Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Narcissism in the Digital Age

One of the most notable features of this era is the facility with which people can inhabit a reality that is far narrower than they would have been able to only a few years ago. Sherry Turkle touches on this topic in her books, but I think that she only scratches the surface, noting the change for the worse in the quality of communication and in the reduction in face-to-face social engagement. I continue to think about this, because, in particular, I have noticed an increasing gap between myself and the millennials. This gap is not simply a change in social norms, but a deeper change that includes cognition, resulting in what amounts to the widespread growth of alternate views of reality that are often fundamentally incompatible with each other.

In the public domain in the U.S., this plays out the most conspicuously in politics. With social media and targeted news, an individual can simply go online and find viewpoints that match their own and engage with a group, whether virtual or real, that holds views that are never challenged and are upheld as norms. This phenomenon extends well beyond politics; it also affects personal identity and individual perceptions of the nature of society. Traditional standards regarding the responsibilities of citizenship become eroded when people define themselves as members of a segment of society, real or imagined, rather than as members of society as a whole.

Subtler aspects of the phenomenon show up clearly in the disputes that arise in the sphere of political correctness. In some groups, it appears to be the norm that all people are identical, or at least it is forbidden to bring up any differences between individuals or groups that might in any way suggest that one is better than another. This development is highly problematic, because people are in fact different, and some people are better at some things than other people. In the more open-minded domains, there is willingness to discuss these differences in terms of historical inequality, which often has relevance, but other kinds of differences – particularly those based on genetics – are still taboo. My problem with this scenario is that politically correct people habitually preempt the possibility of the use of critical thinking to gain a better understanding of reality. More than just turning thoughtful conversation into a minefield, political correctness inhibits understanding the world. It is odd that such a restrictive outlook is prominent in colleges and universities, which purport to be centers of learning. Academia thereby becomes, not a beacon of knowledge, but the producer of a narrow worldview that serves as a foil to the equally limited worldview of poorly-educated nativists and racists. The educated class, which consists largely of those who have been raised in privilege, becomes a source of rancor when it dismisses the less-educated while adhering to its own unsupportable beliefs.

Because of the narrow range over which millennials are willing to engage, and because they prefer to see the world in the same image that they've come to see themselves, their outlook is similar to narcissism. When you assign yourself to a poorly-defined social group that may or may not exist, you have to tread lightly when you interact with others. You don't always know which group they may belong to, and it is safest not to engage in any value-laden discussion at all. If you are a smartphone addict, chances are that your best friend is your smartphone, with all the magical properties that you attribute to it. Although this is probably a worldwide problem, the U.S. may be one of the countries with the worst symptoms. It is no surprise that the scientific awareness of the public is weak here relative to that found in other developed nations. In the U.S., scientists are increasingly being marginalized at a time when they are the best-equipped people to solve the major problems facing mankind. As Czeslaw Milosz commented after arriving here in 1946, there was already a mind-numbing lack of critical thinking in public life: the advent of new gadgets that can be used to promote docility should be viewed with trepidation.

Significant generational changes have been ongoing throughout the world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Farmers gradually transitioned to trades and manufacturing, and, more recently, to service jobs. The need for additional education became more critical to employment. Thus, from one generation to the next, there have been changes in the outlooks of families for more than two centuries. The current change may be the most significant of all, yet the discussion of its consequences is almost nonexistent as far as I can tell.

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