A Tale of Two Internets
Our businesses are hyper-connected, while our social lives are hyper-fragmented—both at the hands of the Internet. One acts like its namesake web; the other like a river delta. Here’s why, and what we can do about it.
The Economic Web
The term “World Wide Web” evoked a global network of hyper-connectivity — a web of infinite points of contact and connection. It was a brilliant term, and when it comes to commercial and professional transactions, it operates pretty much as advertised. Vendors and buyers, workers and employers, collaborators of every kind can find one another, and transact through the network, painlessly. The Internet has been a boon to businesses everywhere, and has led to immense successes in the realms of venture-capital-backed startups, the micro-financed poor, crowd-funded makers, and conventional businesses underpinned by clever SEO (Search Engine Optimization) algorithms. The WWW has also been the de facto engine behind the rise of the independent contractor, and the gig economy. They now make up nearly a third of the global workforce, and instead of saddling fledgling businesses with expensive and inflexible infrastructure — leases and employees, as well as experts in administering benefits, HR, operations and finance — they now outsource these to other tiny businesses, to remain nimble. All of these groups now use the World Wide Web for what it was designed to be: a network of connections that can connect and collaborate when needed, moving on just as soon as a project, contract or relationship is no longer of value, or pencils out.
It has become so good, so central to how we conduct our working lives today, that we often don’t even know — or care — where the person, product or service on the other end of the web is located. I recall ordering a bright yellow belt on Amazon a few years back, to match a pair of similarly loud sneakers, and it arrived three days later, bearing a postage mark from Sweden. Sweden. Twenty years ago, I could’ve searched forever and never realized that a tiny shop in Stockholm had just what I needed; and even if I had, they’d have likely had no way of getting it to me.
The World Wide Web is the darling of global commerce.
But there is another side to it — a social one. There, the story is very, very different.
The Social Web
It is now painfully obvious to most of us that the World Wide Web has, ironically, increasingly divided people from one another socially, due to how we interact with it — by which I mean, with one another. We are equally aware that as a communication tool, we use it mostly to issue one-way broadcasts to whomever will listen, like our views on politics, what our children just did, the things we are staring at and our professional accomplishments, for the purposes of being encouraged or applauded. Said another way, we have all become less secure, somehow, and in need of increasing levels of affirmation, in order to feel a baseline self-worth.
The reason we now need so much reassurance is that the Internet has amplified our feelings of loneliness (“Why do I not feel deeply connected to my ‘friends’ in spite of constant contact?”), anxiety (“Not enough people responded to/liked/commented on my posts.”), insecurity (“Everyone else seems to be killing it; why doesn’t my life look as good as theirs does?”) and anger (“I can’t believe people feel/abide/said/did/encouraged fill in the blank!”). I’ve shared a few times that rates of depression, anxiety and stress have skyrocketed in the age of the social web — some 55% in just seven years now. The younger you are, the greater the increase (and the worse the outcome).
The first three of these — loneliness, anxiety and insecurity — are uniquely the product of the user community; that is, we have decided to interact with one another through an ironically non-interactive medium that has turned us all into fishermen, dropping lines and waiting with bated breath to see if someone bites. ‘Bites’, of course, consist of clicks: the popularity contest of likes, loves and huzzahs we are starved for, and which now strongly influence our emotional wellbeing. Worse still, an increasing number of us have opted not to supplement our analog connections with social media, but rather, to replace them with it, by and large. Here, too, the younger you are, the more likely you are to opt for a digital check-in in lieu of seeing one another in person. It makes sense. So-called “digital natives” have interacted this way since they could first hold a smartphone in their tiny hands. According to review42.com, those aged 16–24 spend 3 hours and 1 minute a day on social media, on average; the 25–34 set spend 2h 37m; at 35–44, it’s 2h 4m; at 45–54, it’s 1h 39m; and those 55–64 spend just 1h 13m. That’s roughly a half-hour increment of difference per decade of age.
