The Revolution Will Not Be Livestreamed
- J. Cole , “Photograph”
Before I begin, I would like to make one thing absolutely clear. This piece comes from a place of love, self-reflection, and a desire for personal growth. I recognize the irony of the fact that this likely made its way to your smartphone or tablet screen via social media. As Kendrick Lamar once said, I will not pretend that I am on the outside, looking in, or on the inside, looking out. I am in the center, looking around, searching for the words that can help make sense of an addiction that I believe has taken over many of our lives.
Think back to the last time you had to wait for something in a public space. Think back to the line you stood in while waiting for your morning coffee. Think back to the bench you sat on while waiting for the bus or train. What were you doing while you waited? What were the other people around you doing while they waited?
More likely than not, all of you were probably looking at your phone. No surprise there. Our phones today are more powerful than desktop computers were just five years ago and they fit it in our pockets. There is almost nothing you can’t do on your phone. So in that moment of waiting, in that moment of boredom, it makes sense that you would be on your phone. You could have been reading an online version of a newspaper. Or maybe you were playing a game. Fortnite, perhaps?
When you think about it, reading the news on your phone or playing a game in these settings, on a fundamental level, are not too different from say, reading a printed newspaper or playing solitaire. There have always been ways to overcome boredom in solitude even amongst a group of people.
However, what our phones can do today that is radically different from what a newspaper or card game could do 30 years ago is connect us to billions of other people around the world. Or at least, give us a sense that we are connecting with the rest of the world.
Mark Gonzales facilitated a training that I attended as part of the City of Los Angeles’ EmbraceLA Initiative. At that training, he said something profound. He said that our phones are not actually connection devices. They are just broadcasting devices disguised as a tool of real connection when that is rarely, if ever, the case.
When was the last time you had a meaningful interaction on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat? I mean, really meaningful, like the feeling you get from a really good conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in years over a dinner table. Have you ever gotten that feeling from social media?
I certainly haven’t and that is why it is deeply concerning if, while waiting in line at that coffee shop or at that bus stop, I find myself scrolling through Facebook or Instagram photograph upon photograph, Snapchat story upon story, or Twitter meme upon meme. It is so easy to trick oneself into thinking that “liking,” “commenting,” or “sharing” is actually connecting with someone that you care about when all we are really doing is exchanging a series of broadcasts of ourselves. And these broadcasts collectively reflect something less than real because they reflect only the parts of our lives we want others to know so that we may appear larger than life.
Think about it. What is the true purpose of sharing a selfie of yourself on a mountaintop or with a celebrity? Sharing a photo of a delicious meal? “Checking-in” at a concert? The answer is social validation. We do these things for the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that make us feel good when scores or even hundreds of people click on a digital heart to let us know that they “like” the activities they see us engaged in, so therefore they must “like” us for who we are.
On the surface, “liking” and “sharing” and “commenting” sounds pretty harmless, right? Innocent, even. The problem is, social media has so successfully exploited this vulnerability in human psychology, this need for social validation, that it is, as the now remorseful former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya phrased it, “destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth…eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
Just as scary is the emerging research that suggests that the mere presence of our phones can significantly reduce our ability to focus, and even limit our IQ due to what is being called “continuous partial attention.” That means that even if you have the willpower not to touch, swipe, or tap your phone about 2,617 times a day as one study suggests most of us do, simply having that phone around, simply hearing that buzz and having to use our brain power to resist checking that text or notification may be significantly limiting our brain’s full capacity.
If social media is the 21st century’s Frankenstein, then it is no surprise that many of the brilliant people who created this technology don’t even use the technology themselves or let their kids use the technology at home like many of us do. Steve Jobs didn’t let his children use the iPad at home and Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium bought hundreds of books for his two sons but like Jobs, refused to buy them an iPad. The creators of these technologies aren’t getting “high on their own supply” because they recognize their dangers. Some of these creators, such as the aforementioned Palihapitiya, Sean Parker, and the inventor of the Facebook “like” button himself, Justin Rosenstein, are following the better parts of their conscience and are beginning to speak out against the monster they helped to create.
But no one can truly save us from this monster but ourselves. Each of us, individually, must recognize our phone addictions for what it is and begin to weed it out of our lives just like any other addiction.
If you are my friend on social media, I invite you to connect with me in real life. If we live in the same city, let’s hang out. And if we don’t, let’s talk on the phone and plan for when we can hang out. Let’s leave the days of broadcasting behind us and let’s be intentional about connecting with each other like real humans should.