It’s Facebook’s fault I’m stupider than I was five years ago

Patrick Freyne: I used to have an ill-thought-through opinion only a few times a week

Facebook: when the virtual world was young a simple man named Mark Zuckerberg had a simple dream to create a website through which he could meet and rate chicks. Photo illustration: Chris Jackson/Getty

Facebook: when the virtual world was young a simple man named Mark Zuckerberg had a simple dream to create a website through which he could meet and rate chicks. Photo illustration: Chris Jackson/Getty

 

A long time ago, when the virtual world was young, a simple man named Mark Zuckerberg had a simple dream to create a website through which he could meet and rate chicks. This week his company is alleged to have helped a dubious data-analysis company, Cambridge Analytica, to game the American presidential election of 2016 with all our data. “That escalated quickly,” as the kids say on Facebook.

Before this, Zuckerberg and his various imitators had become puffed up with the idea that their self-enrichment and manipulation of human desires were all linked to a Whiggish tale of human progress. “Ha ha ha!” they said, frolicking delightfully in their black polo necks, sipping goblets of Soylent and, in the case of PayPal’s cofounder Peter Thiel, child blood. “We truly are like gods of Olympus!” they cried.

In reality, even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I think many of us were feeling uneasy about how their creepy inventions were restructuring our brains. I’m pretty sure, for example, that I’m stupider now than I was five years ago (feel free to comment on this below) and that social media has changed how I process information.

My face is red and contorted with rage and/or delight. I am drooling, typing frantically and muttering ‘Trump’, ‘blueshirts’ and ‘Dermot Bannon’ to myself

Here’s an ever-so-slightly-leading thought experiment I like to engage in. I picture myself in the olden days, reading a newspaper. I am sitting in a leather armchair, wearing a suit, probably in my club. I am nodding sagely as I take in the affairs of state, but my face is impassive, for I am a rational man having rational thoughts. I am also, for some reason, smoking a pipe. Occasionally I say “Very true” or “Interesting” or “Most droll”.

And then I picture myself as I am now when I’m consuming social media. My face is red and contorted with rage and/or delight. I am drooling, typing frantically and muttering trigger words like “Trump”, “blueshirts”, “Dermot Bannon”, “Paw Patrol” or “strategic communications unit” to myself.

Then my expression changes and a tear comes to my eye and a smile to my lips. “Puppies in clothes,” I whisper. “That ostrich has befriended a seal.” “These cuddly toddlers are feminists.”

My face contorts once more and I am guffawing like a loon and yelling “Yes! I too remember Battle of the Planets. Ah, the halcyon days of my youth. Generation X 4eva.”

And then my face darkens. “But Trump!” I say. “Trump is being wrong again, and now I must tell a stranger to go f*** himself.”

In this second vision I’m not in my club, urbanely smoking my pipe. I am on the couch, late at night, in my pants, sporadically crying and eating jam with a spoon.

The information superhighway has become, for me, a circle jerk of emotional buffoonery. On the internet, where no business model is sustainable for anyone other than the digital rentier class, the main business now is the cultivation and extraction of data. Irrespective of how wise we seem to one other, to the data farmers we are a mooing, braying, baaing data herd. In this context “emotion” is used like a growth hormone. The whole ecosystem pumps us full of feelings designed to trigger the production of delicious data milk from our brain teats. They just want to get us typing. Social-media consultants call this “engagement.”

Going mainly on my own experience, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this arousal-induced chatter is 99 per cent pointless. Forgetting for a minute that we’re all sharecroppers tilling the data fields of digital feudalists – I know we were cows a few minutes ago, but I like metaphors – it’s also making us stupid and susceptible to a landscape of online spats and cliques and sophisticated trollcraft.

When you look at the kind of issues that get most “engagement” on social media, it’s not the stuff that’s necessarily the most important, it’s the stuff that’s the most discordant or wrongheaded and thus capable of prompting a rapid emotional response. I mean, which of the following sentences do you want to respond to: “Tackling poverty in the inner city requires multiple nuanced approaches” or “Jordan Peterson says that potatoes are actually just dirty apples and that women can’t have any”?

It’s the latter one, right? I mean what’s Peterson at? Even as you read it you began furiously explaining why potatoes aren’t dirty apples and that women can have as many of them as they want (hashtag feminism).

Well, I’ve news for you. Peterson is already penning a hot take that reads: “Women have eaten all the potatoes, the greedy wagons, and now there are none left #meninism.”

You type. “That’s ridiculous, Peterson, and even if it’s true, eating all the potatoes is empowering #livingmybestlife.”

Yeah, if you’re not careful you could be arguing about this all day or, if, like me, you’re a slightly superior sort, voyeuristically watching other people argue about it.

Our inner lives are being replaced by a never-ending cycle of agitation prompted by trolling columnists, provocative Russiabots and nuts we knew in school

Apart from being a terrible waste of time, this is also a pretty big shift in what we use our brains for. Ten years ago I had an ill-thought-through opinion a few times a week. Now I’m prompted by an endless stream of strangers to take shaky positions on all sorts of stupid stuff. I find myself constantly formulating useless, usually unexpressed opinions in spite of myself.

Once I had space for such private thoughts as, Oh look, a birdy, or, Hey, my knuckles look like an old man’s face, or, Are cats a kind of furry owl? This is what we used to call “having a rich inner life”.

Now, I fear, such rich inner lives are being replaced by a never-ending cycle of agitation prompted by trolling columnists, provocative Russiabots and nuts we knew in school and/or are related to. You can see it by just looking at the dead-eyed phone stares all around you on the bus. The internet is no longer a nifty tool that we use as needed but has become, thanks to social media, a place where we graze blisslessly and live out our thinking lives.

At its very best it eases loneliness and brings activists together, but I’m scared that if we spend too long there we’ll stop daydreaming, having private selves, recognising the humanity in people with different views or being capable of self-knowledge without an online questionnaire (I’m a “Carrie” by the way).

I’d like to think there might be a great digital withdrawal, but the uninterested response to the current Facebook scandal from users suggests not. It’s only a matter of time, really, before someone is posting: “Yes, Facebook converts some users into a nutritious paste for the Zuckerbaby, but we knew what we were signing up for – and, anyway, I need it to keep in touch with my cousin who lives in Peter Thiel’s underground blood refinery.”

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