Unlike our user-generated insecurities, the last outcome — our anger — is the primary product of clever algorithms. That’s because the World Wide Web, through its social platforms, has been designed to feed us more of what we express an interest in, in order to sell us a product or a viewpoint. Economics have conspired to put a high price on our eyeballs, and the clicks they coerce.
Every time we take the bait, we fall into an algorithmic eco-chamber that continues to deepen our pre-existing beliefs. As we do, we begin to confuse our customized feeds for truth, and in the process of buttressing our confirmation biases, we become less tolerant — and often downright antagonistic toward — dissenting views.
The more we do that, the more fervent and fragmented — a dangerous combination — our convictions become. They branch out into ever-smaller subdivisions, taking us farther away from one another, and from our common roots. Once we have sufficiently splintered, it is almost impossible to find our way back to one another, and our tolerance for anything — or anyone — who doesn’t feel at home on our tiny branch, disappears.
A Systemic Social Schism
My theory relates to the idea that we should really distinguish between the World Wide Web’s business operation and its social operation, because their structures are totally different. While the WWW does in fact act like an infinite web of connections in business, socially, it operates largely opposite to that model. The social web is like a river delta. In this case, the source is the common goal we once shared of trying to understand one another, in order to improve communication. On the Internet, the Systemic Social Schism (or SSS) — my term for the WWW’s social mode — fuels the growth of the river outward, into the muck, where it continues to divide us, driving us into ever-smaller, and ever-deeper, channels. Sometimes, these rivulets grow toward one another, allowing us to connect, in a way, for a distance. But we remain largely independent, connected permanently up-river, or momentarily down-river, until the landscape conspires to drive us apart, again. Each of us is somewhere on the outer edge of an infinite set of subdivisions, moving farther apart from both the source and from one another. Like most deltas, the SSS continues to spread outward, increasing both its reach and the distance between its extremities. The only place it — and we — remain truly bonded is at the source, to which we cannot easily return.
Because we are increasingly disconnected, both from one another and from common truths, left primarily to that which our algorithmic overlords choose to spoon-feed us, our sense-making has suffered significantly, and continues to degrade quickly. Because we are increasingly unable to make sense of the world properly, two things are happening: we are losing our ability to navigate, sending us blindly in different directions, downstream; and our emotional insecurities, anxiety, loneliness and anger are all deepening.
Today, in 2020, while the WWW is flourishing, the SSS is dying.
As always, there are choices. We can continue down the path of eroded social cohesion, until our willingness and ability to connect, relate to and accept one another has fragmented beyond repair; or we can attempt to improve things, investing heavily in rebuilding our communication skills, learning things outside of our existing belief systems, increasing our emotional and intellectual flexibility, and recalibrating our priorities about what matters. This will largely necessitate a rethink of social media and the SSS.
Rebuilding the SSS will require us to swim upstream toward where the river branches reconnect, and keep going until we reach the source, once more.
That won’t be easy. The current is powerful; and our strength has diminished. Our appetite for ‘the heavy lift’ is dwindling by the year, as everything caters toward less work, physically and mentally. But we aren’t made for laziness. We also aren’t made for mistrust, confusion and sickness. We built an incredibly complex world with hard work, intellectual power, unbridled curiosity, organizational prowess, wild creativity, generation-bridging patience, and emotional intelligence. It all took boundless energy, sacrifice, collaboration, imaginativeness, tenacity and generosity. And sometimes, there was blood on our hands.
Often, actually. Far too often.
At one point in time, we all drank from the same source. That source was also the social heart of a community — its lifeblood. We have moved so far downstream from there that we’ve forgotten our origins, and forgotten our way back to it. But we have the tools to rediscover it. We always have.
