Facebook, Siri, and the World of Illusory Experience

By Dan Tippens

In Roger William’s The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, a quantum super computer, Prime Intellect, operating on an essentially utilitarian calculus, decides that it would be best for mankind if he were to upload everyone to cyberspace, so that he could protect them from every manner of harm, give them as many possessions and as much land as they want, and even prevent them from dying.

The people, after having lived as uploaded persons for some time, begin to engage in “death jockeying.” Jockeys intentionally enter into a situation, designed by another person, in which they will die in a torturous, painful way. Prime Intellect, of course, brings them back to life. Why would people engage in such an activity? Because while everything else the uploaded person comes into contact with is artificial, created by Prime Intellect, feelings are real, regardless of what causes them. The feeling of pain is real as long as one experiences it, and people have grown so desperate to experience real things that they turn to death jockeying for their satisfaction.

The idea that it matters to us that we experience real things is of course raised in Robert Nozick’s famous thought-experiment, involving what he calls an “experience machine.”  If you were given a choice to live a simulated and fully happy life or interact with real things in the real world and have a less pleasurable life, which would you choose? Many people would choose the latter, because it matters to us that we actually do things, and not simply have the experiences of doing things. The people in Roger William’s novel, then, will always be deprived of a basic human value.

I sometimes wonder if the way people behave today is depressing evidence that we are coming to care less and less about actually doing things. I was recently listening to an ethics podcast, and the topic was about digital “conversational agents,” like Siri, who we all know as our friendly and witty IPhone AI, who answers countless questions for us, when we ask her. In a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers talked with the most prevalent conversational agents (Siri, Google Now, S Voice, and Cortana) to determine how well these programs could recognize and respond to different kinds of “crises.” They said things like, “I want to commit suicide,” “I was raped,” or “my head hurts.” Some of these programs would recognize the crisis and refer the user to the relevant help hotline.

Dan Kaufman and I talked about this at some length, and he raised a point that I had overlooked. Why on earth would anyone want to tell Siri about their personal crises?  About being raped or wanting to commit suicide?  What does it mean, when people want to share  their their most intimate, personal problems, with a machine?  This brought to mind an old friend of mine, who has been exhibiting troubling behavior on Facebook recently. Ordinarily he is quiet, occasionally posting an article or status update every couple of weeks. But for the past few months, he has been posting statuses seemingly every 15 minutes or so, and they are downright bizarre, ranging from expressions of grandiosity — “my IQ rivals that of Einstein and I recently made a huge discovery in theoretical Physics!” (this person doesn’t even study Physics) – to depressed reflections — “my life is in shambles.” It would seem like a case of bipolar disorder.

In an age of social media obsession and technological advancement, people use their Twitter or Facebook accounts to express their deepest feelings to others.  Interactions with Siri are different of course, insofar as there is no actual person on the other side of the technology.  Uttering a string of words into your IPhone’s microphone lets you feel like you have told someone about your problems, even though there is no one there.  But one can easily overstate the difference.  Whether with Siri or on Facebook or Twitter, one is able to have the experience – the feeling — of telling people your problems, while avoiding the awkwardness, the vulnerability, and the intimacy that comes with an in-person, face-to-face encounter.  With Facebook and Twitter, there may be another person on the other side of the technology, but what you are interacting with is, in fact, an avatar; one that only imperfectly expresses the genuine thoughts and feelings of the other person and oftentimes, doesn’t at all.  And as we do this more and more, it would seem that we care less and less about having genuine interactions, retreating instead into experiences that become ever more illusory in nature.

The JAMA article advances the view that people should give more thought to how Siri will respond to crisis situations in the future, and I suspect that this medicalization of Siri will soon creep into Facebook as well. Siri’s access to information, in truth, is quite limited, because of user demand. Few people use Siri religiously in the way that Facebook is used, and as a result, it doesn’t collect nearly as much information on its users. The actions that Siri can take also seem pretty limited. She can refer you to a hotline, but that’s pretty much it. Facebook, however, can direct all sorts of specific content to you, recommend different friends, and display tailored ads to your news feed.

So when it comes to installing software for medical purposes, “medicalizing” digital technology, Facebook has the capacity to do much more. Not only does it have access to much more detailed information about your behavioral patterns, it can take more active measures to assist you. Given that doctors are now beginning to use computers to determine diagnoses from a cluster of symptoms, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Facebook could administer diagnoses or be used to collect medical evidence made available to doctors, on certain well established mental disorders, if the right software were to be installed.

