The internet is starting to worry me.
This is a problem for me. I make my money on the internet, and I also spend a lot of time on it for entertainment. Beginning to worry about the internet is a bit like looking at your pet kitten and realizing that those tiger stripes are real and not merely an adorable coloration. It’s a slow growing fear that you might be living with something much more dangerous than you thought.
What this post is not about is handwringing about “kids these days”, or looking back on a (fake) idyllic past. Humans have been capable of shocking brutality for a very long time. Ask any student of history. Many of the flaws in the internet are actually the flaws of humanity laid bare under the scrutiny of us all. Next time you worry about incivility on Twitter, think about all those “nice” old folk who had smiling pictures taken around a lynching victim back in the 1950s.
Nor am I particularly worried about short form entertainment and pining for the days when people read books. Our elders have been warning about how the new form of entertainment since back when books were the new form of entertainment. If books didn’t destroy humanity, why should the internet?
What I am concerned about is the rise of on demand, algorithmically customized entertainment available in your pocket. What Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube etc. are changing into is something subtly different and more scary than just the “social media” that we’ve gotten used to over the past decade. The ubiquity and algorithmic nature of these sites have wide reaching and subtle impacts that we’re just beginning to notice.
It’s a stretch to say that curiosity makes us human, but we are definitely one of the more curious species around. Humans need novelty; a bored human is a miserable human.
What’s less understood is that novelty also gives us our past. There is surprising little correlation between the objective amount of time your life takes and the subjective amount of time that you experience. Any school child desperate for the bell to ring is intimately familiar with the basics of this process. It turns out the exact same thing works for memories: unique experiences create strong memories that anchor other memories into place. These anchors affect the subjective amount of time that your memory takes up, expanding or compressing your experienced timeline accordingly.
Thus a bored human is both emotionally unhappy, and is also robbed of their subjective lifetime, with their own memories compressed into the blink of an eye.
On Collective Experiences
Collective experiences create bonds among people. The stronger the experience, the stronger the formed bond is.
This is why sports fans can bond around a specific game or championship, or why war buddies are often very close despite differences that would normally drive people apart. It’s also why people of the same generation tend to be closer than people of different generations, as the same generation cohort will share the same memories of culturally and historically important events. People of my generation remember where they were on 9/11, an experience not shared with most of Gen Z.
We once lived in a time and place where culturally important experiences were shared experiences by default. There simply wasn’t the surplus money to create a large number of plays, operas, or movies for the vast majority of human history. For the past 400 years if you ever got to see a play, there is a high chance that it was Shakespeare. When Americans went to the box office in previous century, there were a limited number of movies available. When the original Star Wars was released into theaters, it’s estimated that 40% of the American public went to go see it. That’s one hell of a shared experience!
A Deluge of Novelty
First, the obvious: the Internet has an effectively infinite capacity for novelty. On the face of it, this is good! We’ve established that humans need novelty, so an infinite fire hose if it cannot hurt, right?
Haha, what kind of article do you think this is? In a classic case of “too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing”, it appears that our need for novelty can absolutely be overrun. One novel experience every few days stands out in the human memory. One hundred similarly novel experiences just blend together into nothingness.
An analogy. Most wealthy humans eat two different types of meals: meals for sustenance and meals for enjoyment, with the latter being much more expensive. Fancy meals are often dinner, and meals like breakfast and lunch tend to be in the “calories so I don’t die please” variety.
With this in place: imagine the last nice dinner you had. If you’re like me, you can remember the wine you had, the appetizer, and the entree. Now, imagine what you had for breakfast yesterday. If you’re anything like me, you probably can barely remember what you had for breakfast this morning, let alone yesterday.
Now, what do you think would happen if you had a fancy dinner every night? How long would it take before Steak Tartar and a top shelf Pinot Noir would just blend into the background of your everyday existence?
For whatever reason, everything you view on Reddit and Twitter seems to fool your novelty sensors. Like McDonald’s famous “disappearing calories”, these sites fool you into thinking you’re discovering new experiences, but leave behind a vast nothingness titled “Reddit was here”. The instantly available and endless stream of funny gifs, pictures, and videos quickly became the nightly New York Strip Steak; theoretically nice, but actually quite mundane.
Social media creates a false feeling of community and connection.
First, Connection and community require repeated interactions with a group of people. One off comments and flame wars don’t count, doubly so if it’s the only interaction you have with a given username. Comments might be fun to read and write, but they do not reliably produce the feeling of connection that our deeply social species needs.
