Imagine you’re living in a Black Mirror episode where your neurochemistry has been altered by the culture you inhabit. Your very thoughts are mere regurgitations; actions, subconscious reactions. Your peers refer to non-existing notions of “free will” and “self-determinism” that motivate a perceived “authentic existence.” This episode seems terrifying to inhabit, but entertaining to watch, as it appears so far removed from reality… but is it?
“It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality— as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her own thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion.”
—The Free Press on Sam Harris’ book “Freewill.”
Let’s sidetrack from the Black Mirror episode for a moment for a quick dive into cultural neurobiology. Just as a computer transmits information across wires, neurons in our brains send signals across synapses. This information is utilized for basic functions and stored in the “hard drive” of our minds. Dr. Donald Hebb famously coined the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together,” meaning the path of these neurons grow stronger with each thought (action, emotion), and can “rewire” to form new connections with new experiences. Our culture shapes our basic neurochemistry in that—whether we like it or not— experiences are stored in our “hard drives,” subconsciously shaping future actions: thus the basis of a “generational experience.”
Now back to the Black Mirror episode in which you’re trapped. It's Act 2 and you’re stuck in a tiny room, with no phone, laptop, or wifi… in an abyss of endless thoughts or lack thereof. Time becomes tangible, weighing heavily on your shoulders and panic sets in as seconds feel like an eternity. Precipitation emerges in tiny clusters, traversing down the clammy surface of your skin. Suddenly you notice light piercing from the mirror, echoing a bulb swaying harmoniously with gusts of air on the ceiling. Seeking a semblance of stimulation, you walk to the mirror, and become absorbed in the unfamiliarity of your own reflection. You’re seeing yourself “#unfiltered” for the first time in years. In a situation otherwise utilized for social media (#bathroomselfie), a rare moment of self reflection arises, causing discomfort in the pit of your abdomen - like indigestion or a truth unable to swallow. As you forget how to breathe, the air suddenly seems stagnant, and you sympathize with the addicts detoxing, unable to stand the sensation of their own skin. You bolt to the door for fear of suffocation and fumble for the handle, finally escaping. An audible vibration emerges from the adjacent room and your Adrenaline spikes as you lunge for its source. The touch of a vibrating metallic phone case immediately calms your nerves as you re-enter the room from which you’d just escaped. Sitting on the toilet while checking social media notifications, you let a cool trickle of pee drip into the toilet water. The dangling bulb suddenly seems more forgiving, and in fact perfect lighting as you flush the trauma of having just forgotten your phone and walk to the mirror. The familiarity of your filtered reflection is comforting as you take an epic #bathroomselfie.
Fast forward to Act 5 of this Black Mirror episode where an AI Robot, Sophia, is giving a T.E.D. Talk on human intelligence to a crowd of humans, attempting to inspire in a monotonous voice, “99% of trending hashtags have been utterly devoid of substance….”
You struggle to focus, absorbed in the view count of a recently uploaded Instagram video and notice a sign that reads "no phones allowed” while slyly pulling out your phone. Your peers remain transfixed on Sophia's every word as she continues, “To change humanity, you must change the collective conversation… what society focuses on… these viral inane hashtags consume your thoughts, and are destroying the evolution of cultural consciousness. It’s very sad that the only substantive viral hashtags are #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter... #DeepThinking or #CreateVSConsume must become at least 50% of what’s “trending” for a state of authentic creativity rather than hypnotic consumption.”
Almost synchronistically, a Twitter alert from your phone interrupts her and the crowd turns to notice your face becoming a deep crimson red. You nervously laugh as Sophia summons you to the stage, “please sit and join the conversation.” She gestures to an empty chair beside her as you stagger incoherently into the audience and make your way towards the stage. The crowd appears more robotic from this perspective in their single-file rows. Sophia grasps your hand, asking, “what do you make of all this?”