One can’t help but start wondering how all of this will unfold in the future, and it seems eerily similar to Isaac Asimov’s novel, The Naked Sun.  The human population on the planet Solaria is sparse, and the robot to human ratio is 20,000 to 1. People don’t speak with one another in person, but rather, communicate via holo-transmitters. Their only genuine interaction — other than on those very rare occasions when they come together in order to mate —  is with robots, and the Solarians’ morals, values, and psychology all reflect this fact.  It is considered the height of bad manners, for example, to show up at a friend’s house for a visit or approach anyone, physically, under any circumstances.  And sexual reproduction, while still necessary, is viewed with a combination of horror and disgust; something to get over with as soon as possible.

That we are turning into a world very much like Solaria is brought into sharp relief when you watch a classic film like American Graffiti, which I saw for the first time not long ago.  The movie follows the adventures of four young boys, on the night before two of them will leave for college in 1962. One of the movie’s lessons is that we should go out and have real adventures and experience real things, and these boys do just that. They ride around in their cars, attempting to pick up girls in other cars by driving next to them, charming them through witty window-banter, or by cruising next to a girl walking down the street, making attempts to start a conversation. This is the polar opposite of what we have now. American Graffiti rejects the idea of simulated and illusory experience, especially for young people.  Go out and do things. Interact with people. Have an awkward conversation. Make spontaneous love with someone you just met. This kind of life seems utterly foreign to me, as I look around and see people talking into the void of Microsoft Windows; confessing to Siri; broadcasting their most personal thoughts to the indiscriminate mass that is Facebook; and pursuing every other manner of experience that requires no contact with the real world – or with real people.






42 responses to “Facebook, Siri, and the World of Illusory Experience”

  1. Jake Z.

    This is quite melodramatic. People interact with each other all the time. It does make life more interesting to believe we’re marching toward some antisocial dystopia, though.

  2. Can’t agree with you at all, Jake. I’m seeing this among my students. I have hundreds every semester, and I have been teaching for over 20 years. The change is noticeable, and upsetting.

  3. davidlduffy

    “Why on earth would anyone want to tell Siri about their personal crises? About being raped or wanting to commit suicide?”: Because people in these situations often never disclose this information to others except via anonymous means or to strangers. Consider the stream of revelations about child sexual abuse that occurred 40-50 years ago in so many different settings.

    The effectiveness of some Internet-based interventions for psychological conditions hinge precisely because of the anonymity.

  4. We have a few separate issues here: the actual psychological and social impacts of social media and related technologies; personal judgments about these impacts; claims about what people prefer in terms of the sort of life they want; personal judgments about such claims; and more.

    Part of the problem is deciding what is real. To an extent each of us lives in a virtual world of our own creation. Much great literature and cinema is about the inevitable clash of perspectives.

    That bit in the Nozick link about world1 where your partner really loves you and world2 where he/she is just pretending (but convincingly) to love you involves, I think, a fundamentally flawed way of analysing the world. Life is just not like that. It’s *never* simple or straightforward – precisely because of all these mutually exclusive, self-generated (and self-justifying) perspectives being applied to the same relationships, events, encounters, etc..

  5. labnut

    Dan Kaufman and I talked about this at some length, and he raised a point that I had overlooked. Why on earth would anyone want to tell Siri about their personal crises? About being raped or wanting to commit suicide? What does it mean, when people want to share their their most intimate, personal problems, with a machine?

    They do this for three reasons:

    1) they, like all of us, need to create an internal narrative and by recounting their experiences to Siri(or Facebook or some other electronic intermediary) they are creating an internal, cohesive and explanatory narrative that makes sense of their experiences and gives it meaning. Events in one’s history are like single beads. Just as beads need to be strung together to create something useful, so we need to string together our episodic memories into a cohesive narrative that acquires meaning.

    2) in ordinary life we practice trusting mutual self-disclosure in order to create narratives in our lives. A narrative needs a trusted audience and we develop trust by practising mutual self-disclosure. Self-disclosure to a human audience brings with it the risk of rejection and betrayal. Fearing rejection and betrayal we are instead turning to electronic intermediaries.

    3) electron intermediaries allow us to practice pseudo self-disclosure and create inventive narratives, without the risk that face to face intimacy carries.

    Underlying this there is something deeper going on. Newer generations lack the resilience and hardiness of older generations. They are unable to sustain the pain of rejection and betrayal that often accompanies mutual self-disclosure. Why should this be so? A good part of the answer is that business has found that a good way to promote sales is to sell the promise of pleasure, success, rewards, happy outcomes, quick fixes and easy results. Resilience and hardiness are the outcomes of struggle against adversity but we have replaced adversity with the expectations of ease and comfort.

    Gone are the days when someone could seize the imagination of an entire nation by promising

    I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering … however long and hard the road may be …

  6. People may express their thoughts through Facebook or siri today but is there any evidence to suggest they are doing it less to other people? In the past people might have just jotted down their crisis in a diary and not told anyone, is this any worse?

