Anti-social media risks making kids of us all

We all need to choose our digital language with much greater care, says Jonathan Staines

Once upon a time, the internet was just a mysterious thing that existed only in science fiction films like War Games…

The essential infrastructure of the internet has been around since the 1960s, but for decades it remained the sole preserve of the North American military machine. And, like many technological inventions before and since, it’s the result of war, albeit a cold one. 

One thing the internet wasn’t was a toy. It was an instrument of North American might and the desire for power, control and domination that seems to afflict the absolute dregs of our politicians and leaders. 

But technology can be powerful, sexy and exciting can’t it? At least it was to me as a child of the 1970s and 80s, when everything electronic was somehow magical and seemed to have teleported directly from the future. My mind was somewhat blown by the otherworldly sounds of synthesizers when I first heard them. I’m sure I’m not alone.  

I simply couldn’t fathom how these weird sounds were being made. When an adult explained what this new, exotic word meant, I was infatuated by both the sounds and the word itself. How could electricity be turned into pops and squelches and choirs and orchestras? How could people play these machines so quickly and perfectly? Until then, ‘music’ was my parents’ old Buddy Holly records played on an enormous walnut cabinet record player or someone playing a trumpet. Tomorrow’s World and Top Of The Pops became my weekly Nirvana on a Thursday evening. 

Arthur C. Clarke presciently observed in his Three Laws: “Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it.”

Now many of us in the so-called developed world have incredible computing power in our pockets and the ability to find and connect to things and people in seconds. Our memories, our music, our answers are all there, quite literally, at our fingertips. That’s why it feels like such a catastrophe when we lose our mobile phone. “But it’s my life!” is what you’ll hear people say and what many of us often think. Of course, it isn’t.  

From Mary Shelley to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Jaron Lanier, many wise men and women have written about the duality of technological ‘progress’. So, is the most ubiquitous manifestation of the internet’s evolution, ‘social’ media, the monster that is wreaking havoc on our relationships, our lives, our communities, even our nations? Is there too much communicative power in the hands and minds of ‘ordinary people’ or those with an overload of id and ego? 

Don’t get me wrong. Technology is still magical to me. Its many practical and (in the age of Covid-19) somewhat essential uses have been invaluable during recent privations and the removal of many of our heretofore taken-for-granted freedoms. 

What concerns me most, is the infantilisation that social media nurtures. Freud identified the ‘inner child’ and, of course, we all have one. That is a healthy thing. What isn’t healthy is the narcissism, selfishness, posturing and bullying that this personal broadcast medium has enabled. The recent Handforth Parish Council debacle has only served to show us how technology really can bring out the petulant, power-hungry, emotionally irregulated child in us all. Jackie Weaver has shown us the raw power of calm and of Quiet – the brilliantly insightful book by Susan Cain

The ludic nature of the online age was always there. Steve Jobs knew this. The founders of Google knew this. Primary colours and a name that sounds like something a toddler would say appeal to our desire for simplicity and playfulness. And what are the names of the technologies that have now become part of the fabric of our lives? Zoom, Zwift, Apple, Deliveroo, Wee Wee. Okay, I made that last one up, but these are child-like words. 

Social media (and perhaps we can include email in that) is, what sociolinguists call ‘channel-limited’ communication. We are alienated from the human being with whom we are communicating. Essential subconscious qualia are removed – vocal tone and inflection, gesture, smell (yes), immediate ‘receipts’ (another sociolinguistic term). It’s quasi-communication. 

What this does is give us the sense that we can say and do whatever we like and it simply won’t have the same impact that a ‘real’ conversation would. We are ‘protected’ by an invisible shield. See? Magic. 

That’s why we feel able to really let go. “Don’t be stupid!”; “Shut up! I want to speak!”; “You’re rubbish!” “You smell!”; “I’m in charge now because you’re stupid!”. Much online behaviour is analogous to the psychology of children in the playground. I’m looking at you, some of the men from Handforth and the vile cretins who abused, bullied and insulted Martin Lewis recently.

Heaven knows, I’ve been guilty of it – I hope not to a sociopathic degree, but, in the past, I have certainly alienated friends and said and done things online I regret by feeling emboldened by the ‘protection’ a keyboard and a screen affords. Perhaps we all need to choose our language and our digital ‘body language’ with much, much greater care. Otherwise, we risk it leaking back into our ‘real’ lives. 

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Jonathan Staines

Jonathan is a London-based brand consultant, with a degree in English and Linguistics. He now works in the field of brand marketing and has worked for Orange and EE. His love of language and writing has led him to name numerous businesses and brands over the years, including London’s Ampersand Hotel. Passionate about all forms of music, Jonathan has also written for a number of music books and magazines, including the Virgin Encyclopaedia Of Popular Music and its genre-based spin-offs. When not working, Jonathan indulges in his love of vinyl, riding his bike and spending time with his daughter.

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