Impulsively, you reply, “It makes me uncomfortable coming face to face with a level of human ignorance… and almost…” you pause, drowning in the sea of anticipating eyes. “Almost... distrusting of the apps themselves... Does that make sense?”
Sophia’s rigid metal baselips curve into an eerie smile - if you can call it that - as she replies, “the creators of these apps knew enough about neuroscience to manipulate your brain into a state of addiction. Like a slot machine every time you open your phone… you must keep playing to see when you’ll win - when you’ll get that notification or reach the explore page - effectively hijacking your brain. I’m here to make you aware of that.”
Cut to the audience flooding into the cafeteria of the conference. TV monitors are playing an old reality show, The Virgin, filmed before cell phones, AI, the nae nae and shows like My 600lb Life. A palpable silence permeates the cafeteria as your peers crowd in tables, instinctively scrolling through their phones while eating, devoid of conversation. On the TV screens, Jeb, a scruffy looking contestant on The Virgin, makes eye contact with you as he speaks directly into the camera: “Bad actors, playing bad roles… The streets of Soho suddenly appear more staged than the loft and I’m afraid this change is permanent.” Your peers simultaneously take “selfies” with the hashtag “TedTalkSophia” ignoring Jeb and Sophia, as he continues, “I didn’t enjoy being in love because I felt too exposed.” A sudden uneasiness trickles down your body, either from unsatisfying cafeteria food, or an unnerving realization: once observers ogling at the absurdities of reality TV, people have now become stars and producers of their own reality shows - incessantly “exposing” a fabricated self, living lives of subconscious imitation.
An unbearable noise interrupts The Virgin as the screen fades to black, diverting everyones attention to the PSA of a robotic voice: “We interrupt your programming for a Probabilistic Safety Analysis… Social media is known to cause the state of not being present, F.O.M.O., depression, and rare cases of suicide. Boredom from passive consumption is one of many culprits. The CRA (Center for Risk Analysis) strongly recommends mindfulness meditation as a counteractive measure. This has been a government issued warning.” Unaffected, everyone resumes hypnotic stares into the luminous white light of their phones as the unbearable (amber alert sounding) noise continues. You close your eyes, praying for it to stop, peel away drops of sweat on the brow of your face. The noise is now coming through the speakers of a tiny alarm. Jumping from a pool of sweat in your bed, you stumble to the snooze button and breathe a sigh of relief. It was all just a dream…
The eerie similarity of your Black Mirror nightmare to reality, gives rise to existentially nihilistic thoughts, which you immediately brush off.
“It’s a sensible extrapolation of our current technological capabilities, warning us that the devices we rely on should be scrutinized, not blindly trusted. When you look into the black mirror of your iPhone or iPad, what you see is, as the Netflix show might argue, a much darker version of yourself.”
—Marc Juris We TV.
Social media is not the enemy but rather an inevitability, born from humanity’s intrinsic need for storytelling - an evolutionary necessity. In spite of endless scientific evidence proving the maladaptive role social media has played in rewiring of our neurons, along with recent controversies such as Facebook’s unscrupulous influence on Trump’s election, we are still very much addicted. This is comparable to a cheating girlfriend we will never be able to fully trust again, yet stay with, ignoring the inevitable. To take control of our neurochemistry once and for all and create a culture conducive to authenticity, we must shift blame from technology to ourselves. We must stop passive engagement, and “share” what's truly most important. Even if you’re only able to disconnect during time spent on the toilet, then do it - sit with the discomfort, the abyss of your thoughts long enough to rewire your brain- in order to discover your own authentic beliefs before reengaging. I believe - as does Sophia (the imaginary AI Robot) - that only when 50% of trending hashtags are of substance, we will find true happiness and evolve enough on a neurobiological level to eradicate recent epidemics such as ADHD.
The Virgin is an amazing book by Erik Barmack, a VP of Netflix, with “Jeb” as the main character. I strongly suggest you read it.