When I reflect on what will define my generation, stripping away nuance and distilling us to the inevitable two-word short-hand (and especially if I'm already feeling slightly maudlin) I can't help but think of us as underachievers.
We were not, thank god, the great generation that fought tyranny and wrestled Europe from the hands of madmen. Nor were we the counter cultural dreamers of the 60's believing (however incorrectly) we were on the cusp of a new age of understanding. What will come to define us in the privileged western world is the changes brought about by the Internet, and in particular by people like Mark Zuckerberg, Serge Brin and Larry Page.
This is not an "everything new is terrible" type rant. The polarisation of debate, whereby every issue is represented by two entrenched camps who disagree on every point and see things in rigidly dogmatic terms, is itself a product of the media that currently defines our lives. One thing that seems universally true is things are rarely black and white and the truth is often somewhere in the middle. To wade in and say social networking is ruining human communication would be a facile echo of every reactionary down through history who thought the printing press was the work of Satan or taping songs from the radio would bring down the music industry.
Plus it would be hypocritical. I enjoy Facebook and twitter when I don't use them too much and I am grateful to live in a world where information has never been so accessible. I love the internet - But that doesn't mean we don't have problems.
We should have seen this coming. If there's one thing we excel at its seeking efficiency - the easy path. Take food for example. We need calories, and throughout history societies have been shaped by that drive to obtain and consume them. As we developed technologically we became more efficient at hunting and preparing food, and for a time maybe we even found a balance where the energy expended was matched by the calorific reward. The hunt and the farming earned the deer and the grain. This is the utopian concept of Arcadia, of living in balance with nature.
But we didn't stop there, we progressed to the point where highly calorific food can be obtained with no effort. But our bodies don't know it, we're still hard wired to consume, to eat now in case we don't get the chance again. We've built a delivery system that provides more than our bodies can process without developing the internal systems, the psychology, to deal with and regulate this unlimited availability.
So, inevitably, we got fat.
Now, with the bottom layers of Maslow's famous pyramid solidly in place (food, shelter) we've collectively moved onto the next level- friendship, recognition, achievement. And when I'm at my most pessimistic I feel that with the Internet we've built a delivery system just as efficient (and therefore potentially destructive) at satisfying those needs for friendship and recognition as the food system is at satisfying our more basic appetites. We've invented the relationship equivalent of empty calories.
I can't pretend to be immune to this, my girlfriend will tell you if she leaves the dinner table in a restaurant for a second my hand goes straight to my pocket to check email and Facebook, it's an unconscious reaction at this point. Those little red circled alerts in the top left hand corner of your page are perfectly engineered to prompt reward-seeking behaviour, the expectation of reward triggering a highly addictive hormonal cascade . Make no mistake , you are Pavlov's dog with an iPhone. Of course most friendships on Facebook aren't real friendships and no "like" or flattering comment can compare to recognition by someone you truly care about, but it's a cheap and abundant form of interaction.
Another brutally efficient delivery system is internet pornography (a word I've just noticed my prudish iPhone refuses to autocorrect). Porn delivers a quick dopamine hit, that rush of happiness we feel when we achieve something, it's association with sex having an obvious evolutionary benefit. But just as too much sugar reduces our insulin sensitivity, too much porn reduces our dopamine sensitivity . Like laboratory monkeys we keep hitting the feed button but eventually we require bigger hits to reach the same high.
Junk food, junk friendship, junk sex.
The pattern is the same; take something we're hard wired to crave and Darwinianly disinclined to limit our consumption of, something that was once a self-limiting commodity requiring work to obtain , then refine it, strip it of its most enriching components and make it freely and infinitely available.
Take the brakes off our primal desires and we run into problems.
But let's not freak out just yet. If we're smart enough to invent the Internet surely we can become smart enough to use it responsibly.
The junk food parallel is instructive. Just as there's no problem with having unhealthy foods in moderation, so it is with social media and the Internet . I don't want to be alarmist and pretend this is the biggest cultural problem we're facing and of course there a benefits.
One criticism that tends to be levelled at things like Facebook is that the friendships are meaningless,
"If they're really your friends just call them up or email them or see them in person."
But I disagree, I see my real friends in person all the time, regardless of Facebook. What social media is good for is maintaining soft contacts with people who, at any other point in history, you would have lost touch with. It shouldn't be seen as a replacement for true friendship and it never will be. It is a new medium and in many ways a fascinating one, for the first time we are communicating in real time via text and the methods we've developed to quickly convey emotions are interesting to watch as they emerge and evolve.
Simply by being aware that problems can arise, you can start to recognise them if they do. A friend of mine recently came off Facebook because it was stressing him out and making him less productive. I noticed something similar a few years ago and instigated a "cull" which I still ruthlessly enact when I see idiotic "sweat is fat crying" type slogans or constant promotion of a product or service.
But just as with nutrition, relying on willpower alone is less effective than building habits that naturally limit your usage.
Turn your phone off or go for walks without it regularly.
Use apps like AntiSocial to disable social networks when you're working on something and need to eliminate distractions.
As ever, make time to see and speak to your friends for real. Life has always thrown up distractions that can get in the way of our fundamental need to socialise. Social media is no different, we still need to make an effort.
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