And for now for Balance: Social Media is Good

Its true that I don’t value of social media very highly. In a nutshell, I believe that most internet-based applications serve to draw us further into the Experience Machine. Philosopher Robert Nozik described the hypothetical Experience Machine in a thought experiment in his 1974 book Anarchy State and Utopia. I write about the Experience Machine here. Nozik describes it to be a kind of virtual-reality-magical-genie-life-creator. Sort of like the Matrix, but you get to choose your own life, as pleasurable and as achievement-filled as you want.

Nozik concluded that we all would agree that real life would be preferable to the Experience Machine. But the internet seems to be proving Nozik wrong. Virtual friendships, virtual adventures, virtual sex and virtual love all seem to be preferable to the real thing for many, many people.

And once we’re in, we’re stuck. The developmental course of the psychological disorder, agoraphobia, shows that it is easy to retreat into your comfort zone, but it is diabolically difficult to push the boundaries outward once again.

And I see this clinically all the time. Clients arrive to me highly fused with their digital identities. Their off-line meat-self is often an object of discomfort and loathing. Socially awkward, overweight and a couple of steps behind everyone else on life-benchmark checklist.

You want to hear tough? Try build a life worth living at the same time as pulling your eyeballs away from apps that the smartest minds in Silicon Valley have developed specifically for keeping eyeballs glued to for as long as possible. An eye-ball farm, yielding delicious data for paying customers.

Social media is just one part of this web. Shrinking violet by day – Strident, tough-talking, smart-alecky keyboard warrior by night. The thrill of the battle and of the hunt. Reading the room, shooting out a cautiously controversial comment, then feasting on likes and digital attention. Who would choose to abandon this sangfroid cyber-identity only to rejoin the material world and be an awkward, out-of-shape, nobody?

But, maybe its not all as bad as I make it out.

A report released by the Governance Lab from the NYU lauds the powerful positive impact of Facebook communities. The authors, granted “unique access to Facebook’s underlying research”, conclude that:

people who are otherwise voiceless in physical space are becoming powerful leaders of groups that confer a true sense of meaning and belonging for their members.

So, what about this? Oppressive, small-minded parochial families, workplaces and suburbs, extinguish the acceptance and potential of the many. Many who were hidden for centuries in small, homogenised communities, can now connect on axes that were previously barely perceived by the guardians and beneficiaries of the majority culture.

Rather than the Experience Machine being a massive oppressive apparatus, it is the small, local and familiar that oppresses. The machine grants freedom.

Freedom from Dad and Mum, the teacher, the boss, the ladies in the lunchroom.

Freedom from the people in your community and those from your past, those that you hated, who bullied you, or even worse, who ignored you.

Freedom from reputation and consequences of your lived actions, or inaction.

Freedom from the values of the place and time that you developed in.

Freedom from the need to hold the same tired identity day in, day out.

Many of these freedoms have previously been available to the rich. They have always been denied to the many. The internet has democratised these freedoms. Maybe these widespread freedoms are worth any potential downsides of machine life. I will leave that up to you to decide.

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