The Paradox of the Two Internets
Still, our social trajectory is one of simultaneous globalization and isolation. Paradoxically, we are more connected and more disconnected than ever. Our businesses are hyper-connected, while our social lives are hyper-fragmented. That’s because our connections are becoming shallower, while our differences are deepening. Because we can no longer even understand one another, we continue to weaken our bonds further. Because we connect only through binary — misleading — yes/no, agree/disagree, like/dislike, good emoji/bad emoji interactions, we build false impressions of one another that hinge on the button we choose to press. We no longer truly know one another, unless we spend the time to connect, in analog, deeply, in person.
The only way I know of repairing the damage is to do the heavy lift that we did when we built the world the first time, which requires us to reverse course, and build bridges across yawning divides.
Automation — robotic or algorithmic — promised to free us from the former tedium of sweat equity. It’s worked. Except that instead of hastening the utopia we imagined it would deliver upon us, freeing us to indulge our inner creativity and caprice, to pursue our intellectual interests and enrich our social bonding, we have squandered the privilege by giving into our inner sloth. We now binge-watch and thumb-type so much, that we spend more time online than not. That’s right: assuming we sleep for eight hours a night, we are awake on average sixteen each day, of which — according to Nielsen — we now spend an average of eleven hours and fifty-four minutes staring at a screen. That’s roughly 75% of our waking hours, plugged in.
I nearly fell off my chair typing that.
So, yes: it’ll be an uphill battle, one that has already begun, whether or not you know it. Some groups are using existing social platforms to incubate alternatives to the ‘subdivide and conquer’ mentality of the SSS, like Facebook’s Game~b Communities, of which I’m a member, to name just one. Tristan Harris’ Center for Humane Technology, MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Jordan Hall’s Civium Project, Harvard Divinity School’s Sacred Design Lab, Jamie Wheal’s Home Grown Humans initiative, and others, are tinkering with new models — mostly behind the scenes — while often sharing their thoughts through Vimeo, YouTube, TED, and even Netflix, to rethink what we’ve wrought and bring infinite values and ethics — and an understanding of what those are, and why they’re important! — back into our social discourse.
The World Wide Web promised to connect us. It did, economically. It has done the opposite, socially, but it retains its full potential to do so. Instead of a river delta, our interactions can also be a web, or a single ocean, full of potential as-yet-untapped connections. The problem, again, is in how we use it. Deepening existing beliefs through algorithmic manipulation drives to an ugly end game of chaos and anarchy — total societal breakdown. To talk without listening conspires to do the same, more quickly than you think. The polarization and violence we are seeing everywhere right now is a direct outcome of media and algorithmic eco-chambers, created in order to capitalize on our twelve daily online hours, and make a buck. The disintegration of the social fabric is making people tons of money. Said another way, the SSS is feeding the WWW.
Or, social disintegration is feeding commerce.
Be aware of this — the distinction between the web and the delta. Find groups online like those I’ve mentioned, and listen in on what they’re discussing. It’s fascinating, and uplifting. Understand that you’re being manipulated, and resist it by listening to dissenting voices. When you ask someone for feedback, ask for real feedback, beyond clicks. Maybe ask better questions, or start more consequential exchanges. Many people do. They’re a pleasure to read, and to participate! Resist the lazy emoji, or the equally lazy disagreement. Start a dialogue. Ask things at least as often as you state them. Most of us mean well, even if we’ve forgotten how to interact. Help one another by providing feedback, with empathy. Call people out on their laziness, or just call them! On that last point, turn the phone off once in a while, especially if you’re younger. It’s difficult, but it’s good for your brain, and your relationships. Nature equipped us for those beautifully, even if we’ve forgotten how to use our equipment. Take a course online or in person on virtue ethics, circling, dialectics, shadow work, resilience training, group flow dynamics, sense-making or improvisation — or all of them. If you don’t know what any of these things is, look it up! It’s right there on Google, and these are amazing tools to help us connect more meaningfully, more deeply, and from strength.
The WWW is right there to help us. We simply need to resist the SSS, and return to our baseline — to the source of our social truths. They got us far, over 330 centuries.
It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with them, upriver.