“One day, without transition, Ramon [a Digger Indian] broke into his descriptions of grinding mesquite and preparing acorn soup. ‘In the beginning’, he said ‘God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life … They all dipped in the water, but their cups were different. Our cup is broken now. It has passed away.’
Those things that had given significance to the life of his people, the domestic rituals of eating, the obligations of the economic system, the succession of ceremonials in the village, possession in the bear dance, their standards of right and wrong–these were gone, and with them the shape and meaning of their life.”
— Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture
Cultural Relativism tells us that personal ideologies are inseparable from social context. The colossal wheel of culture shapes us, and growing up in the milieu of American exceptionalism has taught us that, in the immortal words of DJ Khaled: We the best.
However, intolerance should never be tolerated. And our cup is, indeed, fucking broken.
Benedict’s work on culture shaping individuals is as relevant as ever. So are Durkheim’s theories on how social disintegration can lead to a breakdown in the human psyche. And who could forget classic Freduian thanatos — the death drive, our instinct of destruction directed against the external world. ~* A vibe, am I right? *~
We can go over Anthropology’s greatest hits with a fine tooth comb, but how can we connect it to the unique madness we are collectively experiencing. What sort of sociological lens can we view our current shitstorm through?
In the age of information, misinformation abounds. Lies spread quicker than a wet market virus. Social media has fed us confirmation bias in fun sized, easily digestable bites. Harmless enough, shiny enough, inconsequential enough. After all, how much damage can a like button really do?
There is zero safety in numbers, not when it comes to echo chambers. The recommendation algorithms we constantly interact with are designed to convince, and as a result, casual browsing has led to obsessive consumption. If you ask the average person, many of them are proud to talk of their distrust of the media.
And where do you get the news, you ask.
The internet, they say.
They mean Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Instagram. Parler. 8kun. Etc.
Social Engineering has been very profitable for these companies. They’ve created echo chambers and coercive algorithms that influence behavior modification on a massive scale. A thumbs up here, a love button there. Theories become thoughts, conspiracies morph into certainties, lighting strikes quick but information moves quicker in this brave new world. The Last Futurist’s scorching takedown included this horrifying gem that sums it up: “The weaponization of social media is leading to the decline of America.”
While not a uniquely American problem, it is very on-brand for us to be brainwashed. After all, each of our wildly disparate generations have one thing in common — we were all raised on a steady cultural diet of reality manipulation, aka advertising. It’s why almost half of us put our trust in a bankrupt reality show has-been in an ill fitting suit who shits in a gold toilet. And when we willfully consent to our humanity being experimented on just so companies can sell more air fryers and smart TVs, surely we get what we deserve in the end. If it’s free, you’re the product man. In our neo-gilded hyper manic information age, who could predict that our digital freedom is what would cost us the most?
“Digital behavior modification hijacks a user’s dopamine-reward loop system,” writes Michael Spencer. “Putting digital advertising at the center of your business model when social discourse and private data and persuasion-architectures occur on those platforms should be illegal.”
Believing that lizard people and baby eaters are running the world, that child sex rings operate out of suburban basement pizza shops and 5G signals cause covid and Bill Gates is planting microchips in the vaccine — it’s all beside the point. The conspiracies are merely leaves unfurling from insidious roots.
Social media makes confirmation bias as easy as clicking a like button, and this people you like, like that logic has been steadily and insidiously undermining the bedrock of our society for years. It’s easy to point fingers at companies like Twitter and YouTube, but it’s only when the absurdity is validated by those at the top that it feeds the monster. Politicians have a vested interest in utilizing the power of emotion-based tactics since it reinforces the beliefs of their base. And this motivated reasoning is what helps people avoid cognitive dissonance in the first place — that uncomfortable feeling in the back of your mind that at one point used to be a barometer for right and wrong. Black and white. Up and down. But now we’re in the Upside Down. Social media is the carrier of a parasite that feeds on its host, growing bigger and stronger until it pops out, Alien chestburster style, and starts eating everyone in a bloodthirsty rampage.
Conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie, high school shootings, that photo of poor Jackie O in her blood-splattered Chanel suit. This ain’t our first rodeo, and it started off innocently enough. Aliens in Roswell. Kubrick staging the moon landing. Chemtrails streaking the sky. Area 51. Bigfoot. Illuminati. And our crowning jewel of cultural subterfuge: QAnon.
The Qult is thicker than blood, more powerful than love. And now Christmas has been forever tainted by stubborn relatives shouting that lizard people are real in between hostile bites of oreo cheesecake. Like conflict diamonds, PTSD is forever and who knows how many of us carry the silent trauma of having to bear this weight. Of knowing that someone you love is gripped tight by the tentacles of this poisonous ideology. They felt the brush against their leg and went in deeper, until they slipped below the depths. Gone and yet here, replaced by someone you don’t recognize. It’s all so eerily normal, this madness. The walking dead have finally descended, only they’re very much alive and shop at Costco and watch football and hang out in bars and cook lasagna and walk around like regular people living ordinary lives. Invasion of the body snatchers.
At this point, we all know someone veering into Non compos mentis terrority. Some have left reality completely, others teeter on the edge of vague lucidity. Most, I believe, cannot be saved and brought back. At least not for a long time. Deprogramming is nearly impossible when the messages are being relayed constantly through every device imaginable. More importantly, what will they come back to? A reality that still bites.
How much agency can be taken away from someone who willingly indulges in conspiracy theories? Do we blame the cult or the leader? What came first, the substance or the addict? Like all dark and strange things, a delicate interplay between two extremes is at work here. A terrifying dance between the world as we know it and a sinister alternate version of it festering below. Why do certain people choose that dark place?
The problem with conspiracies is that their absurdity has a sort of bizarre logic to it — when there is no basis of reality to stand on, you invariably sink into the quicksand of paranoia. What makes your version of reality superior to mine? The green that you see isn’t the same color that I see. In fact, I think we should call it something else entirely.
That’s the American way, isn’t it? Claim something is yours and call it a different name.
Here’s what I think: people are hurting, lonely, broke, frustrated, and bored. And when real life is too painful to comprehend, we escape. An alternate reality offers comfort in the form of a renewed sense of control. And when people unite together over something they believe in, it can normalize the absurd. People you like, like this.
Forget about love — thoughts just might be the most powerful force in the universe.
Disruption, once the golden word of silicon valley, has now morphed into something more sinister: rather than heralding progress, it now comes with the possibility of disaster. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. A lot of my fellow millennials learned this back in 1993.
Is it too late to reform social media? According to Richard Seymour, author of The Twittering Machine, Regulation will not cure us, and reform won’t save us. If we live in a “horror story, the horror must partly lie in the user.”
It’s up to these massive corporations to regulate their content. Was. But now it’s too late, that ship has sailed. What’s left to do as you watch it drift further out into the horizon, leaving us all behind? Row, row, row your boat as fast as you can to safety.
Wherever that is, whatever it means.