Part I   |   Part II

Surface Tension and Mythology

Ours is the generation of the screen. The digital landscape is our new Promised Land, a land flowing not with milk and honey, but with ego and escape. Its demographic-spanning population reveals the broad appeal of this. The entry points and the popular neighborhoods may change, but everyone seems to be living a life online now[1]. The digital era is often hailed as the Information Age, and this is apt. Information is the currency of online life. What was the last piece of information you learned of that you didn’t first learn about online, or from someone next to you who happened to look at their phone screen before you could look at yours? The digital world is the primary source of news, data, entertainment, gossip, belief reinforcement, and anything else the mind can crave. It’s no wonder then that we find social engineers here, hard at the work of conscience-formation.

Soap in the Drink
Social media is a key component of these formation efforts. It is designed as a social engineer’s paradise, being a place where people voluntarily open their minds to a barrage of information many, many times a day. Begging to be informed. Hungry to be formed. For most people, social media is the gateway to the digital world, the hub of shouting, bragging, and broadcasting from which we venture out into the other realms of the coded universe. Blogs. News outlets. Alternative news outlets. YouTube. We may frequent, and frequently abandon, many places in the digital world, but we always start from and come back to our preferred social media hubs, and so these places are exactly where a social engineer would come to advocate[2] for a less human world.

Think for a moment about dish water. Water has a tendency to stick together. It can actually form a dome above the rim of a glass if you pour it very carefully. This raised curvature of water is called a meniscus and it happens because of surface tension. The molecules attract one another. Add a drop of soap, though, and the whole thing spills over. The soap, a solvent, actually gets between the water molecules and they lose cohesion. It’s a bitter-tasting loss of integrity, and exploitable[3].

We are like water. When we are physically present with one another, sometimes even in disagreement, there is a certain cohesion. We are if not more empathic towards one another, then we can at least agree that empathy and kindness are both virtues worth working towards. But, when you put something between us—territories, battle lines—it all begins to fall apart.

We are exactly so buffered out on this social media frontier. We interact exclusively with technology, with machines between us. In this way, social media acts as a solvent. There is no such thing as human interaction online because even the with most direct input, the human component is distilled into a font or reduced to an image. All mere pixels on a screen. So buffered and apparently enjoying it so, we are lubricated[4] to accept a world even more pervaded and shaped by technology. We think nothing of the mechanical disdain for people because our own contempt has grown to match it.

Yet this technological watershed is effusively promised us. Mobility! Empowerment! Convenience! These are the old, old enticements of any technology, trotted out again in the ether. Convenience, admittedly, is good dope and the fact that barely any part of our day isn’t somehow altered by technological interaction shows that we may just be a bit addicted to it. This poses a problem because the junkie needs a sober sponsor to steer them through recovery. Well, they first need to admit they have a problem and that in itself may seem a stretch, but we have to be optimistic about something. Who is sober enough to guide the modern world away from of our automated, electrified society? With the old guard technology—the cars, the robotic assembly lines, even the computers—the answer is probably nobody.

But, the digital world is still a new drug. Perhaps sobriety can start here. Perhaps sobriety can spread from here, slowly stepping down our automatic acceptance and dependence on every new technology. Losing our taste for the rationalizing that has been so urgently encouraged. Perhaps this timely pause could open space to imagine health. If not a vicious detox from every machine, then at least fresh independence in how and why we choose to use and discard technology based on a more fulsome accounting of its effect on both ourselves and our neighbors[5].

For sobriety, then.

Selling the Greatest Myth of Our Time
Advertising has long been a cornerstone of any social engineering campaign. We so revile commercials because they are so blatantly manipulative, urging us to buy disappointment and inevitable hunger (which is kind of the point, because if we were sold actual satisfaction, we’d stop buying). A whole cottage industry has formed around excising commercial breaks from the experience of television. Social engineering has a brand new bag, though. The medium of social media has taken advertising out of the ghetto of commercial breaks and engineered it down to the cellular level. Ads now litter every social media feed (oh! The consuming overtones are everywhere, the vision of social media is that of animals at a trough). As we passively consume what the algorithm serves up, we swallow whole ad after ad, auto-playing their honed imagery to massage our open minds. We are constantly under this assault: that something might be better.

