Spoiler Alert: We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. Yet.
Posted by Emily Hayes
In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores the evolutionary path humanity has taken to get where we are today. He acknowledges a cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the scientific revolution as pivotal moments in the evolution of mankind. While daily life has changed markedly for humans through each of those revolutions, humanity has remained constant in its need for community. That need for community is where we so far failed, unfortunately, to successfully leverage the digital world available to us.
As Mary Chayko identifies in Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Technosocial Life, though, “Social life—living in tandem with others, in relationships, in families, in communities—is one of the aspects of people’s lives most profoundly changed when information and communication technology enters the equation.” She also asserts that “The internet and digital media connect people together in ways both mundane and significant. they help bring people into one another’s awareness and allow them to discover commonalities and contact one another.” We should be enjoying a transcendence of our differences, but so far we just seem to be entrenching more deeply in them.
I have to wonder what happened in the few years since Superconnected was published to make those optimistic statements feel like a fairytale. Once upon a time, humanity was gifted the internet and everyone lived happily ever after… Instead, our digital tools and social media spaces seem to be dividing us more than anything else. Is it us? Is it the technology? Is it Obama? I think we can find two possible answers to how we are failing to make the most of this recent revolution in the history of our evolution.
First, Harari informs us that our ability to band together and form communities hinged in large part on the commodification of gossip. Relationships and reputations were built, strengthened, damaged, and rebuilt as individuals shared coded information about the individuals in the group in the form of gossip. This hasn’t changed much in the intervening thousands of years. We seem to have reached critical mass in the last thirty years, however. Harari says, “even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.” When gossip was still being exchanged in the local beauty salon or bar or office space, we could maintain those communities. It still works within families, friend groups, workplaces, and small communities. With the ballooning of our communities into spaces that can accommodate thousands and more, however, our ability to maintain community by leveraging “gossip,” and thus personal relationships, falls apart.
Then there’s another of Harari’s evolutionary truths that states “Imagined orders are … the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.” The lack of leadership in these spaces inhibits the ability of the group to make any real progress beyond simply sharing the common interest that brought them together in the first place. Moderators can block users, delete comments, and write rules of etiquette, but there is no real power in any of those moves. The affected parties can either continue to post or start their own group. In this way, the limitless access to communities does less to open our eyes to more perspectives than it does to provide ample opportunities to reinforce our own.
Given that digital reality is so new in its current forms, it’s not surprising that humanity would need more than thirty years to adapt. Until we do find a way to manage and leverage these spaces for good, expect as much division as there is highlighting of commonalities.
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