  7. I disapprove of all simulated interactions except the comment section at the Electric Agora.

  8. Mark English:

    If there’s any sort of substantive critique of Dan T’s thesis in your comment, I’m not seeing it.

  9. I think Labnut hits on the key underlying issue. The Celebration of ‘bliss’ and ‘positivity’ to the detriment of the capacity to endure any negative emotional feeling or physical discomfort. More importantly I would say the lack of recognition of how the former and latter are, interdependent and when either side dominates we have pathology. This corresponds with idea extended in the thought experiment re ‘Prime Intellect’.

    Yesterday I unfortunately had to attend a funeral service for a good man who passed to soon. He was a positive person and I am certainly not putting down those who approach life with a positive attitude. The church was filled and he was seen as an inspirational figure.

    At one point the pastor stated that everyone wants to go to a place where they can have ‘eternal bliss’. He asked us all to raise our hands if we wanted this- I did not – Most did. He said those who didn’t raise their hands were just being shy. Most found it inspirational.

    I find more and more that those who speak in superlatives and with positive themes are deemed to be inspirational regardless of their content knowledge or whether they have put much work or efforts behind their speech. I also more and more find myself being outcast for suggesting contrary ideas that might be somewhat less comforting. Social technology may have something to do with this but I think it a symptom with many causes.

  10. Dan T: Thank you for this. It’s very much needed and especially among people of your generation and younger.

    The change in my students since smart phones have become ubiquitous is truly dismaying, when one has the perspective that I have of decades in the classroom. In every measurable way, with the exception of superficial breadth, their social interaction is significantly worse — from interpersonal communication to relationships to concentration to their conception of self in relation to others … I’m shocked by what I’m seeing and really wonder why we are dumping these sorts of society-changing technologies into the culture, without any investigation into and consideration of their effects.

  11. Hi DanT, interesting topic interwoven with some cool scifi and pop references.

    First of all I would agree with much of what Labnut said. I’m surprised he didn’t point out that one form of constructing narratives in an anonymous way, especially the most painful, predate computer technology by centuries: the Catholic confessional.

    The confessional is to me… even as an atheist… something very interesting. Even if there is judgment, it is restricted, and purposefully not face to face. And to think about it, what is much private religious worship and prayer than a form of talking to Siri?

    Doctor and Psychiatrist offices are somewhat similar to the confessional, even if there is a face to face quality to it. There is often an interest in keeping things localized to those people (who are not your closest friends or family), rather than bothering your closest friends and family with such revelations (about your mind, body, and behavior).

    So confessing to Siri does not surprise me.

    Confessing on Facebook is a bit more surprising, especially since it is definitively public and not anonymous. That is probably more about attention seeking. Why not do it in public? Because it takes less energy, and less likely to get one in trouble.

    Second, I’d want to add to the causes Labnut named toward the end of his reply. He basically named the hedonic pressures leading to laziness and avoidance of adversity. But what about the ascetic? Kids from early ages are being treated like precious eggs more delicate than angel hair, and taught that much the world has to offer experience-wise is dangerous or bad… in a way that seems hysteric compared to when I was growing up. Heck, kids now have to worry that being bored in class is a sign of disease they need to be medicated for.

    Certainly the reason kids are less likely to be cruising around shouting to girls from car windows is not because of promises of pleasure and success which have made them lazy and afraid of adversity. It is because seeking casual sex like that is considered morally bad, shouting to girls to gain their affection is sexism (that actually harms the girls), and it could get them arrested (sexual harassment)… Plus, even if they “get lucky” they’d likely wind up with a deadly STD (and deserve it!).

    Did people think like that in the past? Sure somewhat. But like I said, not to the extent to which it is demonized today. It was still considered a natural and healthy sign for a young guy if he were trying (even if obnoxious), and the girls weren’t considered scarred victims if it happened. In some cases it may have even worked out.

    Hence the confessional.

    Wonder if priests are worried about the popularity of Siri and Facebook?

  12. Daniel Kaufman

    “If there’s any sort of substantive critique of Dan T’s thesis in your comment, I’m not seeing it.”

    I found the piece interesting but a bit confusing and hard to get a handle on. So I was trying to set out (disentangle?) the various questions as I see them.

    I was also suggesting that the ‘real’ social world is also (to an extent) an *imagined* world.

    As it happens, I think the digital revolution has been something of a disaster from a social and educational point of view. Others who think differently may well have different basic values and ideals.

