We are altered by the technology we use. A simple example is the building of back and arm muscles that follows from using a sledgehammer. The body morphs in conformity with the better use of the tool. Technology is a mold which we create and subsequently pour ourselves into, all too often imagining that only the changes we intend are those that result from technology’s usage. As cell phones with contact lists became commonplace, people no longer had to memorize numbers. With the development of GPS people can afford to not memorize street layouts. Services like Grammarly allow you to write without having any understanding of proper English grammar, as the program automatically identifies and remedies grammatical errors. Ease replaces hardship with the advance of technology, and so passivity inherits what once belonged to activity. The internet, now, is shaping the muscles of the mind and creating a new type of human being. The same human being, but everywhere.
The internet’s spread is aided in part by a globalization of the economy which it has created, like a dog feeding on its own vomit. As it becomes ubiquitous, so are its influences. Homogenization of culture is a noticeable phenomenon as wider use of the internet metastasizes across the country and the world. The same slang is shared in all fifty states through the influence of social media, the same arguments are repeated online by people in disparate corners of faraway states, and gradually the same manner of dress is adopted almost universally. The internet is a force of widespread cultural homogenization much in the same way that the spread of the English language via the British Empire was, only the internet acts far more comprehensively as an assimilative force.
As the recent years of lockdowns have proven, we now exist in an environment in which you can work, eat, sleep, be entertained, and socialize all without leaving the confines of your home. As the phone opened the maw of potential and swallowed paper maps, calculators, cameras, and more, the internet has consumed ever greater portions of previously physical components of human life. Social media is used by many not to supplement, but to replace physical social interactions. Amazon is soon to complete the bludgeoning death of brick-and-mortar retail. What human shape is being molded by a life lived in the frame of the internet?
You will find plenty of differences between various subcultures on the internet. Political factions and subcultures online distinguish themselves by the use of niche memes and shibboleths to create exclusivity and barriers to entry. The USSR-enthusiast side of Twitter does not use the same nomenclature and memes as the traditional Catholic side of Twitter. However, this seeming uniqueness is deceiving as it rarely indicates genuine individual thought but rather represents conformity to a subset of culture rather than conformity to mainstream culture. The very structure of online spaces promotes conformity of thought by identical mechanisms no matter which non-territory one belongs to.
Say you have a Twitter account. There is an instant feedback of “likes” for posts which reflects what others want to see and hear. Posts are not made in a vacuum, unlike a novelist writing quietly in the confines of his room, the Twitter poster receives immediate reactions to his works. Every “like” is an affirmation of his social worth and encourages similarly structured messages. He wants to chase that feeling, that little “zap” of pleasure upon seeing another notification. In seeking to repeat earlier successes he posts similar content, in a similar format, which are almost necessarily derived from similar patterns of thought.
As social beings the drive to pursue approval from others is nothing new, however the pervasive, incessant presence of the internet as a social reality is new. People are socially engaged and thus alter their thoughts in response to social pressures even when in the restroom, at red lights, sitting alone in their bed, etc. Solitude is a receding territory, like a tectonic plate being slowly chewed by the earth into magma, replaced by a panopticon we opt into every time we stare into our Mood Organs.
With originality comes risk and often disappointment. More idiosyncratic beliefs are less likely to receive high praise from a great many people, as they are less likely to be relatable and shared. Cycles of affirmation compel the perpetuation of similar patterns of speech, opinion, and valuation. In an effort to combat cognitive dissonance, the mind adopts as genuine the beliefs which are expressed in the public sphere. Those that do form unique opinions and outlooks are either consigned to obscurity or become influential in their own right and spur countless others to adopt their frame of view for the sake of mimicking their popularity. These pressures exist in nearly every conscious moment of the slouch-backed social media addict, an increasingly common human type.
As the online world takes up more room in social space, the importance of conformity grows. Approval from others online becomes more important to psychological wellbeing the more that social interaction is relegated to online spaces. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram become outlets for a stream of consciousness cultivated by the compulsion to be liked. Dependence on approval from your online peers restricts possibilities of thought. Political influencers, like the trite conservative pundits or the shrill overbearing liberal pundits, would risk their livelihoods by changing their opinions in fundamental ways. The average person is increasingly under similar pressures as the pundit class.
Regular users of social media risk losing acceptance in their online communities, however niche, by straying too far from what is considered acceptable opinion in their spaces. This is the construction of human psychological hives, the reduction of human beings to bees all too content to trade individual thought for community acceptance. This is due to incentive structures created by an online social world where there are instant feedback loops of rejection and approval. Not only is the hive ever-present, but the signals are instantaneous which makes for quick training. Pavlov trained dogs to salivate upon the ringing of a bell by pairing that stimulus with the presentation of food. Fitting that the notification symbol across nearly all social media platforms is shaped like a bell.
Negative comments, praise, likes, all of this feedback is available the second it happens – this makes for more effective cognitive training. The “bell” rings at exactly the same time one receives the social feedback. This makes for powerful psychological associations which change one’s thinking, one’s cognitive behavior. Beliefs expressed for the underlying purpose of receiving approval come to be genuinely held, and little joy comes from questioning beliefs required for acceptance within a community. There is, consequently, an adoption of a particular frame of thought which is not of your own making. This environment is increasingly replacing the physical world in terms of where the majority of social interaction takes place, and this has dire consequences for the stability of people’s relationships to others and themselves.
It used to be that a community was located in a physical place, and composed of a patchwork of people belonging to a particular setting. The social environments in which pre-internet people grew up were rooted in commonalities which extended, root-like into the earth, beyond a shared interest in a product line, a fetish, or ideological commitments. You were from a place and that place mattered because all of the people you talked to, hung out with, fought with, or dated were also from that same place. In such physical spaces one’s history with others matters in a way that it doesn’t online. The memories of time spent with people in physical spaces is tangible to the mind, such memories evoke the senses and possess more feeling, and so one’s history and reputation in an actual community is not so fragile as one wrong opinion away from being shattered. The story is different today.
In the modern context there is little stable foundation for community acceptance and moral certainty. Mainstream views held by many in 2000 (for example, that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman) become deadly to even touch in a matter of a few years. The foundations of online social and moral acceptance are built of sand. People have to update their opinions on a consistent basis in order to maintain their standing within their online communities. With each emendation of belief there is less resistance to further alteration, convictions risk becoming scribbles on an Etch A Sketch liable to be erased at a moment’s notice. Histories and prior interactions with others matter less for maintaining one’s reputation in the face of controversy because online interactions still lack the impression of reality despite how dramatically it shapes us. One does not think about the little profile picture spouting his opinions in written format in the same way that one does a human being in the flesh.
Also unlike in an actual community one’s actions, temperament, and all the inexpressibles that make the substance of a person are largely irrelevant. What is real online is what is posted online, and it’s mostly just selective expression. It’s not what you do, it’s what you say that matters in the modern “community.” Acceptance, then, in an online world to a great extent means agreement. The spread of sycophancy is like a virus. And you’re trained to love it. As a drone in a hive.