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Culture and Kit
A response to Mike Hind and Zvi Mowshowitz
Why is everything awful now? Or at least, why is everyone feeling atomized and killing themselves while everyone else fights all the damn time?What is breaking everything?
Well, recently a lot of folks have been fishing around for answers and most have pretty much landed on “cell phones.” Well, particularly “smart” phones, you know, having the internet in your pants kind of things, although I suppose suitably advanced tablets count while old flip phones or bricks don’t.
Zvi Mowshowitz, for instance, blames cell phones and social media heavily as the primary cause. Others, like Mike Hind over at Rarely Certain, blame the culture, saying the phones and tech are just what link us to the culture, which is awful. I find I agree with Zvi more, but not really for a reason he articulates, and I think Mike is closer in some ways… which is all to say I think I am more right than either and I am here to tell you about it!
The main disagreement I have with Mike and Zvi, is that culture is a function of technology, not just something that technology gives us access to.
While it is entirely true that humans have a long history of worrying about new cultural tech, whether novels, radio, TV, cable TV, computers, internet, social media, and presumably chips implanted directly into our brains, worries that are often overblown, it is also true that those technologies did change things quite a bit. New technologies allow different types of cultural activities, different types of interactions, and change how we behave.
For example, radio was the first real mass media, where all listeners were hearing the same message at the same time. Books or pamphlets allow everyone to read the same message, but not at the same time; newspapers allow for different messages, but at least at the same time (also much closer to the events at hand than books). I have read multiple claims that radio was a big part of the rise of fascism type ideologies in Europe, as governments and leaders learned to use mass media to sway opinions of listeners with the same message, all at once. Everyone heard the same speech, verbatim, and talked about it the next day at work; not listening in meant you were out of the conversation.
Whether that is true about early 20th century fascism, it certainly was true with music: local musicians gradually were replaced by national and then international acts as the market consolidated. It took time, but by the middle of the century people on both sides of the USA were listening to the same musicians at a level impossible 50 years prior. Just as local politics was increasingly replaced by national politics, so was local music replaced by national music.
Television changed things again. Although following the local radio trend that left room for regional differences, the increased appeal of pictures with sound meant that many more were tuning in. Increasingly the content of television shows became an important part of social culture. The big, popular television programs on the major networks changed bow people thought about things across the nation.
Cable television took it to an entirely new level, not only improving the quality of television’s look, but eroding much of the local affiliate broadcast stations’ relevance and uniqueness. Broadcast network affiliates would have local news and other content, and even slightly different national schedules, but CNN and MTv were the same everywhere. Regional differences increasingly became less relevant; I have noticed a marked decrease in regional accents in the past 30 years, certainly.
The thing with mass media, however, is that it is just that: mass produced. Then came the internet, and every strange niche interest could find dozens or hundreds of like minded weirdos. Sure, cable tv had channels dedicated to golf or fishing, but the internet could reach even more niche audiences. Most importantly, many were producing the media for free, creating websites and running forums and other topic focused groups as a labor of love.
Of course, someone was going to figure out how to monetize that.
Thus came social media, and which not only relied on user generated content, but worked tirelessly to feed ever more of it to users, coming up with better ways to link it together and focus on what the user responds to. At the same time, with the advent of smart phones, people could access the internet anywhere and always.
That last bit, the ubiquitous availability of internet content at all times, I think is huge. When social networks needed to be accessed via a pc connected to a wall, there was some limit on how often one could be immersed; dragging a desk top over to use the toilet is generally not worth the effort. This location requirement lowers both the demand side of the market, limiting amount one can become dependent on social media as it will be out of reach for long periods, as well as the supply side, limiting the amount of content produced due to the number of creators that can earn a living supplying the more limited demand. People who have to commute to work, spending 8-10 hours there, then come home and make dinner etc. only have so much time to spend in front of their computer on Facebook (or LiveJournal and Instant Messenger). Put the internet on a little brick in their pockets, and suddenly the entire day is open to spending on seeking those little doses of dopamine.
The nature of the content swings to meet those changes, and thus what culture we connect with does too. The television age brought with it the notion of sound bites to put on the news, as people increasingly weren’t interested in full stories but little snippets that got the general idea across amid an hour long news block. Sound bites almost seem long these days, as does an hour long news show; anymore, most people only read headlines. Clickbait is the new thing, focusing on activating emotions like anger to get people to not only look at something, but forward it to their friends. Subtlety and nuance is largely lost in favor of sticking it to the other side in whatever polarizing argument is at hand.
How social media (and the smart phones that let us bath in it all day) make this worse is important, I think. At root, I think, humans are a rather hairless ape with a veneer of human civility beaten into us. Our instincts tell us to pay attention to what those around us pay attention to, that what most people think is probably true, and to distrust those that behave differently than our group. The only thing that keeps us acting halfway civil towards those different from us is that, throughout our day, we are constantly in a sort of social Brownian motion as we move through different groups. Our families, our neighbors, our coworkers, our drinking buddies, our bowling team, our churchmatesetc. all have different operating rules, different thoughts and ideas of proper behavior, and as we find our places in these groups we moderate our impulses and instincts to account for all these influences. Not perfectly, never perfectly, but overall we limit our excesses and overreach, as we are constantly reminded we are human by running into other humans and trying to keep it from hurting. Our instincts to fit in with the group drive us to expand our view as we move through different groups and attempt to make all the views cohere.
