I recently read a Smithsonian article about catastrophic mouse experiments in the 1960’s. One researcher’s utopian dream became a decadent nightmare. I realized the same dynamics are currently playing out online, and they’re having the same effects. While I doubt we can stop it, at least we can understand it…
Mouse utopia and the collapse of culture.
After World War II, people became curious about new ways to organize society. Empires and scarcity gave way to globalized mass production. Abundance, they thought, would solve our problems.
Using mice as subjects, researchers studied the effects of abundance on behavior.
What’s Utopia to a Mouse?
The mice were given limitless food and a series of private multi-story rodent dwellings. Predictably, endless food caused exponential population growth, leading to overcrowding and anti-social behavior.
With crowding came pathology.
Esther Inglis-Arkell describes the habitat vividly.
At the peak population, most mice spent every living second in the company of hundreds of other mice. They gathered in the main squares, waiting to be fed and occasionally attacking each other. Few females carried pregnancies to term, and the ones that did seemed to simply forget about their babies. They’d move half their litter away from danger and forget the rest. Sometimes they’d drop and abandon a baby while they were carrying it.
The few secluded spaces housed a population Calhoun called, “the beautiful ones.” Generally guarded by one male, the females — and few males — inside the space didn’t breed or fight or do anything but eat and groom and sleep. When the population started declining the beautiful ones were spared from violence and death, but had completely lost touch with social behaviors, including having sex or caring for their young.
A False Sense of Security
The experiments showed what might happen to humans in a crowded world, tapping into our dread about overpopulation leading to moral decay.
Recent interpretations of Calhoun’s work have sought to comfort us, to little avail. Inglis-Arkell says “the habitats weren’t really overcrowded, but that isolation enabled aggressive mice to stake out territory and isolate the beautiful ones. Instead of a population problem, one could argue that Universe 25 had a fair distribution problem.”
Edmund Ramsden says that unlike rodents, humans can cope with crowding. He clarifies, “Not all of Calhoun’s rats had gone berserk. Those who managed to control space led relatively normal lives.” Sound familiar?
We’re Not So Different, You and I
Whether or not we admit it, there’s a lot in common between Mouse Utopia and human civilization in 2020.
The human advantage over mice isn’t that our behavior is appreciably different (it’s not), but that we have buffers to slow this feedback loop. We have healthcare, banking, police (for now), and a legal system to stall the consequences of overpopulation.
The Internet — an Unbuffered Feedback Loop
While humans use buffers to cope with physical crowding, we have no defense against digital crowding — where the same dynamics play out. In the decades since Mouse Utopia, our culture and personal identities have moved online. We gather on free platforms that profit from our attention. The more Ads change our behavior, the more money Facebook makes.
Nobody wanted to pay for premium culture, so we make do with the free version and its consequences.
Attention is digital food
Platforms are paid to keep us online, so they need our attention. The algorithms learned that outrage works best, so platforms needed more.
As it turns out, the amount of outrage in a population is a function of how polarized they are. So platforms maximized polarization, to get more outrage, to get more attention, to get more Ad money.
Scurrying around our digital habitat, we’re given a limitless attention resource. We tap it by producing outrageous, anti-social content. The online model is “outrage or starve,” and you see it everywhere. Everyone who depends on attention for a living has to play this game. If you don’t get attention online, you disappear. We’re all playing this game — accelerating cultural breakdown just to get attention.
We’re inadvertently running psy-ops against our own countries for internet points.
It’s Just Good Business
Companies are polarizing entire countries for ad revenue, but that’s only half the story. To fully grasp our cultural breakdown, you need one more piece — How ads work, and what they do to us.
A Good Ad Changes Us
A good Ad subtly changes who you are and what you do. They take you, the subject, and relate the product to different parts of your identity, called signifiers. By consuming the product, you’re expressing who you are.
It seems relatively harmless, but there’s a catch. This constant product identification bears a cost. The more “identity accommodations” we make, the more cluttered our identity becomes. Your signifiers all connect in a tight web, producing a unified personality. Excessive product identification causes the signifiers to fly apart, and we no longer know who we really are.
Capitalism Needs Schizophrenia
This is a sort of commercially induced schizophrenia. This dynamic is required for ads to work, but we can only take so much before breaking. Jonah Peretti, the theorist and founder of Buzzfeed, wrote a paper where he describes how capitalism solves the problem of identity dissolution:
“Capitalism needs schizophrenia, but it also needs egos. The contradiction is resolved through the acceleration of the temporal rhythm of late capitalist visual culture. This type of acceleration encourages weak egos that are easily formed, and fade away just as easily. An essentially schizo person can have a quick ego formation, and buy a new wardrobe to compliment his or her new identity.
This identity must be quickly forsaken as styles change, and contradictory media images barrage the individual’s psyche. The person becomes schizo again, prepared for another round of Lacanian identification and catalogue shopping.
Needless to say, such an ego wears out fast, inspiring the consumer to shop around for another one.”
Product-based identity is like an etch-a-sketch — every new ad is a new micro personality. Accelerationists like Peretti think the only way out of this is to speed up the schizophrenia until it all collapses — and we can reboot from the ashes. That’s the real reason why Buzzfeed is one big ad, curated around new product-identity formations.
“Which game of thrones characters are you?”
“This Mean Girls Quiz will give you an oddly specific sexy Halloween costume”
I see this dynamic getting worse in the mid-term. We’ve only had social media for a decade, and the most outrageous themes have already been normalized for young people online — 24/7 propaganda, COVID death tolls, race riots, crowd funded top surgery— you name it. 8-year-olds are seeing it all, and it’s screwing them up.
We’re going to see the creation of cloistered premium intranets among elites, because this funnel of degeneracy is extinctive to high culture.
Like Mouse Utopia before it, the internet began with the purest intentions. Now that we know better, we can’t afford to be naive about the dynamics at play. The mice aren’t nice, and neither are we.
If we’re headed for a full re-boot, we need a way to safeguard our noblest cultural accomplishments. We need a digital renaissance — an aristocracy patronizing high arts, and monasteries acting as cultural seed vaults in case we need a good save file.
See you on the other side..
“Ads are the cave art of the 20th century” — Marshall McLuhan