What happens when our virtual selves take us over?

5 October 2018

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Artist spotlight: Scott Martin/Burnt Toast Creative. With every essay, starting now, wherever reasonable, I will be highlighting the work of an independent artist where the work appealed to me and was relevant to the essay. You can follow Scott on his website burnttoastcreative.com.

One need hardly be a cru­sader against modern tech­nol­ogy to realise that, like any tool, it has its good side and its bad. The trou­ble is that far too few of us are ready to acknowl­edge and come to terms with this fact.

In Ancient Greece there once lived a young boy whose hand­some­ness was daz­zling. He was, how­ever, bliss­fully unaware of it. At some point in his life a young nymph came to him and expressed her love, but this young lad dis­missed her unabashedly and went about his day’s work. Appar­ently this severely dis­pleased the Gre­cian gods and they decided to teach the fellow a lesson. They decided that he had lived in igno­rance long enough and that it was time he realised his own hand­some­ness. That evening found him at a spring where he hap­pened to bend down and catch a glimpse of him­self in the water. For the first time ever, he saw his own reflec­tion and was stunned; he was so stunned, in fact, that he fell in love with his reflec­tion and began to pine for this other person’. Like the nymph he would never win his heart; unlike the nymph our young boy would go on to die for this. The boy’s name was Nar­cis­sus.

I.

There are far too many incon­sis­ten­cies with this tale of Nar­cis­sus, not the least of which is its truth. Did such a boy exist? Did the Gre­cian gods have noth­ing better to do than focus on the love story of a random kid? Was this just an old wives’ tale designed to make a point about what is socially accept­able? Nonethe­less it did not pre­vent Freud from using Narcissus’s name for a dis­or­der that most of us are famil­iar with today: nar­cis­sism, where one feels a vain, exag­ger­ated recog­ni­tion of ones own impor­tance often paired with a help­less desire to be admired.

There is more to Nar­cis­sus than Freud’s usage betrays. The myth con­tin­ues describ­ing how a plant bloomed where Nar­cis­sus fell to his death. This is the amaryl­lis plant that shares its name with the Greek lad. It is known for its nar­cotic numb­ing effect. In Greek narco means numb­ness. It was Narcissus’s lack of real­i­sa­tion, his numb­ness, so to speak, that led to his death. And nar­cis­sism might just as well be inter­preted as a numb­ness one feels towards one’s self that causes them to blow up their own impor­tance even­tu­ally losing track of who they are and pos­si­bly even begin­ning to desire to be some­one else.

I admit per­haps I am let­ting myself wander at this point — the last thing I would want is to get into a losing battle with a psy­chol­o­gist. If I am, in fact, wan­der­ing rest assured that it is with good inten­tion. Today’s world is slowly redesign­ing itself to nor­malise a cer­tain degree of nar­cis­sism that would have been frowned upon only decades ago. And social media has played no small part in bring­ing about this change.

None of this is to claim that social media breeds nar­cis­sism or that it makes a nar­cis­sist where none existed. But it does actively bring to the sur­face that hov­er­ing bit of nar­cis­sism that lies dor­mant in us all — whether we like to admit it or not. What it then does is nor­malise it because social net­works are designed to feed on this. To blame this entirely on the social web too would be wrong: it does help us in some other ways after all; the ques­tion is whether the trade­off is worth it and it rarely is.

The social web is built to enable trans­fer of infor­ma­tion. But infor­ma­tion can be trans­ferred only so long as some­one is out there seek­ing it. And some­one will only seek it when they believe, on some level, that they are likely to find it there. That is to say, the model atop which the social web is built is to see what infor­ma­tion some­one is look­ing for and to place that before them. But, in a char­ac­ter­is­tic fash­ion, modern tech­nol­ogy has gone one step fur­ther. It now attempts to under­stand seek­ers well enough to be pre­pared with what they are likely to seek. Going fur­ther still, having under­stood what some­one might be inter­ested in, the social web simply shoves that in their face — tar­geted adver­tis­ing — in the hope that at least a hand­ful in a crowd of hun­dred pursue it fur­ther. All of this trans­lates to money.

So if know­ing us really well is what will drive the social web towards suc­cess and unimag­ined prof­its, what better moti­va­tion exists for social net­works to want to make us share more about our­selves and our lives?

II.

The human mind adapts and manip­u­lates in equal mea­sure. It is inher­ently biased in all its obser­va­tions. The incen­tive-and-rewards system designed by the social web plays the mind slyly and care­fully: it makes us want to share by tap­ping into our social instinct and it rewards us with responses from others, high­light­ing it for no obvi­ous reason through­out our day. A little noti­fi­ca­tion here and there that makes us rush to our phones is really a pitiable reward system in play wholly designed to ben­e­fit the plat­form serv­ing those noti­fi­ca­tions. Added to all this, noti­fy­ing cre­ates a sense of urgency.

This also comes down to a num­bers game. The only real way to grow’ on social media — what­ever that means — is to par­tic­i­pate with con­sis­tency. Likes’ and Favourites’ and other such sta­tis­tics do not mean a lot to every­one. Those to whom these num­bers do make a dif­fer­ence are already within the plat­form and will work on stay­ing there. It is those to whom such num­bers are not of con­se­quence that plat­forms have to work on retain­ing. And this is done using equiv­o­ca­tions like engage­ment’: the number of times people saw your updates, the number of people want­ing to follow you, the number of people actu­ally fol­low­ing you and so on. All of this comes down to cold, hard num­bers. How many people would still keep shar­ing on social media if they knew nobody would ever see their posts?