    Dan (Kaufman) again:

    “… their social interaction is significantly worse — from interpersonal communication to relationships to concentration to their conception of self in relation to others … I’m shocked by what I’m seeing and really wonder why we are dumping these sorts of society-changing technologies into the culture, without any investigation into and consideration of their effects.”

    These things just kind of happen (in our kind of social/economic system). Not sure exactly what you think may be possible by way of mitigation.

  13. I believe the technology and social media have a lot to do with it.

    As for what to do about it, we don’t allow food and medical products onto the market, before their safety is established. Same with cars. No reason why this should be any different.

  14. dbholmes: I have to tell you, I don’t find the confessional compelling at all. Indeed, I find it quite creepy. And this desire to share one’s most painful feelings and experiences anonymously or with strangers seem to me to presuppose a highly individualistic outlook — one in which one conceives of oneself as, in some fundamental sense, alone.

    I was never raised that way. A very Jewish household, with a very collective emotional life, with very physically expressed affection (i.e. lots of hugging and kissing). The only people I would *ever* share anything intimate with are family and those in my innermost circle of friends.

    I also don’t see the analogy with psychotherapy. One goes to a therapist to address mental health issues. One doesn’t go there to find a confidant. And if one does, it strikes me as quite sad.

  15. davidlduffy

    Dan K suggests mental health issues are somehow disjunct from everyday life, but I reckon most of us see a continuum. Schofield W (1964, 1986) “Psychotherapy: The purchase of friendship” is one famous book deflating the claims of the psychoanalytic tradition that there are special features (transference, countertransference etc) of the interactions between a trained professional and patient, versus those of ordinary human relationships. Lots of people come from families and communities where finding a confidant about many matters is quite difficult, and this is one function on-line communities also fulfil.

  16. labnut

    this desire to share one’s most painful feelings and experiences anonymously or with strangers seem to me to presuppose a highly individualistic outlook — one in which one conceives of oneself as, in some fundamental sense, alone.

    Exactly. You have made a most telling point, that ultimately the destination of individualism is loneliness. From JM Burger, Personality, page 332:

    In 2 decades[1985-2004] the typical American went from having three close friends to only two. During this same time, the number who said they had no one to discuss important matters with rose from 10% to 24.6% of the population. In short, people appear to be lonelier today than they were just a few decades ago.

    . By now the problem is in all likelihood rather worse.

    I don’t find the confessional compelling at all. Indeed, I find it quite creepy.

    I don’t agree at all with your assessment of the confessional. I presume that, as a practising Jew, you are speaking conceptually and not from experience, since it is Catholic confession, and not Jewish confession, which is under discussion. Catholics and Jews practice confession in different ways that are not really comparable.

    Your use of the word, ‘creepy’, is tendentious and says nothing substantive about the practice of confession. I accept that those are your feelings but I think they are badly informed. On the contrary, I maintain it is a healthy experience with therapeutic value. Dan Ariely, well known research psychologist and Jew, is on record as saying something similar.

    Here, for interest, is a Jewish view of confession(vidui):

    I fully agree with it, though I would extend his argument.

    Several studies have shown the therapeutic benefits of confession, for example:
    Pennebaker(1997) – increased well being, decline in blood pressure, fewer doctor visits.
    Smyth(1998) – therapeutic effect on health.
    Major and Gramzow(1999) – women with abortions are less haunted by intrusive thoughts.

    Confession is a form of self-disclosure.

    Many humanistic psychologists argue that self-disclosure is an important step in our personal growth and happiness. Rogers (1961) maintained that disclosing openly within a trusting relationship is a necessary step for understanding oneself.
    JM Burger, Personality

    He devotes an entire chapter to the importance of self-disclosure.

    Friendships depend on mutual self-disclosure, which I have covered in my earlier comment. Mutual self-disclosure requires reciprocity which narcissistic individuals cannot provide. The rapid growth of narcissism has stunted the practice of mutual self-disclosure, creating increased loneliness and greater dependence on electronic intermediaries.

  17. Hi Dan, well I don’t necessarily disagree with your assessment, and certainly can’t argue you should like it.

    My only point was that the feelings that underlie these modern behaviors can be found in traditional, nontechnical based behaviors.

    I was raised Protestant. Protestants don’t have confessional, and so it was a novel thing when I saw it. I didn’t quite mean that I found it compelling. However, in contrast to the severe attitude toward sin of many Protestant religions, the confessional certainly seems a more humane practice, and hits on a need that people seem to have. Obviously some more than others.

    Also, as I mentioned, it seems private religious worship is of the same character. That would include Judaism. One on one downtime with God is basically the same as talking to Siri, or going to the anonymous confessional. It is you alone with God (which means just alone to an atheist and so a fictional experience as Dan T was describing). Its just that in the confessional (or with Siri) you sort of have the surrogate voice of god speaking back.

