Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More




Looking Down:

 The Trouble With Social Media*

Alston Park, Napa Valley, California, USA

January 27, 2018



"The cost to this generation is enormous. They are losing access to their humanity."
...    speaking with the New York Times about the numbing effects of digital technology on millennials 
"God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."
... Shawn Parker, co-founder of Napster, first president of Facebook, tech multibillionaire, speaking with Axios about the social network
"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone?"
... Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
This essay, Looking Down: The Trouble With Social Media, is the companion piece to Losing Access To Our Humanity.

I am indebted to my children Alexandra Lindsey Platt and Christian Laurence Platt and Joshua Nelson Platt who inspired this conversation, and to my daughter Alexandra who contributed material.




Given my technical background, God knows I've got no business whatsoever saying anything critical at all about digital technology in an essay whose title includes the byline "The Trouble  With Social Media". People who know me, know I owe much of my success (and my family's success) to digital technology. I wrote my first computer program using punched cards in 1970. My tenure as a systems analyst with IBM  (International Business Machines) and my nearly twenty year run as one of the most sought-after corporate mainframe computer trainers in these United States and Canada, is a platform on which I stand ongoingly, to be who I am today. It's also true that it's this experience which provides the essential technical foundation for these Conversation For Transformation even now. Those are my credentials.



Gauging What's Real Communication, And What Isn't



I stood on the breathtakingly beautiful grounds of a hillside winery high up on the west wall of the Napa Valley in northern California's wine country where I live. Near to where I was standing, was a ground level reflecting pool with a fountain in its center. A guy exited the winery and walked toward me, texting as he walked. Not watching where he was going, looking down, thumb-typing, he got closer and closer to the pool but didn't see it. With a mixture of dismay and amusement, I realized that unless he looked up and changed his direction, he'll be in the pool. But he didn't look up - and my warning "HEY!!!", well-intentioned as it was, came too late: he was in the pool, at first stepping into it, then tripping and going full-prone in the water, fully clothed of course, no doubt drowning his mobile device in the process.


That vignette has become the epitome of social media for me, and of its now ubiquitous "looking down"  neck-bent-downward posture in particular. But it's more than the ignominy of accidentally falling fully clothed, full-prone into a fountain, that iconifies "looking down" for me.

It's a newspaper photograph of the CEO of the world's largest manufacturer of smartphones with a group of high school disciples, all looking down at the tiny four inch screen on the device one of them is holding. It's a woman in my gym working out on a treadmill, looking down while typing on an Android, clearly not present  to her exercise regimen at all. It's a couple in a restaurant where I'm eating, sitting at an adjacent table, not speaking, looking down while thumbing paired Blackberries. Wow! Texting  each other "I♥U" while on a real  date? Say whut???  (at this late stage, the mind is just too world-weary  to even consider boggling).

Now in order to fully gauge the trouble with social media, it's not enough to consider face-plants in fountains (unless you're Monty Python), or being dictated to by a hand-held device, or not being present to your workout, or texting "I♥U" to your lover, even when you're close enough to whisper it hot, heavy, and sweaty in her ear from a few inches away, to grasp the issue. Where you have to start is with real  communication - or at least you have to start with the milieu  of real communication.

Without attempting to rewrite and improve on the dictionary definition of real communication (it's not necessary for this conversation), consider the following as a baseline  from which to measure how far off social media is veering from real communication: you're sitting face to face (even knee to knee) with your partner; you're speaking (with your mouth, with your tongue, and with your voice, not with a keyboard or by wiggling your thumbs); you're listening (with your ears, not by reading pixels on a screen); you can feel your partner's breath warm on your face; you're close enough to smell their perfume / cologne; you can see minutiae of the expressions in their eyes; you can hear subtle sonic cues in their vocals. You can also feel your own awkwardness  (and theirs) from time to time, as well as your own turned-on-ness in being in such close physical proximity to another human being. This  is the milieu of real communication. Now: I haven't said it's the only  milieu of real communication. I am  saying ie suggesting it's a baseline from which to measure how far social media has progressively gotten away from real communication.




I Don't Do Facebook



On this scale, social media is about as far away from real communication as you can possibly get, and yet still claim to have a few remaining fragments left of what it is to be in contact with another living, breathing human being. Here's the thing: real communication skills are never learned in social media. Brain patterns  which form with prolonged use of social media, will replace the brain patterns which form with real communication - that is, especially if the brain patterns for real communication were not yet fully formed in the first place. It's de rigueur  for social media apps to mandate that members must be at least ten years old when they subscribe. But once children discover the flood of dopamine  to the brain that social media unleashes, it's an addiction they don't give up easily. The cost to them is improper development of real communication skills, improperly developed real communication brain patterns, and thus (most chillingly) the loss of access to their humanity.

Now even with all that said, I myself am clearly not a totally naïve tech luddite, and nor am I a tech renunciate. I use a professional Lenovo L440  ex-IBM laptop computer running Windows 7 and my favorite decades  old DOS  (Disk Operating System) programs. I have an e-mail server and a Twitter profile for announcements. And my creation, these Conversations For Transformation, is of course 100% web-based (you could call it an internet artform  if you like). But that's it for me. I don't do Vkontakte, Snapchat, Myspace, Pinterest, Sina Weibo, Baidu Tieba, Qzone, Instagram, WeChat, Messenger, Tumblr, Viber, Reddit, Kakaotalk, Telegram, Snapfish, Flickr, Periscope, Vine, Buzznet, MeetMe, MeetUp, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, or Facebook. Oh, and my phone? It's a four year old beat up AT&T LG A380 flip  phone (I won't own a smartphone: even with my minimal digital footprint, I've already reached and exceeded my tech overload  saturation point).

Yet I'm fully cognizant of the fact that the year is 2018 and not 1970. Social media isn't going away. We all know that. It's not going anywhere. So what there is to reckon with is this: the muscle  (if you will) which directs real communication, will atrophy and wither when it's not used - just like any muscle you and I have when it's not used. And that's  the trouble with social media: it's in our blurring  it with real communication, that our real communication muscle will, like any unused muscle, waste away. What we'll lose ie what that will cost  us, is our access to our humanity. A few of us will have the presence to make this distinction early on in the game, both powerfully and decisively. But some of us (no, many  of us) will effectively morph  inexorably into cyborgs with few residual real human qualities still accessible.

Even more pertinent and poignant  is many millennials, thumb-typing, who've not yet fully developed real communication brain patterns (ie those for whom the real communication muscle isn't yet fully developed) won't even realize they're losing access to their humanity while they walk, looking down, towards the reflecting pool.


* This essay, Looking Down: The Trouble With Social Media, was originally titled The Trouble With Texting.


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