What are we doing to one another? At a time when we have the capacity to connect more than ever before in human history, we’ve come undone. We pull away, we ignore, we miscommunicate, violate basic, shared social codes and manners that were the norm only ten years ago. We blame the technology (which we created), we blame age (it’s old fashioned to treat others with respect, and totally “normal” to treat others with disdain), we blame anything but ourselves, our own choices, behaviours or cowardice. We fail others online by failing to see their humanity, by failing to employ empathy, by treating others as flippantly as if they were products on a shelf to be chosen from, picked up or rejected, consumed, returned, exchanged, liked, disliked and thrown away when we tire of them. We idealise, devalue and discard both strangers and friends alike*. We hide behind screens, pseudonyms, and advertisements of our selves. We play up our good bits, hide the bad, and some of us outright lie and manufacture false selves. We are commodities, we are products. We are the pawns and by-products of late-stage capitalism. We perpetuate and feed the finely calibrated machine of consumerism that we created by selling our selves as products to one another. We publicise and perform our selves in ways that were previously only available to the famous, to celebrities, to performers. Andy Warhol’s prophetic 15 minutes of fame has morphed and mutated into fame all the time for all of us. Fame 24/7. We filter and pose our exteriors into acceptable versions of us, dictated by still-more-famous-than-us plastic people who have literally sculpted themselves into non-human, semi-artificial life forms, people who define the new “beautiful”, who define the new behaviours. People who seem to do nothing other than perform false versions of themselves to high acclaim. These are the people we emulate in this visually-focussed, superficial, virtual, performative, narcissistic world we have created.
We are all performers now, all the time. We willingly gloss over privacy agreements and give consent to god-knows-what’s-in-the-fine-print, not being fully aware of what’s being done with our information, our representations of self, our most private messages and photographs that we exchange without a moment’s care with strangers, all because we are so desperate to connect, to belong, to love, to share, to feel included. We are attention hungry and many of us are not prepared to do the self-work required to improve our selves and our self worth. Self worth is more dependent on ‘other worth’ than it has ever been before. We are addicted to it. The chemical rewards from the dopamine and oxytocin hit we get every time someone “likes” what we do, while intermittent, is enough to keep us coming back like junkies. Intermittent reward is a principle casinos operate on to get gamblers addicted, as do psychopaths and manipulative abusers. The principle goes like this (and it’s been studied): give someone a reward, randomly, but not always and definitely not consistently, and they will return to you, or your pokie machine, for more of that reward, no matter how infrequently you give it, and no matter how much it costs them, and no matter how much you violate them in between the moments of reward.
What are we giving up in the desire to connect, and why are we so blind to the fact that we are in fact, more disconnected than ever? Do we think that 24/7 connectivity in the palms of our hands via multiple social media or dating platforms makes us connected? Messages stunted by limited character counts ping out on Twitter, bounce around the virtual walls and echo before dying, largely unheard and not responded to. Not only can we not say as much as we want to, the tiny messages we are permitted to send get largely ignored in the ever-flowing stream of self-expression and content-rehashing that whizzes on by. It’s overwhelming. I believe (and hope) we’d all rather cuddle up on a couch with a loved one, breathe in sync with one another, heart rates aligning, sharing words and experiences. I also believe that’s all we are seeking from these technologies and platforms, which promise so much, but deliver mostly heartbreak and superficial human connection of a magnitude I never witnessed in the pre-internet era. If I have this distance and perspective by virtue of my age, then what on earth is happening to “digital natives”? Have their brains developed in atrophied and stunted ways? Do they even know or appreciate the depths that friendship or intimacy can plumb if conducted offline without technological intervention? Or only as an adjunct to the shallow online default we’ve all become accustomed to?
All of these outbound one-way, superficial messages, all of the filtering and commodification of the self that is encouraged by social media, has led to an unnatural growth in narcissism, which is endemic to and epidemic among, such modes of communication. Narcissism has become normalised through social media and online dating interactions and threatens to become a global disorder that ruptures the fabric of society as we know it. The tech tools we’ve created encourage it and social media fuels and exacerbates it. Narcissism, in its most extreme form = the death of relationships. You cannot have a relationship with a narcissist, or not a healthy one anyway: a healthy relationship is one that goes both ways, in which both people’s needs are met. Narcissism is a solitary mindset that involves self-promoting to others or manipulating others for the sole purpose of receiving attention and admiration. It is a one-way transaction. Without attention the narcissist feels empty, hollow, meaningless, like they don’t exist. Just as we all feel when our posts don’t get “liked” enough online. There is a real danger in this way of thinking. With a narcissist, there is no genuine exchange; the narcissist’s disingenuous attitudes and extreme fakery render any authentic exchange or connection totally void. The equation goes like this: I pose, you applaud. There is no depth to the exchange beyond flattery and self-congratulation. It is a toxic and addictive cycle for those devoid of self worth or internal fulfilment. Read More