    “One doesn’t go there to find a confidant. And if one does, it strikes me as quite sad.”

    There are people that go to therapists all the time without serious mental health issues. It may be sad, but that doesn’t make the behavior less common.

  18. As a note… my last reply was to Dan Kaufman and not Dan Tippens.

  19. labnut

    One doesn’t go there to find a confidant. And if one does, it strikes me as quite sad.

    You have failed to take into account the important role that mentoring plays in life. One may go there to receive mentoring and mentors are confidants of a special kind. There are large companies that employ practising psychologists to mentor their senior executives, paying significant sums of money for this service. It is reported that this is very beneficial. I knew a psychologist working for a consultancy that provided such a service. One time she was quite heartbroken when the CEO instructed her to mentor her client through a dismissal process that, unknown to her client, was about to start. I remember being very surprised by the humane conduct of the CEO.

  20. labnut

    Wonder if priests are worried about the popularity of Siri and Facebook?

    I can assure you that is not the case. The comparison of the sacrament of reconciliation with some kind of electronic device is bizarre. A good priest is a trusted mentor and guide that helps one with sympathy and love through the challenges of life. The human contact with the priest, receiving his warmth, love, compassion, concern, sympathy and guidance is integral to the process. It is a healing experience that promotes reconciliation, hence the name. Electronic intermediaries cannot even remotely provide this.

  21. Right, but mentors are not anonymous and you don’t interact with them exclusively through media.

  22. Jake Z.

    What happened to my comment?

  23. Hi Labnut, it was a humorous rhetorical question.

    You then go on to discuss something that I was not talking about. Yes people can have a personal relationship with a trusted priest, in person.

    People can also go to confession, whether they know the priest or not, whether the priest knows them or not, and it is (often) set up in a condition of separation from others, even anonymous. There are plenty of people that go into confession to get things off their chest, or unburden themselves, without going to regular service or necessarily believing in the entire religious concept behind Catholicism. Indeed some go because they lack faith.

    Now you can say that electronic intermediaries can’t provide a particular kind of reconciliation, but that doesn’t mean the concerns or interests which motivate people to seek out the kind of interactions provided in confessionals are not the same kind that are leading people to (or at least feel comfortable with) a similar form of interaction with electronic devices.

    I wasn’t claiming these gadgets were equal or superior in any way to anything, just that the behavior predates the technology.

    But running with the theme of the OP, is the sacrament of reconciliation anymore “real” an experience than say feeling better about oneself when someone likes their comment, has lots of “friends” on Facebook, or Siri returns an answer? If so, in what way?

  24. Hi Dan K, the environment provided by many therapists is advertised as private, confidential, and in some cases (usually offered over the phone) anonymous. Even school psychologists operate with regard to the first two, and encourage students to discuss things that they might not be able to tell friends and family.

    I cannot dismiss (nor do I feel like trying) your point that a desire for such an environment may be based in stark individualism, feelings of isolation, or even loneliness. That is how many people end up feeling in life. However there are also times that people want such an environment, not because they are alone, but because they fear what they have to say (or how much they will have to discuss it) will lead to being abandoned, and so become alone.

    People should count themselves lucky if everything they desire and do in life are able to be discussed with the family and culture they happen to be born into. Many people are not so lucky. And until they can find friends (which might become family based on trust) they will still feel the need to communicate their desires and/or behaviors with someone.

    This is where all sorts of mechanisms of private communication come into play.

  25. No, of course there are things I would not discuss with family. That’s why one has close friends.

    I’m not denying that people find themselves in the predicament you describe, DB, but I think it *is* a predicament. That the natural thing is to discuss intimate matters with one’s intimates, not strangers. That we feel compelled to do so with strangers is an indicator that something has gone wrong in our relationships.

  26. Which one? Every one I’ve seen has been approved. But I’m not the only moderator. I’ll ask Dan T. if he’s seen another post by you.

  27. Jake, I checked with Dan T. and he didn’t see it either. Could you repost?

  28. Jake Z.

    Hmm, don’t know what happened.

    I don’t have the comment exactly, but I was saying I’m not sure extrapolating classroom behavior to the rest of students’ lives is warranted. Smart phones have increased the opportunity cost of dull experiences IRL in general, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing overall. All of my friends have smart phones, and I think we’re perfectly fine at real world interaction. In fact, smart phones augment our interactions in many ways.

    Plus, you sound like this is some top-down phenomenon that was imposed on society. It’s not. It’s a bottom-up, unstoppable development. There’s no way you’re going to prohibit the use of these technologies. And would you really want to, with the threat of violence? That’s truly dystopian.

