God knows I’m as guilty of Internet addiction as anybody. I’ve posted so much on Facebook that I’ve lost most of my early “friends.” They’ve had to unfollow me so I wouldn’t overwhelm their Facebook feed.
Writing is work, sometimes hard work. It usually follows thinking, maybe even ruminating, which are forms of concentration, also hard work. Again, the restless mind rebels. Sharing memes is easy as is “liking” the posts of others. Instead of thinking, composing my thoughts and writing them down, it’s much less cumbersome to identify myself with a brand. Rather than formulate my own opinions or reiterate those of others, I can simply join their brand. “I’m a Noam Chomsky kind of guy.”
Nowadays this passes for self-expression. The background for this fundamental change in communication began with advertising. Most of do not consider ourselves intellectuals, but we are all consumers of products, and advertisers assure us that our shopping choices tell the world who we are. The brand and color of my telephone says a lot about me.
Teenagers focus on their musical preferences as a way to quickly inform others who might want to become friends or lovers as to what kind of person they are. In fact, this was the original function of Facebook; to help college students meet others who shared their musical tastes.
But this is dumbed-down communication, with none of the subtlety or complexity of real conversations. There is no discourse. No one is talking back and forth, they’re simply grandstanding. Everyone is in transmit mode, but no one is listening.
So we now have the perfect President for our culture at this time. A recent article in Salon described a reporter who met with Trump a few years ago. He said “he was clearly emotionally impaired: in constant need of approbation; lacking impulse control, self-awareness or awareness of others. We’d heard tales of his monumental vanity, but were still shocked by the sad spectacle of him.”
This is both sad and lonely. In villages I’ve visited in the developing world, people spend a lot of time simply hanging out together and talking. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, I remember seeing a woman join another group of women at a market. They were sitting on concrete very close to a busy highway, and most people would consider such this a difficult job in a horrible setting, but the expression on her face told me otherwise. They were all selling the same thing, bananas. As she sat down, she was smiling, preparing to talk to her friends and watch traffic go by. She knew why she was there, and whether or not she sold many bananas, I bet when she went to bed that night she didn’t wrestle with remorse or self-condemnation.
The problem with being a big shot, even only in your own mind, is the expectations are so high you can rarely succeed. If other people are aware of your ambition they will either dislike and avoid you, or try to stop you from succeeding. The more egocentric you become, the less credit you will give those around you. Your sensitivity to their feelings will also be low. Not only will those around you suffer, but you will find yourself lonely and isolated.
This may well be the future of our online society. Post photos of your vacation, your happy children, your bucket list accomplishments, and you will only inspire envy at best and revulsion at worst. As we scroll down the torrent, we will see an endless parade of self-appointed pundits, clueless analysts, faux journalists, all clamoring for an audience. Not many are listening or reading. Scrolling and browsing, are hypnotic activities that are addictive only because they are so rarely rewarding.
It has been said before that modern life is mostly one of indulging in addictions that we try to pretend are merely preferences, but secretly know to be snares. Shopping, sexual hook ups, and now discourse itself. Or what pretends to be discourse, but is actually grandstanding.