A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Here at the shallow end of the 21st century, social evolution has stopped. Having fallen short of Marshall McLuhan’s big idea of a Global Village (a long story for another time) we’ve unconsciously abandoned it, and now we’re reverting back to the comforts of our parochial tribal past. This sounds preposterous (especially at a time when a guy in Indonesia can watch a YouTube girl in Belgium burp the alphabet in real time) but it’s absolutely true, and I can prove it. First, the quick and dirty history lesson.
About five minutes after our ancestors dropped out of the trees, they made an interesting discovery. Individually, humans are at the bottom of the food chain. As animals go, we aren’t quiet enough, fast enough or strong enough to be anything more than dinner. However, taken together, with these big brains of ours, we are the ultimate predator, capable of killing and eating everything in our path. So, it made sense for humans to hang out in groups. Originally these were 4 or 5 extended families who all knew each other and shared a common idea: let’s not get eaten, and let’s eat. These early tribes, separated from each other by distance and geography, were naturally suspicious and even hostile to anybody outside the group. As in: “This is my food chain. Get your own!”
Now, throw in half a million years of social evolution — agriculture, industry, art, religion, politics, etc. — and you end up here in 2017. Our food chain stretches across the planet, and we don’t give a damn about distance and geography.
In our time, a billion people watched Pippa Middleton’s fine behind waltz into Westminster Abbey when her sister Kate married little Billy Windsor. A year later, a chubby Korean pop star turned a silly dance called Gangham Style into a planetary phenom. Half the world watches the Olympics, and more than that watch the World Cup. Local disasters like hurricane Irma are heard around the world, and very few people on this planet don’t recognize Trump or Putin or Adele or Taylor Swift. These are the shared ideas of an Internet-driven, One Click Universe.
However, the Internet also has an unexpected consequence — Social Media. Social Media allows us to retreat behind our screens, surround ourselves with people who have similar ideas, and isolate ourselves from the people who don’t. Sound familiar? Take a look at your Facebook account. I’ll bet (give or take some petty disagreements) everybody there basically shares your fundamental values. This is your tribe (E-tribe?) and they’re only doing what tribes are supposed to do — keep the group cohesive and strong. Instagram and Snapchat work the same way. So do Tumblr, Pinterest and even the mighty Twitter. Objectively, Twitter’s attacks on strangers are nothing more than a Cybertribe being very, very hostile to an outsider who doesn’t share their point of view.
Our Internet world may let us look far beyond the horizon to occasionally sneak a peek at Pippa’s bum or to cheer Götze’s World Cup winning goal, but on a daily basis, we’re using it to check Facebook (or Twitter etc.) ’cause that’s where our friends are. And our friends, by definition, share our values and echo what we already know to be true. The problem is that, as we spend more and more time in Cyberspace, we’re spending more and more time in the comfort and safety of our tribe. Unfortunately, this means we have less and less time for ideas and attitudes we don’t agree with — and so they’re becoming more and more foreign to us. As are the people who expound them. Thus, the sophisticated ideal that there’s a universal core to human existence is slowly seeping away, and it’s being replaced by the more immediate and primitive “them and us” mentality. Our ancestors gathered together in tribes for safety and as the nuances and complexities of our world threaten us we are doing the same.