How technology reshapes consciousness.
Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically. Depression rates are surging and America’s mental health over all is deteriorating. What’s going on?
My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.
When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it become a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.
As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.
That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.
Sometimes your online post can go viral and get massively admired or ridiculed, while other times your post can leave you alone and completely ignored. Communication itself, once mostly collaborative, is now often competitive, with bids for affection and attention. It is also more manipulative — gestures designed to generate a response.
People ensconced in social media are more likely to be on perpetual alert: How are my ratings this moment? They are also more likely to feel that the amount of attention they are receiving is inadequate.
As David Foster Wallace put it in that famous Kenyon commencement address, if you orient your life around money, you will never feel you have enough. Similarly, if you orient your life around attention, you will always feel slighted. You will always feel emotionally unsafe.
New social types emerge in such a communications regime. The most prominent new type is the troll, and in fact, Americans have elected a troll as the commander in chief.
Trolls bid for attention by trying to make others feel bad. Studies of people who troll find that they score high on measures of psychopathy, sadism and narcissism. Online media hasn’t made them vicious; they’re just vicious. Online has given them a platform to use viciousness to full effect.
Trolls also score high on cognitive empathy. Intellectually, they understand other people’s emotions and how to make them suffer. But they score low on affective empathy. They don’t feel others’ pain, so when they hurt you, they don’t care.
Trolling is a very effective way to generate attention in a competitive, volatile attention economy. It’s a way to feel righteous and important, especially if you claim to be trolling on behalf of some marginalized group.
Another prominent personality type in this economy is the crybully. This is the person who takes his or her own pain and victimization and uses it to make sure every conversation revolves around himself or herself. “This is the age of the Cry-Bully, a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper,” Julie Burchill wrote in The Spectator a few years ago.
The crybully starts with a genuine trauma. The terrible thing that happened naturally makes the crybully feel unsafe, self-protective and self-conscious to the point of self-absorption. The trauma makes that person intensely concerned about self-image.
“People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack,” Maalouf writes.
.. The people who exclude us try to reduce our myriad identities down to one simplistic one. Amartya Sen calls this process “miniaturization.” You may be an athletic Baptist Democratic surgeon with three kids and a love for Ohio State, but to the bigot you’re just one thing: your faith or skin color or whatever it is he doesn’t like.
The odd thing is, people are often complicit in their own miniaturization.
.. When you’re disrespected for being a Jew, a Christian, a liberal or a conservative, the natural instinct is to double down on that identity.
.. It’s human nature that we feel our slights more strongly than we feel our advantages, so we all tend to feel downtrodden these days.
- White males and Zionists feel victimized on campus.
- Christians feel oppressed by the courts.
- Women feel victimized in tech.
- The working class feels victimized everywhere.
- Even Taylor Swift apparently feels victimized by celebrity.
.. Group victimization has become the global religion — from Berkeley to the alt-right to Iran — and everybody gets to assert his or her victimization is worst and it’s the other people who are the elites... “Love has within it a redemptive power,” he argued. “And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. … Just keep being friendly to that person. … Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. … They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.”.. The more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. The more interesting her own constellational self becomes. The world isn’t only a battlefield of groups; it’s also a World Wide Web of overlapping allegiances. You might be Black Lives Matter and he may be Make America Great Again, but you’re both Houstonians cruising the same boat down flooded streets... equipoise ..
It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities — to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.
he argued, had hurt the Democratic Party. He maintained that too intense a focus on each minority group’s discrete persecution comes at the expense of a larger, unifying vision.
.. But what too many took issue with was, well, his identity. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” someone later scrawled on a poster that was put up to advertise a talk, “Identity Is Not Politics,” that he gave at Wellesley College.
.. he asserts that “classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one ‘epistemology,’ black women have another. So what remains to be said?”.. But she worries that awareness disclaimers and privilege apologies have ferried us to a silly, self-involved realm of oppression Olympics. They promote the idea that people occupying different rungs of privilege or victimization can’t possibly grasp life elsewhere on the ladder... what people in a given victim group sometimes seem to be saying is: “You must understand my experience, and you can’t understand my experience.”“They argue both, so people shrug their shoulders and walk away,” he said... But I question the wisdom of turning categories into credentials when it comes to politics and public debate. I reject the assumptions — otherwise known as prejudices — that certain life circumstances prohibit sensitivity and sound judgment while other conditions guarantee them. That appraises the packaging more than it does the content. It ignores the complexity of people. It’s reductive... At the beginning of this column I shared the sorts of personal details that register most strongly with those Americans who tuck each of us into some hierarchy of blessedness and affliction. So you know some important things about me, but not the most important ones: how I responded to the random challenges on my path, who I met along the way, what I learned from them, the degree of curiosity I mustered and the values that I honed as a result.
Now that Stephen has the impression down, the White House’s new communications director can run but he can’t hide.
We are in the midst of an ideological civil war. One pitting hope, empowerment, and self-reliance against defeatist attitudes of fear, entitlement, and victimization.
I saw this guy win a game of connect 4 with three pieces.