I woke up this morning to the usual Facebook and Twitter maelstrom. Another mass killing, another tsunami of identity politics and self-righteousness expressed in clever factoids, mantras and (even from people I like and follow) such an unfaltering sense that each pithy statement can collapse any situation into 140 characters of clarity and understanding.
Nothing has prepared us for the onslaught of intimacy and rage that social media fires into our ape brains. We are just not designed for this.
I once interviewed an addiction specialist who led with the statement that while we do have a choice to take a drug, we have very little choice on how the drug will affect us.
Credit: Marc Schafer: Unsplash
The drug analogy is a cliché, but it fits. You may choose to abstain, but if you don’t, it’s not possible to choose to be unaffected.
Cognition, reason and thought don’t stand a chance against the sheer emotional tidal wave. Millions of years have fine-tuned us into social computers; empathetic and awake to the smallest nuance in our fellow humans. You don’t get to see, read and watch Facebook feeds and Twitter tweets without it triggering your limbic system. We are switching on and off a panoply of hormones through fear, anger, happiness, elation or disgust.
And the algorithm behind each next recommendation (certainly for YouTube and Facebook) can be shown to consistently lead you to the ever more extreme. The fringe can fast become mainstream.
Our social circle might be capped at around 150 of our “tribe” (the much-popularised Dunbar number), past that we struggle to maintain stable social connections. Yet the average person on Facebook has 338 friends (the median is 200), and growing year on year. While this science might be contentious, if you focus on the fact that you are linked in a never-ending stream of intimate and personal disclosures to a multitude more – all of your friends, and their friends and likes and passions and so forth. This “intimate” social network grows vastly larger than what we can cope with. Add to that the environment is likely an echo-chamber (which it is) and consider the forced intimacy of all those uninvited and uncorroborated ideas flowing unceasingly into your psyche. Remember that most of what you read is opinion. It’s not fact, its feelings. It’s not real, its narrative – personal, political or philosophical. Wonderful at times. But overpowering – almost certainly.
There is no chance for our biology to catch the rate of our technological evolution. Only culture can keep pace, and arguably even that is more in hindsight.
As apes with our fingers on many large, glowing buttons – the danger for what this continued frenzy will produce ranges from choosing a new singer for Britain’s got Talent, to launching a nuclear strike.