Are Social Media Soma?

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“If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant…” Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World follows a character named John who tries to navigate a world defined by oppressive rules and routines of social behavior, and in which everyone is addicted to a drug, called soma, that lets them feel connected and valued, in stark contrast to their regimented real lives.

John’s eventual descent toward suicide gets sensationalized by onlookers and journalists.

Both Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 (published 17 years later) saw a dystopian future in which individuals were robbed of their freedom, but the mechanism of that theft differed: Where Orwell saw a Soviet-style oligarchy that hid truth and policed behavior, Huxley imagined that nobody would care about the truth, and that they would opt to let entertainment define their actions.

When Huxley revisited these themes in a non-fiction 30 years later, he noted that the world was quickly coming to resemble the fantasy he’d imaged, saying that anyone who opposed tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

All of this was before the Internet and mobile devices put social media into everyone’s hands.

Granted, the worlds of Instagram and Snapchat aren’t as immersive as the drug-induced dreamworld of soma, but the parallels are stunning. People spend many hours “there” every day (though more like two hours, not six), and their exaltation of self-expression is reinforced by feedback from friends and strangers. The slightest aspects of everyone’s lives are as significant as they are equal. We are connected, and we are never alone.

All the while, the real world is changing beyond our ability to perceive it directly.

The folks selling us on spending more time online will make the exact opposite case: Social tools connect us to reality in a direct, unfiltered way that was never before possible.

Only it doesn’t.

It connects us to a virtual world, albeit held in our hands, in which content is shared. Posing for a selfie is just a picture on a piece of hardware; it isn’t something other people can experience until it’s uploaded onto a platform where other pictures exist. Video of a political protest is no different than a silly cat video, insomuch that it’s all content in some shared virtual space.

This virtuality (literally “something that is, but isn’t”) is infinitely empowering. We can say what we want, and watch and listen to what we choose. Everything that has meaning is defined by what we individually decide is meaningful, and we can ignore anything else; in fact, our exposure to content is technically separate from the context of where, how, and by whom it’s uploaded, so our experiences there are defined not by reality, but by what we and others decide is real.

Many companies are racing to bring virtual reality (“VR”) goggles and feedback tools to market, so those experiences will seem indistinguishable from reality.

I wonder how different our politics would be if we weren’t enveloped in such virtual worlds of our own making.

Would it be harder for people to vote against their own interests, or to substitute symbolic acts for actual change?

Would it be easier to separate fact from fiction if we were forced to do so in the shared light of actual sunlight, and not blinded by the glow of our mobile screens?

Maybe Millennials wouldn’t be so tolerant of the gap between their divinely beautiful imagined lives, and the increasingly limited opportunities for their success in the real world?

Perhaps we Boomers would stop declaring our dissatisfaction with things on Facebook (or disliking those we see from others), and work to make things better, like the eldest of us did once upon a time ago?

We didn’t get the world we’ve got because we made it. We’re just too busy with our imagined versions to care.

A brave new world indeed.