Today social media delighted in a row of books behind Boris Johnson as, at Castle Rock School, he mouthed Tory propaganda and absolved himself of responsibility. I very rarely share political stuff on Facebook, but this story (perhaps because it featured lots of dystopian novels) tickled my fancy, so I shared it. A couple of hours later it turned out that the school librarian had made the display months before Johnson’s visit, as he departed his place of employment. The social media story was untrue. The message of the book titles had been left by the librarian for school managers.
My reaction was to share the Huffington Post correction and delete the original story, but the response of various of my friends was enlightening – and frightening. Many of them thought the original post appropriate, ironic, amusing etc. All a good joke at Johnson’s expense – opposing Tories more important than actuality.
Also shared yesterday was The Independent’s video of the great Sacha Baron Cohen speaking passionately about the dangers of social media. I’ve written and spoken a few times about these dangers, but I’m becoming aware now that more people are just giving up on resisting (the main theme of my novel The Autist, which features a Thai anti-internet group called Fri – i.e. Free). So here are some thoughts on what’s happening and what those dangers are.
It’s a combination of two things – the intrinsic narcissism of most of us, which leads both to irrational belief and deliberate propaganda, and the peculiarities of the digital life, which allow immediate response, bypassing reasoned, “slow” (as Daniel Kahneman put it) thought. This then is the danger: by creating an environment which human beings interact with as if it’s real, yet which is abstract and able to fool people using a number of simple psychological methods, we’re tearing ourselves from our roots in the real world. If millions of people come to the conclusion that – especially if the internet is their main source of active participation in life – they might as well give up bothering to find out what’s true and what’s propaganda, then humanity is doomed as a sane species. We literally are tearing ourselves from our own minds, either by creating alternate realities which the majority of people accept as real and true, or by inculcating a sense of disbelief so profound the concepts of reality and fantasy merge into one thing – a mess of cynical disbeliefs too complex to untangle.
As Daniel Kahneman observed, people are usually too lazy to take the time to reason. As Erich Fromm observed, narcissism operates through self-delusion. And as Yuval Noah Harari observed, most people don’t know themselves. Yes: so far, the human race hasn’t covered itself in glory regarding its understanding of the real world – oh, except, of course, over the last five hundred years… “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.” – Carl Sagan, scientist.
For me, narcissism is the fundamental metaphor of the human mind. Overcoming it through life is our main task. The internet, and social media in particular, is an environment which facilitates and amplifies that narcissism still remaining in the human species. In ethical terms, it is a retrogressive entity. Personally, I think it’s a very dangerous entity. But I seem to be in the minority in thinking so – and in acting as I think. I deleted the untrue post and posted the true one. How many others did likewise? And how many of my friends laughed off the original post?
Well, maybe I’m too serious. But, then again, we are creatures of narrative. The human narrative for 100,000 years has been one lie after another, promulgated by religion and spirituality. But those lies were passive; and they were essential at the time, serving to explain the otherwise inexplicable. The new lies are far more dangerous because they’re active. Suddenly everybody can participate in what they believe. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred they believe whatever takes their fancy.
To paraphrase something else Yuval Noah Harari said: what’s so dangerous about our times is that, having discarded the stories of Socialism and Fascism, and now even Liberalism, the human race has no story. I think the human race needs new stories based on reality and humane ethics before it’s too late. But perhaps it’s already too late.