We have too much control. We’ve been marketed the ability to micromanage and curate every single aspect of our knowledge, our surroundings, and ourselves. We’ve been given so much control that we’re actually losing our liberty, or more accurately, we’re giving it away.
Gone are the days when the newspaper was delivered to our doorstep, now it’s streamed to our e-reader. Instead of poring through the broad pages, we skim the table of contents and select the articles we want to read. No longer do we have a pile of magazines on the kitchen counter or at our bedside where we might flip through and happen upon something unexpected. In our classrooms we use digital textbooks, some learning products go as far as to have the option of highlighting only what is relevant to the course and to shade out the rest. Social media — arguably the most misused tool of the last twenty years — is the 800-pound gorilla. The algorithms on these platforms exist to make you happy, to make you want to give them information about you, and in turn they give you tools to make your friends happy to give up their information. By presenting and suggesting to you only the stories, comments, and subjects you explicitly choose, from the outlets you prefer, and going as far as to give special priority to those items the crowd likes the most, we’re being numbed from the reality of the real-world discourse that has gotten us as humans, this far. The echo chamber is real, and it’s deafening.
… just like a hammer it can be used to build a house, or it can be used to cave in someone’s skull because you want them to go away.
Social media is a dopamine dealer, and we’re getting high on agreeing with ourselves, and each day our society, our culture, and our technology is hanging out shingles to sell us more. Our freedom of thought and introspection is ceded to making our crowd like us more.
Chamath Palihapitiya, a former vice president at Facebook, spoke of our addictions to the neurotransmitter, “feedback loops,” and his “tremendous guilt” for helping perpetuate a platform that makes those loops so easy to create. Of course, before the advent of social media, we were still into the rush of someone agreeing with us, but it required a much more concerted effort to get the hit. This behavioral influence and how we’re using these tools is, as Palihapitiya states it, “is ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He is undeniably correct. We have given ourselves a way to gather with only people who make us feel good about ourselves, preserve and spread our beliefs, and a rapid fire way to devalue others, their opinions, and their balancing role in our culture. Social media is a tool, and just like a hammer it can be used to build a house, or it can be used to cave in someone’s skull because you want them to go away. While some might advocate that we abstain from the use of the tools because of their potential damage, it is more realistic and constructive to learn to wield their power correctly.
Nowhere is this more evident than in politics. Social media and the echo chamber, like it or not, played an outsized role in the elections of the last two American presidents. Couple the high-speed transmission of thoughts and ideas with our ever lessening drive to know what is reality, what is ideology, and what is entertainment, and you have present day social media feeds and increasingly present day offline society.
Divisiveness and anger have always made money and furthered ideologies
By seeking out that rush in a comments section, or a friend’s post shouting down dissent, rather than doing our epistemological duty to seek out the truth, we devolve into a group of people at a show wanting entertainment instead of looking out for our own well-being. The voices providing the entertainment are large, and loud, and the seriousness of the show’s topics is literally life and death.
We need to figure out a way to reintroduce chance, and happenstance to our lives, and to the culture. Happenstance is an incredible force for introducing new ideas and experiences that bridge the gaps between us. Think of it this way: When you (used to?) walk into a bookstore, you may have had no intent to purchase in mind, but end up leaving with several titles that caught your attention as you perused the sections. Instead of going to an online retailer with specific intentions, and then buying additional selections made for you as a result of your previous buys, or how many stars they are rated. Dopamine hit, feedback loop intensified. Only in the bookstore, or a library will you find a biography of George W. Bush and Barack Obama nestled together on the shelf, you won’t find them next to one another in your shopping cart’s: “Recommended for You”. The same goes for a textbook or a newspaper, unlike the e-reader, even articles you don’t want to see, you still see as you’re turning the pages, one eventually catches the eye.
We need to loosen our grip on shaping our reality, take it upon ourselves to be placed into the situation of, “chancing into” an idea, topic, or person that we don’t like or just hadn’t thought of yet, to generate cognitive dissonance, and grow our minds and inform our opinions. It’s not easy, cognitive dissonance can actually hurt, but it’s necessary pain. Like it or not, we’re not always right, and certainly not just because other people agree with us.
By introducing randomness into our everyday experiences, and making it harder to devalue the existence of another human being or thought, social media companies and other online outlets can bolster, and indeed generate this happenstance effect. By sacrificing some of the drive to make us want to use their platforms because we need to feel good about ourselves, but make us want to use their platforms because we crave the excitement of evolving and growing into someone good. Surely if the algorithms can dish out the hits of dopamine with the entertainment of fighting and reinforcing our own ideas, some of that sophistication can be set to stimulate us to explore what we weren’t expecting from a person we don’t know. Perhaps engineering fate?
These new institutions have this power, make no mistake. For now though it appears to be more profitable to corral the masses, promote Us vs. Them, and sell the team jerseys. It’s a time-tested formula for success, but at what expense? Divisiveness and anger have always made money and furthered ideologies, but throughout history the real advancements have come when we’ve looked at each other and accepted new ideas that we’ve happened upon, ideas that we’d never known, or noticed before.
Joshua R. Williams (@JRDubbleU / JRDubbleU.com) is an eighteen-year veteran of the information technology industry and studies social psychology and themes of opportunity inequality at the University of Toledo.