Society, Social Media, and Human Nature

The Instagram Panopticon, at Quillette, discusses the way in which social media has encouraged people to carefully curate their self-presentations and to judge the self-presentations of others.

I think it is certainly true that new kinds of media can affect how people think, feel, and interact…and this effect is nothing new. Joseph Roth, who lived in Berlin in the 1920s, wrote about the impact of radio:

There are no more secrets in the world. The whispered confessions of a despondent sinner are available to all the curious ears of a community, which thanks to the wireless telephone has become a pack…No one listened any longer to the song of the nightingale and the chirp of conscience. No one followed the voice of reason and each allowed himself to be drowned out by the cry of instinct.

He didn’t like photography very much, either:

There are no more secrets in the world. The whispered confessions of a despondent sinner are available to all the curious ears of a community, which thanks to the wireless telephone has become a pack…No one listened any longer to the song of the nightingale and the chirp of conscience. No one followed the voice of reason and each allowed himself to be drowned out by the cry of instinct.

But the focus on self-presentation and on evaluating the presentations of other goes back much further.  Consider, for example Russia’s ‘paper Facebook’ of the 19th century.  No computers and no telephones, but, among aristocrats and the well-off, visiting cards were  very important…and:

The cards, decorated with vignettes and lettering, were usually piled somewhere in the entrance hall of a rich house – either on a coffee table or tucked behind the mirror; so when a guest was coming, while he waited for the servants to tell the host he’s got a visitor, the guest could assess the popularity and social ties of his host by looking at the cards.

The fashion mongers of the era flaunted each other with a set of business cards from famous and popular people, just as some people now flaunt how many Facebook stars they are friends with!

There were even bot-equivalents to increase one’s count of Likes:

Some people even paid the doormen in rich people’s houses for visiting cards of famous persons – princes, counts, rich businessmen – to tuck these cards behind their mirrors and make their guests believe they are sometimes visited by such ‘posh’ persons.

Going back even further, in one of Fielding’s novels a woman takes great pleasure in going through the visiting cards of people who called on her.  Again, similar to like-collecting on Instagram or Facebook, probably exactly the same dopamine hit.

So yes, changes in media do influence human perception and behavior…but we must be careful not to ascribe things to new media which are really human constants.

Nothing Beyond the Current Moment

From Harvard:

Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

Reading the above, the first thing that struck me was that a university dean, especially one who is an English professor, should not view the 19th century as ‘a very long time ago’…most likely, though, she herself probably does not have such a foreshortened view of time,  rather, she’s probably describing what she observes as the perspective of her students (though it’s hard to tell from the quote).  It does seem very likely that the K-12 experiences of the students have been high on presentism, resulting in students arriving at college  “with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach,” as a junior professor who joined the faulty in 2021 put it.  One would hope, though, that to the extent Harvard admits a large number of such students, it would focus very seriously on challenging that worldview.  I do not get the impression that it actually does so.

In a discussion of the above passage at Twitter, Paul Graham @PaulG said:

One of the reasons they have such a strong “orientation toward the present” is that the past has been rewritten for a lot of them.

to which someone responded: 

that’s always been true! it’s not like the us didn’t rewrite the history of the civil war to preserve southern feelings for 100 years. what’s different is that high schools are no longer providing the technical skills necessary for students to read literature!

 …a fair point that there’s always been some rewriting of history going on, or at least adjusting the emphasis & deemphasis of certain points, but seems to me that what is going on today is a lot more systematic and pervasive than what’s happened in the past, at least in the US.  Changing the narratives on heroes and villains,  selecting particular facts to emphasize (or even to make up out of whole cloth) is not the same thing as inculcating a belief that “the unenlightened past has nothing left to teach.”

I don’t think most people inherently view the past as uninteresting; many stores, after all, have traditionally begun with the phrase “Once upon a time.”

I get the impression that a lot of ‘educators’, at all levels, have not much interest in knowledge, but are rather driven by some mix of (a) careerism, and (b) ideology.  For more on this,  see my post Classics and the Public Sphere.

And it’s also true that many schools are not providing students with the skills necessary to read literature–although there are certainly some schools that are much better than others in this area, and one would have hoped that graduates of such schools would be highly represented among those selected to become Harvard students.  Maybe not.   And technologies that encourage a short attention span–social media, in particular–surely also play a part in the decline of interest and ability to read and understand even somewhat-complex literature.

Although I suspect some of these students are perfectly capable of concentrating their attention when they really want to.  Some of them are probably computer science majors–hard to write or even understand a program without really concentrating on it. Some may be drama majors–I imagine that learning one’s lines and acting them requires a pretty significant level of focused attention.  And there are surely many other examples.  But the intrinsic motivation which is there in those cases doesn’t seem to be there in the case of reading literature.
Or am I kidding myself, and has the  short attention span phenomenon now become so pervasive that a lot of these students–and and even higher proportion of the people who didn’t go to Harvard…are going to come into adulthood lacking in sufficient attention span to be able to write code, do engineering design, analyze financial statements, fly airplanes or conduct air traffic control, perform surgical operations, etc?
Your thoughts?

The Fear of Elon Musk

Various people have expressed concern about the Elon Musk buy of Twitter, on grounds that it is dangerous to have such an important platform controlled by one very wealthy individual. I wonder if these people have noticed..

–One of the two most influential newspapers in the country, the Washington Post, is 100% owned by Jeff Bezos, who last I checked is also pretty well-off financially

–The other most-influential newspaper, The New York Times, has been controlled for decades by one wealthy and prominent family. Although The Times is owned by a publicly-traded corporation, the dual-class stock structure means that the control is with the family, not with the other shareholders.

–The largest social media platform, Meta/Facebook, is about 6 times larger than Twitter, based on market capitalization. Although Meta is a public company, it also has a dual-class stock structure, which gives Zuckerberg effective control with 53% of those Class B shares.

–The platform that seems to be getting the most traction among those under 35 or so is TikTok. It is owned by a Chinese company, which means it is required to do the bidding of the government of that country, which means in effect the CCP.

All of those things appear to be just fine with most of those people who are now expressing their upsetness about Musk/Twitter.