We’re all a mixture of good and bad impulses.
That’s not new. Alexander Pope observed in 1734:
“Virtuous and vicious every man must be,
Few in the extreme, but all in the degree,
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;
And even the best, by fits, what they despise.”
But something else is new, and it’s uniquely harmful: Online sites use powerful technology to encourage our worst impulses.
According to Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee in his book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe:
“Fear and anger [make users] consume and share more content. Dispassionate users have relatively little value on Facebook … The algorithms choose posts calculated to press emotional buttons because scaring users or pissing them off increases time on the site.”
Something has to change. No society can survive 24/7 incitement of its people to hate and fear each other.
Most likely, we’ll end up with China-style government regulation of the internet. No anonymity. Strict monitoring of what we can see and say. That would be bad, but it might be the least-bad alternative we’ve got.
Even so, we can’t just blame online sites and then wash our hands of the problem.
The sites can manipulate us because we let them. We can get emotional satisfaction from hating, fearing, and despising other people.
Are we unsure of our own worth? Feeling ignored? Angry at life’s frustrations? Ashamed of something we did?
Then whoever they are, those people are worse. We can affirm ourselves by hating others:
“We grow tired of every thing but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects … The wild beast resumes its sway within us, and utters a cry of joy, at being restored once more to freedom and lawless unrestrained impulses.”
It’s the crack cocaine of self-justification. And it wildly distorts our perception of reality. The people who we hate become symbols of everything we dislike about ourselves and our own lives.
But human nature also enables us to recognize the problem and try to minimize it. Here are three tips:
First, take time away from the computer
Most of your life should be offline. Unless you have actual work to do, turn off the computer every evening and leave it off. Set aside one day a week as a “no computers” day.
Second, limit your time online
Internet addiction has become a serious social and psychological problem. Apps such as Cold Turkey help you limit online time so that you don’t waste your life staring at a screen. Cold Turkey is for Windows and Mac; many other apps do the same thing for phones and tablets. (Note: This blog gets no compensation from Cold Turkey.)
Finally, keep things in perspective
Did some politician or celebrity say something you don’t like? Then think about what it really means for your life: nothing. They said something outrageous to get attention. They got it. Meanwhile, you’ve got work in the morning and a family to feed. Let the publicity seekers play their silly games. Keep things in perspective, keep your sanity, and live your life.
Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”