I skated more when I was younger.
I suppose we all did.
I stopped after a few years of scattered lessons because of one of the instructors, when all the gear was strapped, and I was nervously weaving between the marks, casually remarked to me that I should watch out for the skating tracks.
“What are those?”
The skating tracks are invisible grooves that previous skaters leave in the ice. If you’re skating as slowly as I was, as a beginner, then your skates might slip into the indent and start going down that path in the ice without your knowledge, until you either fall down or find yourself making turns you didn’t make right in the middle of the rink. Neither are appealing options. Nor are they particularly safe.
I stopped skating soon after that. At any moment, a shrouded threat, lurking in the frozen crystals, could seize hold of your skates and send you whooshing away from the side of the rink into the fierce no-man’s land where the good skaters do axels around your head.
I have friends who skate, and they like it. They say that the skating tracks are less deadly U-boats than minor annoyances. Skating’s still not for me, though; even a typically effective bombard of reason can’t shake the image of those trails sliding me out into the middle of the rink, where god-knows-what could happen to me.
It’s interesting that I still can’t skate after that bit of information, six years later. Something to do with control, I think — complete control over my situation and over my actions. I don’t think other people have this sort of crippling fear. But it’s actually completely crucial for modern humans. And the rejection of this specific paranoia, combined with the current rise of social media behemoths, is enabling the worst stifling of human thought since the Dark Ages.
We can start with YouTube, the great radicalizer of our generation. You don’t pay YouTube, so YouTube gets paid by companies who put their ads before videos. Why is that worth it for the companies? Because a third of the Internet subscribes to Google’s video broadcasting platform, watching around one billion hours per day, according to YouTube’s website. And what do the companies want? People to watch videos. So, in three simple steps, you can get to YouTube’s perfectly reasonable impetus for proposing increasingly polarized videos to innocent viewers. As technology writer Zeynep Tufekci wrote, “Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons.” It’s quite simple. Radicals make better consumers. Numerous studies, notably Jack Nicas’s investigation for The Wall Street Journal with the assistance of a former YouTube employee, have proven this. Not to overstep my bounds here, but going down one strain of logic, you might end up with a direct correlation between stability and total video consumption.
So YouTube does it’s part for our Orwellian future by smoothly twisting our minds away from sanity, that boring center without a steady stream of videos. You can see into your tech future, the one Google has in store for you, by finding your way to your “Google Profile,” upon which all of Google’s ad selections for you are based on. You’d be surprised at how well they know you.
And then there’s social media. Now, people talk a lot about echo chambers in social media, wherein people clump together with people of their same opinion and bounce the same ideas of each other, which surely does nothing for academic development. But the truth is that social media actually does something far more corrosive than echo chambers, which are bad, but not always horrible. Besides, if it were a lack of disagreement on social media that we were worried about, then we would be dealing with a far different problem.
The thing that social media does which is much worse than echo chambers, which poses the greatest threat to humanity’s intelligent existence, is the pure amount of content. The endless assembly line of articles and videos is absolutely destroying our ability to analyze, to distinguish between good ideas and bad ideas and wrong ideas. According to James E. Short, a researcher at the University of Southern California, media consumption per person is six times more than it was in 1980, due almost entirely to YouTube and social media. But as one clever Slate article noted, the vast majority of readers won’t even make it halfway through an article they click on. That’s because the human brain can only process so much information. We’re hardwired for the savannah, and the occasional alert of a predator or the discovery of a food source. So as a species, we’re totally overstimulated by the sheer wall of information that social media drops on us, which forces us to skim articles we click on about a third of the way through, on average. According to a study conducted by researchers in Canada, the average human’s transient attention span (our ability to focus on things in passing, like if I asked you to stare at your hand right now) is shorter than a goldfish’s, at around six seconds. An all time low for humans, by the way.
Social media weakens our intellectual immune system, and YouTube charges through that breach to exploit and destroy what’s left of our minds, in other, simpler, words. That’s their big one-two punch.
So what are we heading towards? We’re heading towards the middle of the rink, to be honest, all of us together. Because when Google designs our “Profile” and feeds it to YouTube to try and create a ruined shell of ourselves that watches conspiracy videos all day before going out and shooting up schools, and when social media systems physically disable our ability to reason and discover, that’s when we go back to the Dark Ages.
That’s when we betray the beautiful philosophical system that the Renaissance gave us and, as Americans, as the flagship of the modern world, when we end the great tradition of Western thought, liberal thought. Because you can’t have liberalism without philosophical thought. To Aristotle, that kind of thought was “entertain(ing) an idea in your head without accepting it.” To Socrates it was, “Knowing nothing.” To Descartes, “Doubt(ing), as far as possible, all things.” But it’s all one, isn’t it? They’re all saying the same thing.
The opposite of the tech companies’ mission statements. They’re all saying the same thing as each other, the same thing as the Renaissance humanists, the same thing as the scientists that powered the Industrial Revolution, the same thing as the Protestants, who saw the destiny laid out for them by Catholicism and had the will to break from it, viscerally and powerfully, and they’re all saying the same thing as my skating instructor.
This is not a new phenomenon—humanity has always been vulnerable to control by broad organizations like the Catholic Church, that gut innovative progress and cripple our academic functions. We have gone down this path before, and it took us centuries and a number of bloody wars to undo its effects. As Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce.” We are not falling for a new trick. We are not shifting into, fresh, new grooves, as much as we are into ancient runes. And when humanity gets to a point, not far from here, most likely, where our brains finally collapse under the immense strain, and when we allow ourselves to be subject to the push and pull of the tech monopolists’ soothing, dangerous, radical rhythms, the we slip into those runes in the ice and to the depressing destiny that Google and it’s ilk has for each and every one of us, and slide perilously, uncontrollably forward, into the center ice.
And who knows what dangers await us there?
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