Loss of Identity in the Neo Modern Age:
What Advances in Technology are Doing to Sense of Self
It goes without saying that technology, has become an increasingly integral component of human existence. Most of us, now walk around with a computer several times more powerful than the greatest supercomputer in the history of the world up to around the 1990s… I’m talking about your phone.
Your smartphone is more powerful than all early computers and most early supercomputers.
Plus, the amount of information at your fingertips is several exponents greater than at any time in human history. In the year 2020, the amount of information stored on the Internet was estimated at 64 zettabytes.
Of course, you probably don’t know what a zettabyte is. So here’s some perspective:
- One zettabyte = 1 trillion gigabytes.
- The average laptop comes with about 500GB of storage space
- 1 trillion divided by 500 = 2 billion
- Assuming the average cellphone has 50 gb of storage
- 1 trillion divided by 50 = twenty billion
If I haven’t botched the arithmetic on this, the best guess at the amount of information on the Internet is around 128 billion laptops or 1,280 billion cell phones…
And it grows substantially every day.
A little bit more context. The “Big Four”: Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook store around 1200 petabytes on the Internet. A petabyte is roughly equivalent to 1 million gigabytes, plus or minus 40,000 or so.
So the Big Four alone, store 1.2 billion Gigabytes of information. If we were to convert that into audio files, we would be able to listen to roughly 2.2 BILLION YEARS of audio…
Even if the very first organism on earth started listening, we’d still have a few thousand years of catching up to do today. We’d probably be around “I’m a Barbie Girl” by now.
All of this context sets the stage for a very important discussion:
“How is technology changing our sense of self?”
Here’s why the context matters.
A large portion of that near-inconceivable amount of information comes in the form of social media.
Sure, technological innovations have made dramatic shifts in our lives in other ways:
Irrigation gave us agriculture, wheels made transport exponentially faster, Colour TV gave us an easy way to disseminate information to entire populations…
But Social Media is an entirely different beast.
Instead of just making things faster, better, or easier, is actually transforming our sense of self on a fundamental level.
And maybe for the worse.
Our Sense of Self
Our awareness of being aware, is the fundamental bedrock of our existence.
All of us have that fundamental level of awareness… hopefully.
The second most fundamental level of thought encompasses all of the things one level up from that. Our childhood memories and programming, the influence of our relatives and parents, the impact that siblings or a lack of siblings had on us, school, partners…the list goes on.
All of these things come together to create who we perceive ourselves to be as an individual.
Most of who or what we think we are, actually came from other people. Here’s an example. Right now, you probably have a set of beliefs around money. If you came from an average or below-average family, then you probably believe that money is hard to come by, that “it doesn’t grow on trees.”
You know deep down, that you have to work for money, even though that’s not always the case.
Let’s take the polar opposite example- a spoiled rich kid. What do you think their beliefs about money are? Probably that it just comes to them, that they always have it no matter what and they don’t have to worry about it.
You cringe thinking about spending $150 on shoes, the rich kid doesn’t even blink.
Better example; Everybody loves food.
One way or another, you have a favorite of SOMETHING. If you’re from Boston, chances are that you love deep-dish pizza and think it’s the greatest thing to cross a table. If you’re from New York, you probably disagree, STRONGLY.
If you’re from California, you probably think that In-N-Out seasons their burgers with heroin, but if you’re from Texas, then there’s no question Whataburger seasons their stuff with cocaine.
And if you’re African American, Caribbean, or Mexican, you think white people don’t season food with anything…
Because they don’t. (I’m kidding.)
But the belief is there, and you probably don’t even question it. But why?
Most of our “Thinking” Is Done in Assumptions
As we’ve gone down the rabbit hole of this particular subject, you’ve probably started to do some self-analysis.
“Why do I even like the Mets? Why is Drake, my favorite rapper? Why…..”
You’re becoming aware Neo. You live in the matrix. A bundle of assumptions about life and the nature of reality that you didn’t even know you had, but now cannot unsee.
You’re realizing that you make a lot more assumptions than you were aware of. Which isn’t a bad thing evolutionarily speaking. Back when many of our decisions were life or death, we didn’t have time, or calories to spare.
Big scary cat behind us? RUN OR DIE.
Brightly colored fruit on a tree? Good for food.
People who don’t look like us carrying weapons? Fight first, talk later.
Of course, these are extreme examples, and I’m sure many strange groups of humans made attempts to communicate before resorting to violence. Since fighting costs calories, and serious injuries meant death.
My point is, that we have evolved very efficient mechanisms for conserving energy— assumptions.
By simply absorbing the biases and assumptions of people around us, we made our survival energy-efficient. Not using conscious thought for every decision meant we had more energy left over when we needed it and we avoided danger more often than not.
Hence, when our parents told us that “money doesn’t grow on trees” when we were younger, we didn’t question it. We went along with the assumption, and it proceeded to shape our lives.
Technology Has Displaced Community
Until recently, the world was largely made up of a number of small communities, that were all slightly different from one another. The smallest of these communities are families. As a matter of fact, for most of human history, we’ve been very tribal, separatist beings. Hell, not too long ago, America was only a rumor to someone in Eastern Europe.
These mini societies are very responsible for giving rise to differences in thought.
