There’s some magical balance between honoring our base humanity and embracing the tools that we as a species have created – some slim existence between lazing about in a loincloth in a pastoral field surrounded only by green grass and blue skies, or conversely jacking into the mainframe via a USB cord hard-wired directly into our prefrontal cortex.
We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. ~Marshal McLuhan
The allure of the digital life is undeniable. Life inside the matrix is a world of instant gratification where every passing thought garners immediate feedback from a peanut gallery of ersatz internerd friends. And by friends, I mean eleven people you’ve never met, a girl you believe may be your second cousin on your dad’s side, and some kid you haven’t seen since third grade. (He’s forty now, and has lost a lot of weight doing CrossFit or Zumba or maybe jogging.)
Thanks to the connected world in which we live, thoughts and ideas once left to rattle around internally until they died a natural death deep in the bowels of the psyche are now vomited into the public domain. And as both senders and receivers of this inane babble, we are compelled to give a shit.
Our egos won’t have it any other way.
“Egotism is the anesthetic which nature gives us to deaden the pain of being a fool.” ~Dr. Herbert Shofield
And let’s face it, we’re not cyberstalking our digital friends to relish in their accomplishments. We’re reading between their words and looking at the backgrounds of every image to rate their existence as it compares to our own. Alternately as creators and curators of our own media brands, we are framing photos and constructing messages to highlight only the parts of our actuality we want to show.
As a voyeur it is easy to distill any social media profile into the base components of its owner’s egotism – to discern what each values and holds sacred. The ego demands others recognize our success and individuality by whatever yardstick is most accessible to each of us. Social media timelines generally fall into one or more of five broad categories: financial status, intellect, religious/political ideologies, fitness, or power over others – all as a means to the same end, which is social acceptance.
You can bet your ass that the third grade CrossFit kid is going to let everyone know about his fun-filled beach vacation by posting as many half-nude, unconsciously-flexed beach selfies as his cellular plan data limits will allow. While the non-Zumba social media enthusiasts may not be so cavalier about littering their timelines with photos in their dishabilles, they’ve found innumerous clever ways to participate in this sharing ritual:
- For those who’d prefer not to share anything above the ankle, there’s the toes-in-the-sand humble brag photo, which is generally captioned by “Greetings from Gulf Shores” and/or mention of the footprints in the sand parable.
- Then there is the more risqué hot dog leg repose framed by the crashing surf, sometimes with the latest Sue Grafton novel strategically positioned to hide cellulite.
- And finally there is the accidentally-askant, three-quarter-face selfie with the tilted blue horizon background. This is generally reserved for the fun but frumpy, but also works for raging alcoholics and poets.
Whatever the artifice of the social media beach selfie, these images in particular have become the internet equivalent of not only making someone watch you masturbate, but expecting them to applaud your effort.
“Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand.” ~Mark Zuckerberg
It’s a two-way street though, this personal brand management that is your social media presence. The three dozen pictures you posted of your trip to Harry Potter World last fall break were a lot of fun, but come February when you’re freezing your ass off scraping ice off your windshield and still paying off the credit card bills from that trip, some other asshole is sitting on a beach in Aruba. Toes in the goddamn sand.
The personal brand we’re creating only works if we can maintain it. Otherwise, on the receiving end we end up setting unrealistic expectations and creating feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
While its proponents decry the positive benefits of social media, these benefits come at an expense. There is certainly more transparency into the micro and macro level thoughts and beliefs of our fellow man, and an unparalleled wealth of venues for self-expression, community building, and tying in to emotional support (from the third grade CrossFit kid, undoubtedly).
“Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition.” ~Marshall McLuhan
A 2017 study, published by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, found that despite its purported benefits, social media is also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and increased occurrences of psychological distress.
In our acceptance of these curated and cultivated glimpses into the lives of others, we sacrifice our own discernment and measure ourselves not against an objective reality, but against a rose-colored simulacrum.
But what if, as Carl Jung said, “there were a living agency beyond our everyday human world – something even more purposeful than electrons?”
Are we turning a deaf ear to a higher realm or at least to our own inner selves?
What happens to our notion of self when it is corrupted by the steady prattle of the asinine ramblings of the third grade CrossFit kid who’s taking out his rage over his second failed marriage on the Bernie Bros or the Kardashians?
Isn’t there then an inherent allure to abandoning the whole system, dropping off the grid and wandering into the wild like Christopher “Supertramp” McCandless? Maybe a gentle tug from the collective unconscious imploring us not to let go of our animalistic nature.
To be fair, the mythical, off-the-grid, unfettered life is undoubtedly replete with its own occurrences of psychological distress. (Starvation and tigers come to mind.)
Grocery stores and walled dwellings are nice.
So we give up components of our individuality for the benefits of societal living. Our human instinctual life obviously must be sublimated in the service of collective human progress. But at some level aren’t we compelled to cling to individual freedoms over the demands of collective living?
There’s a trade-off between pursuing our every desire and joining the collective. Because living in REAL communities requires inhibiting certain individual wishes. But in a cyber reality, many of those inhibitions are knocked down by the protection of anonymity and distance. We communicate in a society that is not bound by physical constraints, and as such have no fear of physical consequences.
“It is the framework which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame.” ~Marshall McLuhan
While there’s a steady push toward a transhumanist reality, there is a call of the wild that runs counter to it. And if we fully repress those base human desires, are we giving up what it is to be human?
Where then is the balance?
The balance is not in how we spend our time, but in how we direct our thought. It is in the individuation of self not as an egoist clod trampling through cyberspace, but as a flesh-and-blood human being distinct from but a part of humanity.
What would happen to social media if the self-centered, ego-based curator were removed from the equation? Would we be so eager to participate if our digital existence was a projection of reality itself?
Who among us would be willing to sign on to a platform that went deeper than the toes-in-the-sand digital persona to broadcast those genuine, intimate, and unfiltered moments of vulnerability, pathos, and unfettered exuberance?
For those, as the poets and raging alcoholics know, are the true reality of existence.
In that world, humanity would be forced to evolve on a psychospiritual level. Because true evolution of a species should not be limited to technological advancement. For if our evolution is based only on our inventions and development of curated personae, then why bother?
The easy path would be to drop out of the whole system and focus solely on our personal individuation. But that is as selfish as diving fully into the matrix.
What is more ego-based than removing oneself from society to determine the meaning of existence on a purely personal level? Who benefits from that? A world of 7.6 billion fully-individuated, but isolated individuals is no more evolved than a world of tribal herdsmen running down wild boars with spears and rocks.
The challenge is to evolve amidst and among the madding crowd.
There is no value to self-discovery when done in a vacuum. As Jung said, “You cannot individuate on Everest.”
The balance is to aspire to individuation and actualization of one’s self not at the expense of, but in service to society on the whole. Besting troglodytes in cyber space is as short-lived as any other ego victory, and serves to advance nothing beyond one person’s short-term self-perception.
That innate call of the wild is not inherently a draw to less evolved times. It is the allure of escape from the clattering cacophony of a billion equally significant egos bound together on this finite pale blue dot.
Peace and serenity are not found in solitude and flight. Rather, they are only truly appreciated in communion with society.
So put down your phone and wander into nature, but bring the third grade CrossFit kid with you. And as you stare down at your toes sinking into the sandy loam on the creek of a babbling brook, ask him how he feels.