Sometimes when my wife’s phone is out of battery, she’d borrow mine and scroll through my Facebook feed. (I do take a bit of pride in the fact that I have an interesting FB feed.) But watching her do it one day made me realize that Facebook feeds have basically replaced the morning paper. And to some degree, after-work drinks. Why do we do that? Why is it so compelling? My parents used to ask, “why are you on the computer all the time”- but they read the papers every morning too. We’re just doing it on different mediums. It happened in the past, too- parents would complain that their kids spent all their time reading trashy novels or reading tabloids.
Here’s a thought- reading the papers or scrolling through a newsfeed isn’t just about gathering information and being well informed. It’s significantly a social activity. Instead of sitting around a village square, we stared at symbols made of ink, pressed onto dead trees, and hallucinate about events that supposedly happen around the world.
Tinder doesn’t actually replace dating outright- it allows people to match with one another, to calibrate their own position in the dating marketplace. And I think the way humans are wired- we love supernormal stimuli like any other animal. A Tinder match provides a rush of good feelings, which says “yes, somebody finds me attractive”. I imagine most Tinder matches don’t end up in actual dates and most Tinder dates don’t end up in actual relationships (if there’s such a thing as an actual relationship anymore- or if there ever really was).
Er… I started this train of thought intending to make the case that ALL habitual media consumption has a certain effect on people. Something along the lines of collective self-regulation. As Steve Jobs said in a pessimistic interview with Wired (while he was still at NeXT, I believe) – the media isn’t conspiring to dumb us down, it’s conspiring to give us what we want. Bread and circuses. It’s symptomatic of the greater, central tragedy of humanity. Hopefully we can contribute towards correcting this a little. But that’s another story.
Aside – I wonder if alien anthropologists came to Earth, with a genuinely curious and non-judgmental intent, what would they make of these hairless monkeys tapping at glass all day? (Usually these thought experiments are described with this annoying holier-than-thou attitude, meant to elevate the author, but in this case the author taps on glass more than any other hairless monkey around so…)
I think they would observe something like- humans, having domesticated their environments, have enabled themselves to indulge in their constant cravings for stimulation. Their ancestors were hunters on the savannah, but for many there is no longer a need to hunt, and many spend hours sitting in chairs, standing in trains, facing no danger. The sight of thousands of people crammed into trains is a stunning contrast from how it was before. Isn’t it funny that we’re so quick to criticize people for being on screens all the time, but not the underlying forces that have created this circumstance? Do you judge people for being on their phone on the train, talking to loved ones, or playing games, or even arguing with strangers on the Internet? I mean, how many rush hour trains have you been on? I’ve been doing this for over a thousand days now. It’s dehumanizing! We were never meant to be stuffed in compartments like cattle (and hey, neither were the bloody cattle). I took the train a little earlier than usual today and I’ve had at least 20 different strangers’ bodies pressed or rubbing against mine.
If industrial-farmed animals could have Facebook, or a comforting virtual reality that distracted them from the horrific drudgery of their senseless existence, wouldn’t it be merciful to grant it to them?
Huh, I suppose that’s also an argument for the proliferation of comforting religions, with the promise of paradise in the afterlife.
Anyway – screens are getaways for people who can’t afford better. (I think this was definitely the case for me as a child when I was deep-diving into video games, and to some degree this is also the case for people playing Pokemon Go. People want to have fun. They want to get away from the bullshit of everyday life. Judging them for that is a special kind of shitty, IMO.)
Here’s a thought experiment- if you could have anything you wanted (within the realm of physical possibility), in exchange for your digital life, would you take it? How about a billion dollars? I’d take it for a billion. (I wouldn’t take it for a million. Maybe at least 10 million. But that would be a tough call to make, I’d have to spend some time thinking about it. What does that say about the wealth bestowed by technology, though? It hasn’t yet delivered us physically from shifty commutes, but give it time. Driverless cars are already on the roads in Singapore.) I’d basically want enough wealth to reshape your physical reality such that you’d never be in a crowded train going somewhere you don’t feel like going. Hire a personal assistant and have them manage your social appointments and whatnot.