three distinctive properties: focused attention, impaired or reduced peripheral awareness, and vastly increased suggestibility. The first two conditions in particular relate to circumstances in which the subject is making significantly less use of sensory pathways, allowing the perceptual pathway to dominate. In such circumstances, when the real world is not being checked hundreds of times a second as with normal consciousness, the subject is susceptible to being made to believe suggestions imparted to them by the hypnotist. In other words, although the dynamic of the situation is different to blindsight – diminished use of sensory pathways instead of none – there is an emphasis in their subjective experience of perception; and perception, based in a mental model, is essentially a meaning framework, for most if not all people a belief or set of beliefs. But beliefs can be suggested, even “crazy” beliefs, which is why stage hypnotism is often so strange a thing. The subject’s sense of disbelief is suspended.
This phenomenon however is familiar to us from advertising and politics. When you see an advert for, let’s say, a beer, and you feel thirsty, what’s happening is that the advert’s sensory design, lifestyle assumptions and narrative are subtly tapping into what are termed emotional buying triggers, hypnotising you and all other viewers with the explicit desire of making you accept and act upon suggestions. In any other field – education, for instance – such techniques would be banned as deeply inhumane, yet because we live in a corporate, capitalist, individualistic and misogynist (80% of adverts are targeted at women) society it is permitted. Repetition and context complete the technique. And the same happens in politics. Those politicians with charisma are the ones who draw you into their world, taking you to a political worldview of their own or their party’s, but which actually exists inside your mental model. Their desire is to suggest to you that if you vote for them you will gain a suite of life advantages, and even though you return to normality afterwards, even knowing that the speech or party advert was disingenuous, that sensation of belief remains. Repetition completes the deal. Repetition and suggestion make you one of them.
What advertisers and politicians are doing is tapping into that part of the human subconscious which deals with emotional response. This is done deliberately, regardless of the fact that it is psychological manipulation.
So far, then, we’ve decided that consciousness is a user-generated experience based on the simultaneous operation of the sensory and perceptual pathways, which makes us believe we’re interacting with the real world when in fact we’re utilising our mental model. In various kinds of hypnotism the sensory pathway is diminished, so that consciousness’ normal mode of operation, in which it compares reality with its mental model hundreds of times a second, focusing on what has changed, is altered. This alteration allows the perceptual pathway – the subject’s belief system – to dominate, with the proviso that it is subject to suggestion because of the lack of feedback or change emanating from the real world. It’s a bit like taking a person from solid ground to the middle of the ocean – foundations lost, no way of orienting yourself.
The title of my essay adds social media to this scenario. There are two aspects of online life that I want to focus on: the sense that the digital world is an environment, and the structural organisation of social media in particular.
We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in a wide variety of environments, and it was change in those environments, as with all living things, which made evolution by natural selection change us from primates into homo sapiens. Intelligence is the evolutionary response to environmental change which is too swift for evolution in body design to cope with.
We start off in life assuming that everything we deal with in the world is an environment, since it is all physical, as solid as rock, as buoyant as water and as ethereal as air, with laws governed by physics; and so it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. The real world is consistent, since it operates by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc; and it is independent of our minds. However, research has shown that we approach the online world in exactly the same way. Despite the fact that the digital world is abstract and entirely manufactured, we work with it as though it is a real place. As a consequence, we bring to the digital world all our usual assumptions.
This is incredibly dangerous. It is one of the main reasons people have been so easy to exploit by the small number of American companies, dominated by male, white, middle class individuals, who currently control the vast majority of the internet. We are being exploited. Well, most people know that, and mostly they don’t care. Or they don’t know and they don’t care.
The dangers are obvious. The online world is the advertising world on steroids, made hyper-real by glittering visual illusions and a huge array of psychological tricks. But that’s only one part of the peril. Digital life is addictive like no other form of living because it taps so comprehensively into our subconsciouses.
But it was designed to be so. It is in fact a particularly vivid form of hypnotism, with the sensory pathways we rely on perverted from real world and realistic to digital and illusory. Online we stop checking the real world, relying on the illusory world presented to us. Should this experience of the digital world – as yet only conveyed by screens and earbuds – be conveyed by augmented reality through glasses and implants then the task of reaching out to human minds via hypnotism will be complete. At that point, any reality can be substituted into the perceptual pathway, and the subject will believe it. People won’t have to carry the inconvenient knowledge that separate screen and earbuds are part of their environment. They’ll feel inside the environment, no separation, and they’ll be powerless to disbelieve whatever is placed in front of them.
I used some of these ideas in my novel Muezzinland, where a culturally active cyberspace – unlike the passive (albeit structured) digital substrate we have at the moment – works to deceive individuals’ perceptions, so that they believe they are following folk tales, legends and so on, behaviour which then affects the real world, and so on back into the virtual, in a multitude of snowball effects. Yet if the digital world is controlled by a tiny number of corporations, what then? Everyone will be a slave, and they won’t even know that. They’ll believe they are free.
There have been many prophets of doom over historical times. Many, like Cassandra, were mocked, fobbed off or ignored. Myself, I think the arrival of the digital world, online life, and social media in particular are more dangerous than any tool human beings have so far invented, for the reasons given above. Most likely I’ll be mocked, fobbed off or ignored for saying such a thing though. After all, the human race hasn’t yet bombed itself out of existence, has it? It hasn’t even managed to damage the planet’s biosphere enough to wipe itself out of existence.
No. Not yet.