Social Media is Turning us into Suffering Cyborgs: On the Problem of Scale in a Time of Strangers

Sarah Pessin
Oct 18 · 6 min read
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“Time Portal,” October 2020

It is no secret that in this era of infinite online connections, many of us are feeling lonelier than ever. Separate from COVID (which obviously compounds the problem), this is a problem of social media even in the best of times. Turns out being in touch with tons more people is not only not a solution to human loneliness; it’s a contributor to that loneliness.

One reason for this is that social media makes us all want to be famous: Social media makes us feel lonely, that is, because we want infinite connections, but we only have 38, or 338 — or even 33,800 — followers. We want as many millions of followers as our favorite celebrity has, and social media makes us feel lonely because (in all but the cases of actual superstars) it dashes our hopes for connection-with-millions. We try to get millions; we only get tens or hundreds or even tens of thousands; we leave depressed.

In a great CNET article, Leslie Katz talks about this “loneliness paradox” of social media in which we get lonelier the more time we spend surrounded by millions online. Katz highlights recent research on this topic, including the following insights from Matt and Fernandez:

“Our culture has put upon us these expectations that if we’re going to be successful we need to have a huge network of contacts,” says Susan Matt, a history professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, who specializes in the history of emotions. “That extra set of expectations makes the experience of aloneness even harder. Our grandparents, our great-grandparents, didn’t think they were going to have an average of 338 Facebook friends.”

Matt, along with Luke Fernandez, a computing professor at Weber State University, explore the connection between tech and emotion in their 2019 book Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter. Scouring letters, diaries and memoirs, they found that even though our Facebook-free ancestors felt lonely too, they had more modest expectations about the number of friendships they should have. They also considered loneliness an inescapable part of being human.

Our forebears also weren’t confronted with endless Instagram-perfect vacation photos and posts about kids who seem incapable of anything but cuteness.

Separate from making us crave the millions of followers that most of us can never have, social media is making us more lonely because it is damaging our human capacity for true inter-human connection. By exposing us to strangers (even 38 of them) on a daily basis, social media is slowly and quietly training us (in spite of our best intentions) to equalize “genuine connection” with real friends and “social media connection” with countless strangers.

Like it or not, and at least within the cultural frames that have unfolded to date, our human capacity to feel connected to our closest crew is directly related to a certain human scale: Feeling real inter-human care goes hand-in-hand with being in real inter-human contact with maybe 30ish, or 50ish, or possible even 120ish humans in one’s closest orbit. But in social media, we change both the texture and scale of the connection: We exchange real love with machinic “likes” as we move from being in touch with our “closest 30/50/120” to making ourselves open to countless other humans.

But this doesn’t just rob us of real connection in the moment. It also damages our capacity for real connection overall. Kind of like how porn-addiction can in at least some cases make it impossible for someone to enjoy sex with an actual live human partner.

The texture and the scale of the real human experience of other humans go hand-in-hand. The capacity to feel real inter-human intimacy is not unrelated to lives lived in relation to perhaps 30ish (and at the outermost bounds, perhaps 120ish) close family and friends.

When we infinitize the number of people we connect with daily, we inadvertently but unavoidably weaken our unique human ability to feel infinitely for our family and friends. We trade in infinite inter-human texture and depth for infinite inter-human scale and breadth. In other words, we trade a uniquely human trait for a decidedly AI one.

Humans don’t flourish when regularly called into relation with infinite others. And this, by the way, is true whether those connections are online or in-person.

We have said that humans are most human when they are allowed to live with other humans at a certain finite scale. Whether we’re in touch with our loved ones in person, by email, by phone, or even (dare I say it) via Zoom, we flourish when we are called into relation at a human scale. (Here I might add how important it is to avoid fetishizing the medium as either the hero or villain: With all due respect to McLuhan, while there is some wisdom to “the medium is the message,” no, the medium alone is not the full message; inter-human connection is a complex operation that CAN THRIVE OR FALTER IN ANY MEDIUM — online or in person, by phone or by Zoom, by hand-written letter or by email. I look forward to addressing this in more detail another time).

We have also said that living-with-others at this human scale has a certain felt texture to it — a felt texture, we may say, of intensity, of closeness, and of care: It is a uniquely human capacity for infinite depth with certain others in contrast to AI’s uniquely non-human capacity for infinite breadth with all others.

Where we can describe the “scale” issue as a QUANTITATIVE matter of SPACE, we can describe the “texture” issue as a QUALITATIVE matter of TIME. When humans live at a human scale, they live in what we may call the “Time of Hope.” This opens us to all sorts of inter-human possibilities, such as love and care, pardon and uplift. When we allow social media to redirect us to the infinite expanse of strangers, we allow ourselves to be displaced from the “Time of Hope” to the “Time of Strangers.” In the “Time of Strangers” our most visceral capacity for real hope cannot take root, and as such a wide range of intra- and inter-human gifts are left ungrounded. It is precisely in such a setting that loneliness rules. We are unable to connect in meaningful ways to the new strangers all around us. And (perhaps unexpectedly) this in turn makes us unable to connect in meaningful ways with even the ones in our most intimate inner circle. We are left adrift. We are left in the Time of AI, and that is a deeply NON-HUMAN TIME.

As compared with cyber-culture efforts to overcome human being entirely and replace us with AI (an abysmal anti-human agenda that I oppose for all kinds of other reasons), we can say that social media is in some sense the lesser evil: It aims to retain parts of our humanity while expanding our inter-human reach. It makes us human cyborgs, not post-human AI. But of course, that is why we are suffering: While operating in a “Time of Strangers” works fine for fully non-human AI, it causes despair in humans — including in the “cyborg version” of humans that we are becoming in the context of social media. In habituating ourselves into the rhythms of social media, we are unwittingly blocking our own access to the “The Time of Hope” which is precisely where humans gain their most important access to themselves and to others — including access to deep inter-human connection to the 30/50/120 whom we most love, and even the inter-human capacity for civic responsibility and justice for the many countless others whom we don’t know.

By trapping us in a space not scaled for human flourishing in a time not fit for inter-human hope, social media makes us worse. It makes us suffering cyborgs.

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Sarah Pessin

Written by

@sarahpessin | sarahpessin.com | professor of philosophy, University of Denver

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with government and foreign policy

Sarah Pessin

Written by

@sarahpessin | sarahpessin.com | professor of philosophy, University of Denver

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with government and foreign policy

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