Being submerged in social media removes that mixing, however, and encourages our baser instincts. We join “communities” of people with extremely attenuated interaction and generally very narrow views. The process of finding us ever more “relevant” content drives our interactions to be with an ever narrowing set of individuals, creating a “world” populated almost entirely of people just like ourselves. Gone is the random Brownian motion, replaced by highly directed interactions where self adjustment is unnecessary, and indeed, frowned upon as we are ever more forced to conform to a single circle of others with a single culture.
When there wasn’t much to do online, and not much time to do it in, that was less dangerous. Now there is nearly limitless content and nearly limitless access to it, allowing people to become addicts, sinking ever deeper into the twisted culture that feeds, and feeds upon, this new hyper concentration of people who never the less lack real human interaction.
What culture grows in the hotbox of highly conformist, cult like environments removed from reality? I think we are finding out now, and it isn’t pretty.
I do have some hope that we will be able to overcome this, however. As the problems are better understood culture will continue to change to avoid those problems and so mitigate the issues of technology. I have been using language of addiction quite a bit in this essay, as I think it is a useful analogy. Alcohol consumption is a problem when it is excessive, and cultural norms evolve to reflect that and tamp down those excesses. Likewise with other drug use. The trick is finding out what the proper level is. I doubt the correct answer is “ban smart phones and social media!” but I wouldn’t be surprised to find in thirty years that checking your phone often is looked down upon as much as smoking or morning drinking is now, or watching eight hours of TV a day, for that matter.
Ironically, Zvi, who thinks it is phones and social media that are the problem, proposes cultural solutions to the problem.
Don’t ever passively use social media on your phone. No scrolling, ever.
Cut down social media use as much as you can even on your computer. Twitter is a strange hybrid case where I think it is often necessary, but f*** Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok unless you’re actively doing business or logistics.
Don’t ever play games on your phone.
Don’t do anything on your phone that you could do better on your computer.
Also, get yourself a desktop computer with a large monitor. Walk over, use that.
When you are at home, don’t even have your phone next to you if you’re not expecting or in a call or actively texting. When you’re not at home, unless you have a specific thing to be doing, don’t take it out. Never scroll. Be present. In case of boredom, see the approved uses list.
Don’t never take pictures but mostly never take pictures.
Turn off all non-essential notifications in all forms, definitely including email.
Actively fine uses of a smartphone include: Maps and directions, phone calls and video calls, reading e-books, playing music and podcasts and audio books, quickly looking up relevant information, storing tickets or otherwise showing others info.
Look upon all other uses as highly suspicious.
Maybe pulling that out is a bit unfair, but for a guy who wants to blame phones and social media for all the problems kids are having these days, he doesn’t seem to recognize how many of the other potential causes of the problems are, themselves, contributing to and caused by the cultural issues we have using phones. For example, it seems to me parents getting their kids to sit in front of TVs, computers and now phones/tablets is directly a result of safetyism culture; the kids have to do something if they aren’t allowed to run around outside with their friends. That is a trend that has been going on for sometime, but it also has been increasing for sometime, becoming ever more stifling and every subsequent generation one ups each other on how “safe” they can make their kids.
Indeed, in many ways, I think the trend in our culture has been to evade reality more and more, and if this trend goes back fifty or sixty years, it is only so it can get a good run up. That’s a topic for another essay, however.
I agree with all 10 of Zvi’s suggestions, and if those became cultural norms, where violating them was considered a sign of poor character, I think we would be much better off. I am somewhat confident we will, eventually land there.
I just hope it doesn’t take thirty years.
Pick your social issues, but the culture seems really messed up, is the point.
He talks about a few other topics in the essay/post as well.
Funny story about that: My wife and I lived in northern Virginia for a number of years while I was in grad school. When I was young and we visited VA, most people had southern accents to a greater or less extent, but by 2010 NoVA sounded exactly like Philly and NYC. The first guy I ran into who had a southern accent, a really strong one, was an Asian fellow who came to take a look at our AC or something. He was talking about it with us, and then asked my wife “If you don’t mind, could I ask where ya’ll family’s from ma’am? China or Korea? I can’t tell an accent.” Before she could answer I blurted out “Oh man, I am so glad you brought that up, because I have been trying to figure out why the only person in VA with a southern accent is Asian!” The guy laughed, and told us he was Korean by birth but was adopted by a white family in Manassas as a baby, and grew up there in the ‘70’s, and I wasn’t the first or fortieth person to ask him that. He pointed out that even though Manassas was only about 10 miles south of Sterling (where we were) the difference in culture was stark, although most people younger than 20 didn’t have accents at all anymore.
As someone who has contributed hundreds of hours of content to forums on medieval armored combat, table top wargaming, painting and modeling, politics, philosophy and the like, I use the word weirdos with love. :)
Well… mostly anywhere and always…
Ok… spell check seems to think “churchmates” is a word, but, really?