I come from a very rural village and a brahmin culture. In my family gatherings, and other interactions with people in and around my village in Kerala, I have noticed something peculiar. People tend to consider body size as a source of authority and respect. I am a naturally thin guy and hence people consider me as not so much importance. By importance, I don’t mean in any other way but giving a sense of agency or dignity.
Since I don’t have much body fat, I sort-of look young. And so, people don’t seem to take me seriously, even in family.
This seems to have a correlation with their education levels and their open mindedness. As in, the more educated and open minded they are, the more they don’t seem to care about body size or age and tend to respect anyone with providing people with appropriate dignity.
It’s is very curious how many biases we humans are burdened with.
I thought that the internet revolution will change mankind for the better. Boy, was I mistaken!
I thought access to information will help people make informed decisions and make them have a better worldview. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Social Media is like a knife. You can use it cut apples, or to kill someone.
What one decides to do with it is entirely up to them.
And hence they have only themselves to blame.
But one question remains – Why?
Why do people, instead of using the insurmountable amount of information they have access to at their fingertips, not use it to understand the world better and to comprehend reality, but rather succumb to dumb Whats App forwards?
Why do seemingly educated and intelligent people share these dumb-as-a-rock type of posts?
In the movie “Waking Life”, Louis Mackey, Professor of Philosophy from the University of Texas appears as himself and asks a kind of a similar question.
“When you come to think of it,” professor talks, “almost all human behavior and activity is not essentially any different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved.”
“Why so few?”, he goes on, “Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress but rather this endless and futile addition of zeroes. No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3,000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question, and that’s this: Which is the most universal human characteristic — fear or laziness?”
I think this sort of answers the question of the social media.
Learning about new things take time and effort.
It requires actively questioning our assumptions and innate biases.
I requires rewiring our neural circuitry.
All of that costs energy.
So from an evolutionary point of view, since preservation of life requires efficient use of energy towards the four Fs, and anything else is secondary, it is not surprising that many people tend to keep their biases and prejudices intact, because changing them would require energy.
And this, eventually leads to forwarding mindless BS on social media. It requires zero effort.
Political parties have realized this very well. They know that education is their enemy. So is the educated voter. So they have no motivation to educate the public and even more motivation to keep the public dumb. Hence they have setup these “forward factories” where posts of bigotry and racism are manufactured and distributed to the world of Whats App uncles.
And what do these Whats App uncles do? They begin their share of the forwards to their family groups. And hence it spreads. Often the same thing is shared to a group by multiple channels. You can tell from this that they don’t even bother not sharing the post that was shared just an hour before by someone in the group.
It is as if they gain some level of satisfaction from the mere act of clicking the “forward” button.
No surprises there, because that is exactly what’s happening.
Social media, especially those owned by a company whose name starts with F and ends with k, are designed from the ground up to target the reward pathway of the human brain.
What is the reward pathway, you might ask.
The reward pathway is a neurochemical signaling pathway in the brain, not necessarily just in the human brain, that triggers the experience of pleasure and happiness.
You see, the fundamental goal of a living organism is to live. And to multiply, of course, but that’s just the same as saying that life is about the continuation or sustaining of the chemistry. Therefore, everything that chemical system does, has to be directed towards achieving that goal. And that might not look like a very difficult thing for a single vesicle that lived somewhere in the ocean 3 billion years ago. They didn’t have TV or video games. Hence there wasn’t much things to do around other that just preserving themselves.
But as the complexity increased, as more and more layers of specialized functions evolved, things got a bit messy – too many independent parts to control (of course I’m a bit exaggerating here).
And hence there was a requirement for nature, or the chemistry of life, to motivate this huge blob of living entity towards the original goal of preservation. This is where the reward pathway solution comes for aid.
If there was a mechanism that rewards the organism with some kind of pleasurable experience when it does something that is directed towards achieving the original goal, such as eating, or having sex, then all parts of the organism would work towards fulfilling that goal. And that is why we like to do happy things. The sheer feeling of “happiness” is part of the reward pathway – or more precisely, to the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine (things are much more complicated than that, but for simplicity sake).
Now, suppose that you have a company that profits by making people getting addicted to something. If you make a system in which their reward pathway is triggered every time they use your product, you win. You can sit back, relax and make billions. But triggering the reward pathway is not easy. And that’s why there are active research within the company I have mentioned above to design every aspect of the user interaction as addictive as possible.
Now, I would be fooling myself if I say that only the above mentioned company does this. Everyone does it. Even the companies you trust. Because that’s how they make money.
The entire modern economy is based on this concept.
There is a documentary called “The Century of the Self” by Adam Curtis that explores how corporations took the help of psychologists to drive the idea that people need to buy cars and sodas in order to look good in the early 1920s. “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture” says Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in 1927.
But I digress. The point I was making was that since humans are inherently lazy, this trend is going to continue. As more and more information is accessible with little effort, more and more people are going to stay far away from that to preserve their world view.
There is hope, though. A child who grows up in information filled world, will absorb these newly available knowledge, fast. Since they do not have any prejudices of deep emotional attachments to their beliefs, there is no resistance. But, unfortunately, the child would have to overcome the peer pressure from their family to see the light.