The age of the screen is built on a handful of ideas that it constantly strives to reinforce in our culture, lubricating our consciences for continual drilling down to a genetic depth some very fundamental restrictions on how we view ourselves, one another, and what we do. The first is that any technologically sophisticated way of doing something must be de facto an improvement. A car is better than a horse, a nail gun is better than a hammer, email is better than a letter. The justification is always that it is either more powerful (faster, stronger, etc.), cheaper (which leaves more purchase power in hand), or both. The second idea follows that anything that puts more capability in the hands of the individual must be the better way. Again, the vision is for more powerful people able to do more powerful things. A third, which might be better understood as the sum of the first two, is that anything that reduces human effort is the ideal. That this is predicated on reducing human presence is overlooked, I think, at great risk.

People in a position to benefit have long been at the work of normalizing this individualistic, tech-augmented vision for people. It’s everywhere. In the mythologies of digital pioneers working alone in their garages and dorm rooms to give birth to the pillars of the online experience. Outlining the code-era vision for justice, with men like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange lionized for finding and making unilateral decisions to expose dirty secrets they find distasteful simply because they had the digital prowess to do so. It’s in the new vision for romance as each individual is empowered to swipe through swaths of humanity on a screen as they make mating choices without risking the vulnerability that the ether offers to inoculate[6] us from. It’s even in the vision for the look of our cities and homes—those places where we yet can’t but be a real human presence. We are on the verge of self-driving cars, drone delivery, and we are already asked to install 24-hour surveillance devices in our homes so that we can buy things and access information with little effort beyond speaking to the ever-listening algorithm[7]. We are offered relief from even the tiny human chore of adjusting the thermostat. Effortless comfort at all times. What isn’t ‘smart’ these days? Our interface with the inevitable technotopic future is paved with the gilt bricks of self-augmentation and by them we are thoroughly insulated from the chafe of human interaction. This is the Promised Land. What could go wrong?

Part IV

*     *     *

[1] Perhaps it is a result of the persistent efforts of the Industrial Revolution to mobilize people and so scatter them—disintegrating communities for the sake of portable capital—that has made this digital world such a promised land. We have all left home and the people who know us. As we wake up to that void, we try to fill it with flat digital light. This would explain our tendency to populate our personal digital crowd, a list we have complete curatorial control over, with individuals not only from our present life, but from every phase of our past lives. Trying to hold on to all the places and communities we have passed through as an acknowledgement that all of our places and communities have been uprooted by now.

[2] Why advocate for a less human world? Because when we don’t rely on or interact with people, we rely on and interact with machines that we must somehow pay for. Their company is never free, and our desire for them facilitates our abstraction from a community into a ‘labor force’ as we fill the role of consumers working to consume. This is good news for those selling the machines, and also good news for all the various officials and dignitaries who gain some kind of power in maintaining this world. Hence the push to make it all feel normal.

[3] Solvents work by separating things, the way oil separates your car engine parts, allowing them to glide over one another without bursting into flames. This is handy in everything from washing your dishes to cleaning precision-crafted computer parts prior to electroplating them with conductive gold. The dirt just washes away.

[4] In a bit of irony, this lubrication actually increases friction. Social media trends toward de-humanized behavior precisely because all of the participants interact first with a machine. A screen. A keyboard or a touch pad. Especially in disagreement, we wade into this world with heated vitriol. Perhaps we are not as compatible with this so-called social lubricant as we would like to believe.

[5] And who, then, is our neighbor? Globalization must now cut the other way. Everyone considered a ‘capital asset’ must be considered an inseparable liability of human care as well.

[6] More like anesthetize us to

[7] Hand in hand with the vision of a world where the human machine barrier is utterly seamless is a vision of a world comprised entirely of data, just waiting to be gathered and exploited. People, like the dumb machines we invent, are little more than computational cycles who just need to be decoded. By God may we not compute.e3

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