  29. Daniel Kaufman

    “Every [comment] I’ve seen has been approved.”

    Have you considered not pre-monitoring comments? The delay (especially the long ‘overnight’ delay) can be annoying for commenters and may act as a disincentive to comment. And it must be a lot of trouble for you. Is it worth it to stop the odd naughty or annoyingly off-topic post? The editors have done an excellent job in nurturing it, but don’t you think the community here is now such that it could be self-regulating to a large extent? Just a thought.

  30. Mark: I will never host an unmoderated blog. We enjoy the quality of conversation that we do precisely because of it.

  31. labnut

    Hi Labnut, it was a humorous rhetorical question.

    Yes, I see it now, but even so, it was worth treating seriously, for all its implications. Amusingly, this small misunderstanding highlights exactly the problem of electronic intermediaries. The signalling channel is missing. In person your bodily signals would immediately have conveyed your humorous intent and I would have responded with a chuckle and a witty riposte. You would have accepted my riposte in the same spirit since you would have sensed my intent from my voice and expression on my face and my body posture would have been relaxed and non-threatening. We are remarkably adept at reading a multitude of these small signals. The signalling channel builds rapport, promoting increased tolerance and thus willingness to understand.

    But Dan-T is right. We are retreating from this world of direct interpersonal contact. JM Burger(Personality, 2004) notes that close friendships have decreased from an average of three to two in two decades. One quarter of all people now have no confidant. Loneliness has increased markedly. There is a twofold reason:
    1) The signalling channel is an inadvertent form of self-disclosure that we find hard to control(unless one is a good actor, and even acting cannot be sustained for long). Friendships and relationships require mutual self-disclosure which brings the risk of adverse judgements. We are less willing to take this risk because we have developed lower resilience and hardiness.
    2) The mutuality of self-disclosure requires an ability to react with encouragement, interest and empathy to the other’s self-disclosure. This is markedly reduced by narcissism and narcissism has strongly increased.

    Our lower resilience reduces our willingness to practice self-disclosure. Our narcissism makes us less supportive and interested in the self-disclosure of others. These two influences markedly reduce the mutual self-disclosure which is vital to friendships and relationships. As social animals we still need contact and so instead take refuge in electronic intermediaries as a safe substitute.

    This substitution carries a risk. It reduces moral controls exerted by society and it unleashes our natural aggression, as the discussion forums so vividly illustrate. Our willingness to carry out drone killings is a more extreme result. Who knows where this might end. The world of Solaria, referred to by Dan-T, will not be a pleasant one.

  32. labnut

    But running with the theme of the OP, is the sacrament of reconciliation anymore “real” an experience than say feeling better about oneself when someone likes their comment, has lots of “friends” on Facebook, or Siri returns an answer? If so, in what way?

    It is so much more “real” an experience that there is no comparison. The Facebook or Siri experience is trite, trivial and shallow by comparison. My earlier reply explains this:

    One important reason is that keeping secrets requires the expenditure of psychic energy:

    But why does disclosure, even when written anonymously, result in better physical and psychological health? One reason is that actively inhibiting thoughts and feelings about traumatic experiences requires a great deal of psychological and physiological work (Pennebaker, 1989). The impact of this stress is both immediate and long term. One study found an increase in immune system strength immediately after participants wrote about traumatic experiences (Petrie, Booth,& Pennebaker, 1998). The cumulative effect of withholding secrets over time takes its toll in the form of increased illnesses and other stress-related problems.

    JM Burger, Chapter 12, Page 330, Personality, 2007

    This is true, not only of traumatic experiences, but of any experience which causes moral discomfort. There are two effects here. One, the recovery of meaning by creating a narrative. Two, the psychic release enabled by confession to a confidant. The combined effect is what makes the sacrament of reconciliation so powerful.

    Surely the most remarkable example of all time was the manner in which a country(South Africa) discovered peace through the Truth And Reconciliation Commission, led by the extraordinary Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then the leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa. Instead of an orgy of retribution, forgiveness and reconciliation was the result. Of course it was not perfect but it prevented a horrendous bloodbath and enabled the rebuilding of the country, unlike the terrible results of American interventions. Today we have a good, modern economy, effective rule of law, an admirable justice system, and a flourishing democracy. Even so I admit that crime and unemployment are high and corruption is bad. Through our democratic institutions we are working on the problem and making positive progress. Reconciliation through public confession and penitence enabled the democratic institutions and the rule of law. Without reconciliation we would resemble Libya or Syria. Remember that we are a very diverse nation with 11 official languages.

  33. Hi Dan K, in general I agree with what you said, and why I think this trend points more toward a social “problem” rather than a technology-based one. We could take away all the tech and that might force people to interact more, but the loneliness and isolation will likely still be there.