We dress up events so often that we have slowly begun to lose our sense of real­ity itself, let alone the event.

Add this all up and you find your­self in a system care­fully designed to pull you in and keep you in and make it as hard as pos­si­ble to leave. No doubt a person can simply choose to quit and stay that way (I have done it myself) but just how rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pop­u­la­tion is this prac­tice? The aver­age social media user has anony­mous pri­vate accounts, noti­fi­ca­tions turned on for all plat­forms, con­nects to the web as often as pos­si­ble and has a con­stant fear of, one, miss­ing out, and two, need­ing some enter­tain­ment to keep them­selves engaged.

To want to remain engaged in a world where atten­tion deficits are increas­ing might seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive but it is not: the engage­ment that social media pro­vides is by nature designed for atten­tion defi­ciency. Every­thing is bite-sized so you can spend five min­utes on some­thing before head­ing out to the next enter­tainer with a faux sense of having gained new infor­ma­tion’ along the way. By con­trast read­ing a book demands days of con­tin­ual atten­tion.

What is this atten­tion deficit doing, though? Why does it matter and why is it impor­tant? The reduc­ing atten­tion span plagu­ing a lot of today’s pop­u­la­tion is meant to take your mind off some­thing much more sin­is­ter. Users are slowly being numbed to the fact that their pres­ence on the social web is not one where they exist but rather where they are con­stantly and delib­er­ately curat­ing a ver­sion of them­selves to show­case before the world. Every time some­one looks at the social web they are look­ing not at them­selves but at their reflec­tion in a spring. As more time passes in this the chance of a user recog­nis­ing this dis­tinc­tion reduces. The social web becomes a modern-day retelling of Narcissus’s myth.

III.

If all this repeat­edly reads like a dra­matic cry against social media the reader will have to make a con­scious effort to keep in mind that it is noth­ing of the sort. As said already, social media nei­ther breeds nar­cis­sism nor makes a nar­cis­sist where none existed. Tools are rarely to blame espe­cially when they have sev­eral valid pos­i­tive uses too. The fault does not lie in social media at all; the fault lies in us.

How often have we seen some­one enjoy­ing a little moment in their day only to be swept away by the urge to share it online? Speak­ing as some­one who almost never shares every­day moments on social net­works, there is a sur­pris­ingly vivd mask that gets drawn across people’s faces — per­haps unin­ten­tion­ally, per­haps by habit — as they morph from them­selves, who were enjoy­ing the moment, into the their vir­tual selves who are ready to pose and pho­to­graph (or realise in some other fash­ion) that visu­al­i­sa­tion of events which they would like to put up online.

Every­body dresses real life up and it is not a new prac­tice. Spe­cific pho­tographs taken way back in the 60s too sug­gest people loved set­ting things up before making a pic­ture. The dif­fer­ence is, back then this was an occa­sional activ­ity; now we dress up an event so often that we have slowly begun to lose our sense of real­ity itself, let alone the event. Pete Nichol­son puts it quite elo­quently—

I find myself enjoy­ing a fun or inter­est­ing or strange thing and then, at a cer­tain point, as if some invis­i­ble switch were flipped, I sud­denly notice myself won­der­ing the best way to com­mu­ni­cate the moment to other people, typ­i­cally via some­thing you can do on a smart­phone. Invari­ably, when I attempt to return to the moment, it’s gone.

The trick is to bal­ance things. One could share later rather than now so nobody focusses on making pic­tures to share while the moment is under­way — we just need to make pic­tures if we feel like it and later share pic­tures if we have any. And if we have none there is no need to share it.

How­ever it is not just pic­tures that are the cul­prits. The social web has given every­body a soap­box to shout from. The trou­ble is that no-one is lis­ten­ing. It becomes impor­tant then to realise that not every thought we have needs to be broad­cast on social media. Some can simply be kept to our­selves.

What we need today are what the jour­nal­ist and author William Powers calls Walden zones’, places around our home and work where devices are banned. He also points out the clever idea to have long moments of dis­con­nec­tion between suc­ces­sive use of our social media.You can read about William Powers’s book Hamlet’s black­berry on my book­shelf. This is key to ensur­ing we can keep our shiny new toys — per­haps even that we have earned them — with­out expe­ri­enc­ing any adverse effects on our lives.

But there is always the ele­phant in the room: Do we have it in us to develop such dis­ci­pline? Do we have it in us to set up Walden zones and stand by them? Do we have it in us to keep track of our con­nected lives and rein our­selves in from time to time? After all this is some­thing Nar­cis­sus could not do. For my own part this has not been hard which is what gives me hope that anyone else can do it too if they, firstly, acknowl­edge the issue and, sec­ondly, make a sin­cere attempt — both of which are easier said than done. Iron­i­cally enough I have had some addi­tional assis­tance of late from my iPhone which, with iOS 12, tells me how much I used my phone every day and even com­piles a report every week. Like most graphs it is insight­ful and at times unusu­ally help­ful, and I have been making some progress on that front as well.

Our vir­tual selves, our faux reflec­tions, ought not subtly run our real lives. But they are doing as much today. Despite the advent of tech­nol­ogy, which will only ever increase in the coming decades, human­ity is not about to dis­ap­pear; human inter­ac­tions are not about to be replaced except for our own down­fall; and if we pro­ceed as we have been in the past our vir­tual selves will not stop trying to take us over any time soon.