An Invention Gone Wrong3 min read

I remember when we created this.

This right here. Computers, the internet, social media. I remember when they hit the mainstream in the 80s with “this will(?) be the wave of the future? We hope?”

A device the military was going to use simply for coordination and communication, but now in the hands of students and geeks who were the ostracized ones, the outsiders. We were the ones in media who were the sidekicks and backups and villians. We weren’t square-jawed or athletic and we certainly had a hell of a time finding folks who liked the same things we did.

It used to be that you deal with the folks around you, find connections where you could. Empathy — seeing the pain or the joy you caused another human — was a moderating factor on your interactions.

But in a virtual space… suddenly we found our groups. We found our people and we spread this revelation everywhere. Empathy developed within the group because we’d developed specialized language ( 😛 🙂 😢 ) to substitute for the lack of face-to-face. But outside the group? We’d learned our lessons in school. They didn’t like us; we no longer had to like them.

And now computers flipped the world upside down, because it’s easier to find your people, miles away from you / on the other side of the planet. It’s rewarding to talk with these virtual people and difficult to find empathy for those right in front of you.

If I’m going to go all metaphor, a large chunk of humanity has gone from dense root nodes (tribes) to very tentative rhizomal networks (social media).

And we’re seeing what that’s bringing on: fascism, oppression, the destruction of the middle class, the sociopathic need to succeed at any cost.

It doesn’t have to be the end of us, though. I’m betting we can design a system that takes advantage of the phenomenon. And slot it back into the real world. Like how social media dominates our lives, but there are still conventions (well… pre-pandemic at least).

The good news is that, unlike sociopathy, empathy is like an atrophied muscle. We can practice empathy. There are even drugs to help in the initial stages (like MDMA or THC). Perhaps that, alongside guided therapy, could tip us in favor of empathy.

Imagine if the social media ecosystem was like a river, but we could consistently channel it into local pools. Like… if you wanted to stay online, you had to go to X once a month. And make X accessible and equitable to everyone connected to it.

Or maybe therapy available on tap, both virtual and real-space.

There’s a number of us who are used to designing in games. While not entirely grokking that -all- of human society is basically a big damned game. Yes, societies produce real consequences. But they are set by rules that we generate to deal with the role of the dice.

I’m likely way too optomistic. After all, it -is- easier to sit on a keyboard and write this. But for all those times that I think I’m a ‘keyboard warrior’ 😛 I remember how a ecological initiative in England used social media to propogate local nodes and grow internationally. I watch as a local non-profit uses the same tools. Channelling resources towards the local homeless, while fending off attacks from larger levels of bureacracy (local, state, federal).

We’re in a dangerous time, no doubt. But we changed the world once. Might be “fun” to do it again.

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