I decided to run a course looking at the impact of internet-use on our mindfulness and it’s led to lots of interesting conversations and reading on the subject.
I’ve been forced to think a bit more about how there is a connection between our ‘urge’ to share and the Internet’s need for us to share. People bemoan the ‘selfie generation’ in a way that seems to blame social-media users for being silly narcissists rather than considering a bigger social shift that creates the habit of oversharing.
Culturally, there has been a massive shift from the private to the public. Less than 10 years ago there was still a strong sense that being ‘exposed’ publicly was a bad thing. A shameful thing. And that having a private life was a right. Now in the wake of Paul McMullan’s astonishing maxim – “privacy is for paedos” – it seems to have gone completely the other way. Not sharing every aspect of your life is seen as socially defective.
Obviously, as a therapist I approve of people communicating their interior world – but maybe not to 850 people at a time.
There is a point where the private world must remain – as Donald Winnicott named it – “incommunicado”. Not only to the general public, or friends or family, but also to oneself. There are some things about being a human that are inexpressible and therefore unshareable. Julia Cameron talks about ‘the Cave’ – that is, the dark, unformed space in which artists and creators need to leave their ideas and inspirations if they are to grow. You can’t plant a seed in the soil and dig it up every morning to look at it. Similarly there are parts of oneself that need to be unconscious, need to be mysterious even to our selves.
It’s not a coincidence that this social compulsion to share, share, share came about now with the advent of smartphones and Web 2.0. It’s not like the internet was expressing a long-denied need that humans have to share all their secrets to as many people as they can.
Looking at it positively, you could see this as a social move from the old regime of repressive ‘secret’ keeping that strangled free expression and ‘being who we are’. There is some truth in that. (As a gay man that talks to students, I keenly aware that the ability to communicate with fellow LGBT people has opened a much more gay-friendly universe to people growing up gay.) But it’s also worth considering another reason why this wave of exposure is rolling in now.
There was a moment when the internet ‘happened’ – when we rushed, giddy and inspired, towards Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat et al. – when it seemed that all this wonderful ‘freeware’ was enabling our most communicative selves. For no cost at all we could share pictures with friends, thoughts with colleagues and our emotions with complete strangers. But it turns out that none of these companies were completely upfront. Actually, the boring Ts & Cs that we blithely sign to get our new update were carefully ensuring that our data belonged to Silicon Valley. Facebook, Google, Instagram and Whatsapp (those last two both owned by Facebook, incidentally just as Google owns every video we post on YouTube) are massively profitable Californian-based but worldwide companies that make their money from collecting our data and selling it on to others.
There are countless ways in which data-collection can be benign (medical research, transportation planning, even targeted marketing) but there are also lots of ways in which it can be malignant (spying, selling health data, persecuting ‘dissidents’). These giant corporations answer to no one. National government’s legislation isn’t up-to-date or powerful enough to regulate an industry that grows at such dizzying speed. Perhaps we should as Evgeny Morozow says, bring the data centres under the control of elected governments so we can have some say in what gets done with all our data?
This is not a blog about politics but I have found it useful to widen the lens on the question of why we end up glued to our smartphones and get ‘groomed’ into sharing more and more information in a more and more mindless way. The cocktail of dopamine and dissociation that lines the path to over-sharing is a very potent thing. It’s useful to understand that, malign or not, the technology that creates our experience of the internet is not neutral but in fact, designed brilliantly to encourage mindless clicking and sharing.
Just as smokers grappling with nicotine addiction can get some purchase on what’s happening to them by seeing how tobacco companies use our addictive bodies to make money, similarly understanding the way in which Facebook and Google make their billions can be a useful bit of information if we find that we’re using the internet much more than is conducive to our well-being.