Touch Grass

Touch Grass

By Rob Mullins, Editor

A fundamental question of sociology concerns whether or not advanced technology makes a society better off than the primitive, neo-luddite societies stuck in the halcyon days of yore. Without a doubt, technology that raises the standard of living objectively improves society. Advances in modern medicine are also tantamount to modern miracles, with our fantastic abilities to alleviate pain and make chronic conditions manageable in day-to-day life. I would venture to say it is beyond the realm of rational debate that advances in technology that put us beyond the days where the common cold is a death sentence has made society objectively better. But it is the unfortunate nature of our consumerist, post-industrial society to conflate these modern miracles with the hellscape created by the rise of unnecessary luxuries epitomized by the modern smartphone and social media.

Despite the dishonesty of the corporate media, it can at times inadvertently reveal important dynamics of our current political situation. Various pundits rightfully point out that recent congressional hearings about social media censorship amount to little more than theater, but the widespread sustained interest in media coverage of the hearings speaks to the pressing public concern regarding the massive amounts of power that have been accumulated by individual social media moguls and Big Tech, writ large. Given the corporate media’s ability to silence stories that do not promote the narrative it desires to craft, most egregiously demonstrated by its decades-long protection of pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, one would be justified in asking how much must concern about technology’s influence on our culture be driving our national conversation if even the elitist, corporate “legacy media” is compelled to discuss it?

This concern is not unjustified, either. Revelations of the predatory business practices and app design by social media companies ought to concern everyone who uses them, which is why it is such a stroke of genius for the corporate media to shift the conversation from these practices and instead focus on the “unfair censorship” of “conservative voices” on various platforms. Of course, there is a place for such debate within the context of the ethically ambiguous business practices by platforms while they were on their way to achieving virtual monopoly status. The ambiguity of various platforms’ status as a publisher or a platform is certainly a pressing concern, but small potatoes when juxtaposed with the fact that platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are designed to be addictive, utilizing features like infinite scrolling and “likes” to hijack our dopamine receptors and keep us using their app for increasingly longer periods of time.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, since 2010 the suicide rate among US citizen ages 15-24 has trended upward nearly every year recorded. A spike in suicides across the country makes sense when we all lost our minds over the coronavirus, but these trends began well before the virus reached our shores. I’ve chosen to focus on teenagers, for a very specific purpose. This discounts the possible explanations of dissatisfaction in married life or career path. So why are so many of us killing ourselves? It’s because we’re all isolated, we’re all atomized and lonely, simultaneously bored and overstimulated, and the root cause is social media. While we complain endlessly of censorship, we neglect that the algorithm of the apps in question are designed to keep us dependent on them, endlessly, listlessly scrolling in the vain pursuit of fulfillment. We would do well to realize that fulfillment will not be found on the Instagram Explore page.

If the talking heads that harass us nightly are to be believed, the most pressing concern related to social media use in the country is the possibility of spreading misinformation, which is harmful to our democracy. Because your racist uncle shares a clip of Tucker Carlson ranting about the Great Replacement, our government is fundamentally failing us, income inequality is at an all-time high, and our culture is nonexistent. I think the funniest thing about this explanation is the idea that we’re blaming systemic problems plaguing our country, lack of faith in our free and fair elections for example, and blaming them on the people with the least amount of power to influence it. The genius of that, lest the point be lost on anyone, is the way that this blame for our decadence and decay does not fall on those who have caused it through the pursuit of self-serving policies that have ultimately hollowed out the working class of this country, and sold away our military hegemony. As long as we’re blind to this fact, we’ll keep voting for them, but I digress.

Let us take the “legacy” media at its word, and accept the premise that misinformation spread by social media is harming the foremost institution that keeps this country running, “our democracy.” If Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and TikTok are tearing the fabric of our country, it would make sense that we ought to stop using them. Odd how this simple solution never comes up in the national conversation! It’s also tragic, in a way, since this appears to be the only solution that would actually seriously address the problem.

A fitting comparison to the effects of social media on our brains would be that of an intoxicating substance. One can drink alcohol and not necessarily require the intervention of the Twelve-Step Program, because we can use moderation. But consider now the current opioid crisis. People are dying because they’re addicted to painkillers and medications that are specifically designed to be orders of magnitude stronger and more addictive than anything that can occur in nature. The smartphone here is similar to alcohol, it can be used in moderation. But as hundreds of whistleblowers and leaks have made abundantly clear over the years, the largest social media apps are addictive by design. Predictive algorithms and infinite scrolling, along with content personally suited to a person’s tastes are not necessarily conducive to company’s stated goals of promoting vague platitudes like “connection” and “community.” They create addictions.

So what to do? It may seem discouraging to acknowledge these facts in our current climate, with such a slim chance of reform. But all hope is not lost. Already, some prominent political figures are aware of the threats posed by social media, like Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who released her book Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age earlier this year. This appears to be an issue that could unite the left and right, as typically conservative-leaning free speech advocates were alarmed when former president Donald Trump was banned from a majority of the platforms and left-wing opponents express concern over the corrupt business practices of the companies. There is also an extremely encouraging populist angle to the campaign for these reforms, even from such purportedly milquetoast figures as senator Klobuchar.

But regulation and legislation take a long time. While we wait, there is a simpler solution on the individual scale. It is a simple piece of advice that became a meme last year. When a belligerent in an online discussion gets keyed up over a trivial matter, they will typically be met with a pithy response: touch grass. The phrase has become so popular because of its simple message: get outside! And that’s exactly what we ought to do. Spend time with friends and relatives, take part in activities you enjoy or even take some time to reflect and regroup, it’s certain to be more productive than a few hours spent scrolling TikTok or Instagram. And so, I sign off with this simple admonition: go out, and touch grass.