One family's beliefs and assumptions differ from another. So they perceive incoming information in varying ways. One may see a field on fire and think “how horrible” because they see the fire as destructive.
The other, being a farming family, understands the value of burning older grass or produce, to make land quickly available for tilling and to return nutrients to the soil.
When a difference of opinion arose, people had firmly held but disparate beliefs that would give them the confidence to speak up. After all, their father, grandfather, and uncle all told them about how good the fire is for next year’s yield. Right?
The Other Half Of Our Sense of Self
Of course, no person is simply a bundle of assumptions and emotions given to them by their families and circumstances. The other half of ourselves comes from our interpretation of the world.
As we grow older, we start to seek out our own places within the social strata.
We process and capitalize on our own predispositions, tendencies, and abilities in doing so. If we’re athletic and tall, we gravitate toward sport in one way or another. Those who are extroverted and creative, often find themselves in the performing arts.
Bad or good relationships with other people also play a massive role in our self-interpretation.
Some very beautiful people see themselves as ugly, because of a bad experience or two as a child. Given a child’s lack of life experience, it’s not shocking to think that one or two impactful experiences could transform their self-perception.
Obviously, there’s a lot to explore here and I won’t be able to do it all in this blog.
Up until recently, according to psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor, our senses of self were constructed by about 50% external influence and 50% internal influence. The recent proliferation of the Internet and Social Media has now tilted that balance far more toward external influence than at any other time in human history.
In the past decade, we’ve gone from being influenced primarily by the people closest to us, to being primarily influenced by Social Media.
Our brains are built to form and maintain connections with around 150 people. The majority of those connections won’t be very close, they’ll be acquaintances. Social Media has inadvertently plugged us into a virtually limitless number of social connetions.
We’ve begun to judge ourselves and others based on the numbers of likes on posts and comments on a variety of content.
We’re also consuming more and more opinion-based content from people who don’t even know us personally, nor have our best interest at heart. Even if we don’t want to. Social Media feeds are literally designed using game theory to keep us scrolling indefinitely.
Just today, you’ve probably snapped yourself out of a couple “Youtube Trances” that started because you tapped on a single Youtube short, that quickly became a 15 video streak. Don’t believe me? Go check your viewing history right now.
Didn’t think it was that bad huh?
Social Media Has Created a Hive Mind
Okay, obviously we’re not in a science fiction movie and it may be more accurate to say that Social Media has replaced and amplified a lot of the influence that our families and close friends would once have had on us.
Nowadays, instead of engaging in thoughtful dialogue with the people around us, most of us consume our opinions from influencers, pundits, or reporters online.
When we have a question- instead of asking someone we know, typically we plug it into Google and pick something out of the top 10 responses to form a new opinion. We don’t even rely on an alternative search engine, other than Youtube. Which also happens to be owned by Google…
97-99% of the world’s search volume goes through Google one way or another.
People are engaging with local and regional newspapers less and less. Pretty much the only people viewing major news networks anymore are all over 65+ years old. The newspaper industry shrinks by a startling 25%~ every year.
We’re all becoming increasingly dependent on Social media for our intellectual and emotional needs.
According to Dr. Taylor popular culture has stopped serving as a mirror of self-reflection, and has instead begun producing a portrait of who we all ought to be. Instead of reflecting on the world and deciding on what it means to us, and what it means to our authentic selves, people are increasingly concerned with being socially accepted.
To quote him directly:
“The goal for many now in their use of social media becomes how they can curry acceptance, popularity, status, and, by extension, self-esteem through their profiles and postings. Self-awareness and self-expression give way to impression management and self-promotion.”
In essence, our biological desire for social acceptance has been subverted by Social Media and has turned us into slaves of a sort to a global idea of what people “should” be.
As we further engage with Social Media, the lines between our public and private selves become blurred. Persona and personality become one. Our identity becomes what we would like people to see, rather than who we really are.
Our sense of self becomes a means for social acceptance, rather than the foundation of who we are.
Ultimately, we may end up in a sea of sameness. Monotonous babbling in unison, with no depth or true meaning.
What does This Mean For the Future? What is The Answer?
The answer to this problem is pretty simple — moderation.
Making moderation popular though? That part will be difficult, to say the least. The only real answer to groupthink is individualism. So it falls to you dear reader, to be yourself. To think critically about the information you consume and genuinely question yourself.
How do YOU feel about it? (Whatever IT is.)
Not how you think other people want you to feel about it.
By having the courage to develop your own sense of self, you’ll give other people the freedom to do the same. No need to preach to others who may disagree with you, or force your view of the Darkside of social media onto them.
Simply be yourself, but genuinely.
Become cynical about the information you see online. Ask deeper questions: “Is this really true? Is there another side to the story? Is there a perspective that I’m missing? Do the people telling me this really believe it, or are they just playing for points on Social Media?”
Without action on an individual level, we’re practically doomed to becoming a hive mind. A group of individuals who all agree, about everything, all the time. Not because we’ve all reached the exact same moral conclusions and agree with them, but because Social Media will be what defines our sense of self.
Without critical and individual thought, our measure of self will become what’s “liked” on our social pages, and who decides that?
We’ve seen that the internet overlords curate our access to a variety of content that they deem good or bad. But what gives them the standing to do so? What makes them superior to everyone else’s moral compass and individual perspective?
Wake up Neo.