In 1967 Marshall McLuhan, forever remembered for the expression, “The medium is the message,” wrote that we live in a complex system of information, physically, physiologically, nervously, humanly. He wrote at that time that there had never been so much information. He referred to this increase in information as “information fallout.” He described masses of information that one could barely absorb. He was concerned that we were losing a sense of unity with all these bits of information and this could lead to something worse than chaos!
What would he say today?
Think about that. A time before iPads and tablets, iPods, cell phones that are really computers, real-time video and audio postings, often out of context, cars with computer touch screens that also talk, televisions and radios with hundreds of stations competing for our attention, he had already written about information overload.
He wrote the telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence. A give and take.
McLuhan also warned us about the need to pay attention to changes brought about by technology;the good and the bad: extensions and amputations. He wrote the telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence. A give and take.
I think we can all agree that social media is an equalizing force. Information is available to all, at the same time, with a click. And that information is spread in a nanosecond around the world. We have instant messaging, tweeting, tumblr, instagram and, and, and…One thing is certain: this technology extends speed but amputates truth. Because speed is the priority and brevity a close second. And those two requirements amputate fact-finding and critical thinking. There is no time to think when instant everything is demanded. Is the attraction of instant and/or anonymous responses preventing our need to edit and instead allowing our inner bullies to be set free? Are we sharing and spreading false news, fake news, because we do not take the time to verify the information before we “like,” share or RT?
I think it safe to say that social media was also the beginning of an amputation in person to person interaction which allows the brain to pick up the minutiae of signals that enable us to “read” others.
I think it safe to say that social media was also the beginning of an amputation in person to person interaction which allows the brain to pick up the minutiae of signals that enable us to “read” others. That feeling of unease, hair standing on end on our arms or at the back of the neck. A sensation that something is wrong even if we can’t put our finger on it. That is our survival instinct kicking in. If we continue on a path where we share from behind a screen, how will that affect the ability of our instinctual brain, living in the amygdala, to protect us? We do our society a disservice if we only embrace the extensions and refuse to look at the amputations.
One of the most frightening examples of this “amputation” took place in Massachusetts.
Three years ago, Michelle Carter, then 17 encouraged her “boyfriend” Conrad Roy III, then18, to kill himself. Via cell phone and texting.
They had met in 2011. I place boyfriend in quotes because this friendship was mostly via Facebook with a few person to person meetings. He had shared his darkness with her, his desire to die, and rather than reaching out to others to save him she egged him on; after he had apparently changed his mind. He used a gas-powered water pump to fill the cab of his pickup with of carbon monoxide. His body was found in a Kmart parking lot several miles outside Boston.
Weeks before Roy committed suicide, he had texted Carter, telling her, “we should be like Romeo and Juliet at the end.”
“F‑‑‑ NO! WE ARE NOT DYING,” she responded.
Days before his death, Carter urged him to get help. “But the mental hospital would help you. I know you don’t think it would but I’m telling you, if you give them a chance, they can save your life,” she wrote. “Part of me wants you to try something and fail just so you can go get help.”
In one text, she implied that he would be better off dead: “You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die.”
But eventually, Carter’s tone appeared to change.
On July 12, 2014, a day before Roy was found dead, Carter wrote: “So I guess you aren’t gonna do it then, all that for nothing. … I’m just confused like you were so ready and determined.”
“I am gonna eventually,” Roy responded. “I really don’t know what I’m waiting for … but I have everything lined up.”
“No, you’re not, Conrad. Last night was it. You keep pushing it off and you say you’ll do it but u never do. Its always gonna be that way if u don’t take action,”
“You’re just making it harder on yourself by pushing it off, you just have to do it.”
“If u don’t do it now you’re never gonna do it,” she added.
CARTER: “Do u wanna do it now?”
ROY: “Is it too late?”
ROY: “Idkk it’s already light outside”
ROY: “I’m gonna go back to sleep, love you I’ll text you tomorrow”
CARTER: “No? Its probably the best time now because everyone’s sleeping. Just go somewhere in your truck. And no one’s really out right now because it’s an awkward time”
CARTER: “If u don’t do it now you’re never gonna do it”
CARTER: “And u can say you’ll do it tomorrow but you probably won’t”
At one point Rot texted his girlfriend about his fear about taking his own life and leaving his family. He got out of the truck cab which was filling up with carbon monoxide.
Her response: “Get back in.”
Roy’s body was found by police the morning of July 13.
Shortly after Roy died, Carter told a friend that she was talking to him on the phone when he killed himself.
“I helped ease him into it and told him it was okay … I could’ve easily stopped him or called the police but I didn’t,” she texted her friend.
Could she have done this if she had been beside him;looking at him?
Has the anonymity of social media in general taken away our ability to empathize and show compassion? For all the good social media was meant to achieve by extension, it seems to have amputated the connection between the prefrontal cortex of our brain, where our moral compass lives, from the amygdala, our reptilian brain that is all about survival and has no editing whatsoever.
Social media, by encouraging anonymous communication, bit by bit fractures civility, the rock upon which a healthy society stands.
In the long history of human development, civility is nascent. The past century has shown us the ease with which the foundation of civility is breached; it is still a tenuous veneer. Social media, by encouraging anonymous communication, bit by bit fractures civility, the rock upon which a healthy society stands. A society without civil constraints falls into decay. For all the good social media was meant to achieve by extension, the anonymity is unintentionally teaching us, consciously and unconsciously, to be unfeeling, uncaring, and insensitive. We do that at the expense of the health of our children and the health of our community. Continuous impersonal communication prevents the development of civilized, emotionally well-developed, compassionate citizens capable of rational, respectful dialogue. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. But we must find ways to teach civility, again, or we all lose.