Second, there is a massive difference between face to face and verbal communication. Larger still between face to face and textual communication. Humans use inflection and facial expressions to communicate the vast majority of what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling to each other, and the conversion to text strips it all away. We’ve dealt with this in the form of books and mail for quite a long time, but that text was supplemental to daily interactions. Now text based communication is beginning to replace face to face interactions all across society, leaving a people largely misunderstood or unheard.
And finally, these shallow communities create a false sense of majority experience. Humans naturally want to feel like they’re with the majority, a holdover from the days when ostracization meant certain death. Online communities with inscrutable usernames make it feel like you’re with the majority, even when you aren’t. At its most benign this creates moments when “everyone” knows about a meme or idea, when in reality only a tiny number of people have any clue what you’re talking about. At the least benign this is how you create extremists.
The Paradox of Choice
Customized entertainment used to be shockingly rare, to the point where it basically never happened. For the vast majority of humans over the vast majority of time you either made your own entertainment (sport, exploration, partying, etc.), or it was given to you by a gatekeeper (plays, music, Hollywood). Only the richest of the rich could afford custom entertainment, including the kings and highest nobles.
And you know what? It seems to have ruined some of them. Boredom and depression are not uncommon historical nobility, with the bored prince being a trope for a good reason. There’s a reason why the Buddha was said to find the endless pleasures of his father’s palace to be empty and unfulfilling.
I strongly suspect that this has something to do with the Paradox of Choice. Knowing that some form of entertainment was literally customized for you allows the human brain to demand utter perfection, with entirely predictable results.
Don’t get me wrong, kings had it better than their serfs. Between starving to death and not, I’ll take “not” every time. But if you’re looking for a surefire road to a good life, having a court full of people trying to curry your favor and entertain you does not seem to be an effective strategy.
Now with smart phones, we all carry a digital court in our pocket, ready to serve up entertainment at any moment. This digital court is watching our every move, constantly tweaking what it sends our way in order to please us, far more diligent and skilled than any court of old. I wonder how it’ll go this time around?
Except, the comparison isn’t quite correct. We do have customized entertainment, but it’s not for us. The court was trying to please the king, the algorithm is trying to engage us, not entertain us.
This distinction is subtle, but critical. The point of the social media is to sell ads, full stop. The only success metric is how long you stare at the app, which converts directly to ad revenue. This metric is euphemistically called “engagement”.
If the company can enrich your life while increasing engagement, that’s a fantastic win win. If the company can hurt you while increasing engagement further, then they will do that instead. It’s not that the companies are willing to hurt you to increase engagement, it’s that your well being doesn’t even factor into the equation. Any company that’s foolish enough to stop and worry about this is quickly overtaken by the social site without such scruples
You might be tempted to assume that humans would never be so foolish as to engage in behavior that makes them miserable, and you would be completely wrong. Observe the number of people around you who regularly trade long term happiness for short term pleasure, even when they express a desire to stop. This includes everyone from the office worker who wishes they could stop eating that last cupcake all the way to the addict who knows they’re dying slowly but just cannot stop.
You might think that comparing social media to a heroin addict is too much, and maybe that’s fair. Nobody to my knowledge has died because of Instagram, at least not directly. But ask yourself, are you actually happy when you’re staring at Instagram, Reddit, or Twitter? Is there a little voice in the back of your head saying that maybe you should stop? To this day it still stuns me how many people I personally know who wish they could stop using site X, but end up spending hours a day using it.
Change is neither inherently good or bad, it just is. I personally find the argument of “change, therefore panic” unconvincing, so that’s not what I’m trying to say here. What I am asserting is that I’m noticing not just changes in people’s choices in entertainment, but changes in people’s overall personality and behavior that I find distressing. I worry that these changes are resulting in people less capable of handling the challenges that life sends their way, and less happy with the outcomes of their own choices.
The biggest that I’ve seen personally is the loss of focus and the need for constant entertainment, almost like a collective ADD. When entertainment stopped being something that you went and did and became something ubiquitous, it seems that we lost our ability to tolerate any period of silence.
The test for this is easy: tell me how long you can put your phone away for. There is a time and a place for both cell phones and entertainment, but that time and place is not “every second” and “every where”. It’s distressing how many people report a feeling of anxiety when separated from their phone, as if they’ve lost track of what object controls what.
The most worrying is a diminishing ability to connect with other people. If a bored human is a miserable human, a lone human becomes a dead human quickly. I fear that the phone has become more interesting than people, producing a number of people with crippling social anxiety over their lack of social practice. Sociologists have noted a marked drop in teen dating, talking, and sexual behavior in the past decade or so. And while everyone certainly hails the matching drop in teenage pregnancy and murder, I don’t think anyone is particularly stoked about the matching rise in teenage anxiety, loneliness, depression, and suicide.
I honestly don’t know.