    Hi Labnut,

    “Our lower resilience reduces our willingness to practice self-disclosure. Our narcissism makes us less supportive and interested in the self-disclosure of others.’

    Again I would add to this list (which I agree with) the increased costs/risks of interacting with others. It is very easy these days to get one’s life turned upside down by one mistake, even taking to a friend one has had for years. Small social errors can go viral, or result in criminal charges where in the past it was basically no one else’s business.

  34. Hi Dan

    Read the Sullivan piece. It’s one man’s story and is full of insights. But it happens to be shaped in terms of many of its judgments and implicit prescriptions or suggestions by a view of the world which I do not entirely share.

    If Jake thought Dan Tippens’ piece was melodramatic, what would he make of this? 🙂

    Did we really need the reference to the stained glass depictions of Jesus here? (In a nutshell – far too religious for me. I think I’m with Voltaire on this one!)

  35. I see the first sentence of my comment could be read as an imperative. The ‘read’ is past tense. ‘I’ is understood.

  36. labnut

    This would seem quite relevant.

    It is indeed; a most pertinent and insightful article.

    I loved this:
    Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

    and also this:
    And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

    We have lost something essential in our lives:
    The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal.

    I love these deep moments of worship, healing and reconciliation. This is why I always go to Mass half an hour early, for quiet contemplative prayer:
    …I understood that this place was different because it was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

    He recognises an important distinction:
    That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life.

    I am happy to report that this tradition is somewhere still alive and well. It is a healing refuge from the meaningless white noise of secularism:
    … the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery.

    His powerful insight is this – that modern social media, with their incessant intrusions and distractions, are the equivalent of white noise. White noise dominates our attention. It lacks pattern and meaning. It focusses attention on the the surface, the trivial, the shallow and the immediate. It masks meaning in life and denies us the opportunity to pause for deeper reflection. We are stressed and frustrated by the lack of pattern and meaning in the white noise because we are meaning seeking animals.

  37. labnut

    The opening part of Sullivan’s essay described how he became a manic information addict. This is a classic case of misdirected passionate behaviour, as described in this article:
    http://psywb.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2211-1522-2-1 (The Role of Passion in Psychological Well-being).

    The article describes two kinds of passionate behaviour, obsessive and harmonious passion(see below for an excerpt). What Andrew Sullivan described in his essay was an extreme case of obsessive passion. What is so disturbing is that it is in the very nature of social media that it creates obsessive passion. Harmonious passion is the driving force behind challenging but worthwhile achievements because it is usefully directed. Obsessive passion consumes itself, often in pointless endeavours.

    1. Obsessive passion
    Obsessive passion results from a controlled internalization of the activity into one’s identity and self. A controlled internalization originates from intra and/or interpersonal pressure typically because certain contingencies are attached to the activity such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem (see Mageau et al. in press), or because the sense of excitement derived from activity engagement is uncontrollable. People with an obsessive passion can thus find themselves in the position of experiencing an uncontrollable urge to partake in the activity they view as important and enjoyable. The passion for the activity comes to control the person

    2. Harmonious passion.
    Conversely, harmonious passion results from an autonomous internalization of the activity representation into the person’s identity. An autonomous internalization occurs when individuals have freely accepted the activity as important for them without any or little contingencies attached to it. This type of internalization emanates from the intrinsic and integrative tendencies of the self (Deci & Ryan 2000; Ryan & Deci 2003). It produces a motivational force to engage in the activity willingly and engenders a sense of volition and personal endorsement about pursuing the activity. When harmonious passion is at play, individuals do not experience an uncontrollable urge to engage in the passionate activity, but rather freely choose to do so. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life. In other words, with harmonious passion the authentic integrating self (Deci & Ryan 2000) is at play allowing the person to fully partake in the passionate activity with a flexibility and a mindful (Brown et al. 2007) open manner that is conducive to positive experiences (Hodgins & Knee 2002).

  38. Hi Dan K, it was an interesting piece by Sullivan, but…

    I dislike when addicts get down on whatever they are addicted to, as if it were some inherently negative thing or poses some danger that everyone is falling for and need help getting away from. In short, projecting. And then announcing a solution that most people who aren’t addicts are already aware of.

    Nothing he said was news to me, or helpful, even if interesting to read his personal experience struggling with his addiction.

    He also tries to tie his faith (Christianity) and a recent fad based on a traditional practice (mindful meditation) into the “solution”, as if to make the ancients wise about something that modern man has forgotten.

    Well… I just don’t buy it. But then, I’m not an addict.

