April 29th, 2022
It’s still hovering around freezing in the mornings, but temperatures rise by early afternoon to hover around the 10 to 15˚C range. I usually get up around 7:30. By then the birds are well into their daily routine. The robins are pulling up moss to get at juicy grubs and worms. It’s great to see so many golden crowned sparrows and hummingbirds in the yard competing for access to the feeders. My recliner is in a position in the living room where I have a great view of bird activity in the front yard.
Years ago, Carolyn and I would get up, get ready for work, have breakfast and listen to the CBC morning program. Now we open our computers or other devices and immerse ourselves in the problems of the day as expressed by MSNBC, CBC News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, et cetera. Do this every morning and the only result will be a profound depression. I’m not suggesting that we should not check out internet news sources, but it’s imperative to keep their offerings in the right perspective. After all, they are all in the business of making money and that one characteristic of their existence should give up plenty of pause. Same goes for Facebook and its offspring Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
This morning in my Pocket email (check it out) I got notice of an article in The Atlantic, a liberal magazine I’ve been reading on and off for many years. The article is called WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID: It’s not just a phase.* The author is Jonathan Haidt.The (very long) article does a great job of dissecting the way social media have driven us into a number of hard social positions that make it increasingly difficult to engage with people we would not normally have anything to do with. I posted this paragraph from the article on Facebook:
“Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.”
Then I wrote:
“Yes, indeed. But I’m not sure I would hang out with a lot of people in any case, ones who still have Canadian flags on their pickups and shout ‘Freedom’ at us at every turn.”
I was being slightly provocative, wondering if the article was going to be right. It was, in spades. On my computer, there was no further comment from Facebook, but on my phone I get several follow up suggestions: Totally agree!!! You got that right!!! I know right!! And Most definitely.
These ‘suggestions’ for follow up comments make it easy to agree with me with very little effort. This, according to the article fosters a sense of us versus them, hardening social positions and creating even more division than already exists in our lives. Facebook could easily have provided comment suggestions like: Are you sure?!!! Is this what you really think?!! Maybe we should do a bit more investigating!!! Or something along those lines.
It’s obvious that Facebook’s design is conducive to producing, over the past ten years, a decline in social consensus and civility. It seems we are having a more difficult time than every just being civil to each other…on the roads, in the grocery stores, and online. I’m picking on Facebook, but other platforms are just as guilty as Facebook of undermining our sense of democracy and encouraging an increasing acceptance of autocracy and oligarchy.
Haidt argues that there is no malice in what social media are doing except that they are following the drive for profit. The article argues that: “ Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best ‘engaged’ its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a ‘like’ or some other interaction, eventually including the ‘share’ as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.” And the more shares, the more money for Facebook.
I think it’s time we got a lot more savvy about how easily we can be manipulated into producing exactly the kinds of inputs on Facebook that make people increasingly impatient, angry and intolerant, precisely those kinds of emotions that create an environment where money can be most easily accumulated for Facebook itself.
I strongly recommend the Haidt article. You can read it on The Atlantic website. I think you can read up to five articles before having to pay…but don’t quote me on that. If Haidt is right we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years.
Before wrapping up this post, I do want to tell you that in the proper spirit of sociological research I’ve been watching several YouTube channels of people doing things like boat building, auto repair and restoration, industrial mechanics, woodworking, and that sort of thing. I suspect given the many clues they give me that they are most likely Trump supporters or the equivalent. Yet none of them talk politics, at least not directly, and they all offer interesting content that is unrelated to politics. My point is that people are multidimensional. We need to remind ourselves all the time that there is always a point of potential contact between people if we look for it. Still, I worry about Haidt’s findings. I reckon that he’s probably correct and that saddens me no end.
* (Illustrations by Nicolás Ortega.)