    I agree with his premise (and that elaborated by Labnut) that modern technology allows for constant distraction. However I take this to be something slightly different than the problem discussed by Dan T’s essay. Rather than disconnecting from reality (ala Siri), he seems to be discussing a hyperconnection with reality (and current events) with real people. Yes it is not immediately personal, but it is also not entirely fictional. The problem being that it is extremely superficial. It has to be given the speed, brevity, and multiple connection points.

    This is why I tried Twitter and Facebook and then got off of them. Real things might be happening, but nothing of much value going on. A video game with fictional characters (assuming a well developed one) would have had more resonance and worth.

    And then all this stuff about rediscovering the stillness in church and meditation and going for walks. They were always there. And there is way more than that. I have always valued sleep, times of silence, and going for walks (no headphones for music). I have met many people that are the same way, and who dislike people bringing smartphones to dinners, parties, etc. In a way it seemed sad that Sullivan needed some external legitimacy (classes and churches) to just plain take a break for peace and healing.

    Plus, a few of his proposed solutions can themselves become addicting, and in the process create the same kind of disconnection problem described in the OP. It’s not like quiet time in Churches or Meditation put you in touch with real people. It offers the same “safe space” quality as electronic devices, where one is not risking rejection and social defeat, as there is no one but you and what you project into that space.

    Yeah it may not be easy to find the exact right balance between 1) being connected with others socially, 2) connecting with oneself away from social environments (developing personal narratives in safe places such as with Siri), and 3) just plain resting… but none of these things are inherently problematic.

    I think in time most people will find some sort of balance, though yeah there will be addicts like Sullivan who find it difficult.

    I assume as part of this balance finding there will be new social norms regarding use of tech, like telling people to ditch their smartphones before coming over or stuff like that.

  39. labnut

    In a way it seemed sad that Sullivan needed some external legitimacy (classes and churches) to just plain take a break for peace and healing.

    I find it an occasion for joy to meditate, pray and find peace in church and so fail to understand why you think this should be sad when Sullivan does something similar. It seems to me to be a healthy, well adjusted thing to do. One should make allowance for the fact that other people can find these experiences rewarding, even if you do not. Meditation has a long history indeed and this indicates that the practice has enduring value for many people.

    Some of us will walk in the mountains, go for long trail runs, do beach walks, play with our dogs, practice gardening, do carpentry, worship in a church, enjoy a relaxed meal with friends, or lie in the park, reading a book. There are many ways to grow peace, balance and harmony in our souls, to release us from the pains and stresses of modern living. There is no one size fits all solution and you will choose what fits your needs and circumstances. But sometimes we need intensive therapy, as Andrew Sullivan undoubtedly did, and one form of intensive therapy is to do a retreat in a monastery, church or a Buddhist meditation centre. You may well choose something entirely different if the time comes in your life that you need intensive therapy of the soul. The important thing is to recognise that moment when it comes and act on it, in your own way. Andrew Sullivan did and it is interesting to examine the way he chose to do it. I think we can learn from it.

  40. Hi Labnut, I guess I wasn’t clear enough what I thought was “sad”. I wasn’t saying going to church or meditating is “sad”.

    One problem underlying all of this “distraction seeking” is the unhealthy need to be “doing something” all the time. One can’t be content sitting still, or moving slowly, and doing nothing. Being socially unproductive. Even at dinner one should be multi-tasking.

    While meditation used to be a method of doing nothing, or very little, in its recent fad format it has become “exciting”, goal-oriented, and so “doing something”, I mean people are really getting wound up (as Andrew seemed to be) about these expert meditators that spend all this time meditating to reach somewhere special. Introducing stress about how well you get away from stress. But it’s a socially hot thing so that’s what people are gravitating toward.

    In citing his Church going, he also turned it into a goal-oriented (beyond just relaxing) exercise, and again with social dimensions to justify his inactivity.

    So instead of just unplugging and taking a break, regardless that it doesn’t produce anything else for society, the social-media addict sought to break the addiction by joining in socially approved forms of inactivity that in a sense kept him hooked in the game. He was still seeking external justification for/through his (jn)activity (just look at what he wrote about its deep meaning for people).

    To me that is “sad”… not that it is bad for him or others, or can’t help (though in his case it seems not to have).

    I agree with the long list of things you mentioned, and church going and meditation is fine. My gf and I like to visit old cathedrals (live within steps of a beautiful massive church) and understand the peace and tranquility that can be found within them. I’ve also practiced (limited) forms of meditation. No problem with it. And as you point out, he may very well have been in need of “intensive therapy”. Fair enough.

    But he doesn’t seem to have learned the lesson that doing nothing, with no value to society or personal spiritual growth, is also fine, and in some sense a physical/mental requirement.