In a study written in 1956 titled “The Nacirema”, anthropologist Horace Miner talks about a day in the life of an American tribe. Below, you can see one fragment of his study:
“Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique. The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of powerful influences of ritual and ceremony.“
While this may seem like a serious depicture of a Native American tribe, the text is all about the American society, hence its name: Nacirema, which is American read the other way around. The text was originally meant to be a criticism towards the non-interest of anthropologists in the American society, but became something much more than that. By creating an “outsider” environment for the reader, Miner takes us outside of what we are in order to better analyze how we behave. He allows us to see the superficiality and emptiness that most of our daily rituals contain: our cult to the image and the physical appearance.
Taking us 60 years forward, another “study”, which lately has been receiving a lot of attention of the media, depicts a high-developed society, in Sci-Fi like scenarios. Creating the same “outsider” environment, the TV Series Black Mirror, shows the bad consequences of social media at its worst. Internet trolls, people who live in their recorded memories, robot bees that can kill you, and space ships (just kidding): so basically, everything that any Sci-Fi fan like me loves about a good sci-fi history. But what is there more to take from this TV Series? What can we learn from it?
Much like Miner, Charlie Brooker, who directs Black Mirror, criticizes society by putting all society’s bad characteristics in steroids in his stories. And impressively, or not, both studies overlap multiple times. Miner’s study is so contemporary that it could be a part of one of Black Mirror’s episodes. The main trait criticized by both authors is the increase in our lack of empathy. While Miner talks about how in the Nacirema society, mirrors are seen as an important piece in every household, and represent the ultimate importance given to the image, Brooker shows in a diverse number of occasions throughout the series how image, and not real feelings, is important for this high-developed society. In a revisited version of the Nacirema, their thirst for war, even though most of the times with no reason whatsoever is also highlighted :“There seems to be no practical goal for the organized battles of the Nacirema. The crowds of screaming attendees of the strops battles clearly demonstrate the strong undercurrent of sadism in the cultural makeup of this people.” However, I think Miner may have forgotten to take into consideration the American love for delivering Freedom to other countries
Again, the same trait is characterized in Black Mirror, with online hate being the motive for actual killings in one of the episodes, even though the motives for the hate brinks the nonsense, scarily representing what we see in social media nowadays.
So how could a study from 1956 have so many similarities with a novel from the 21st century?
The explanation lies in what each of the authors main goal is: Miner wanted to show the worst of society, and Brooker shows what’s worst about social media. The conclusion is as easy as 1+1=2: social media accentuate what’s worst about social dynamics.
What could be one of the best psychological names I have ever seen in my life, the “Nasty Effect”, recounts about the consequences of hatred comments online. In their research, Ashley A. Anderson, Dominique Brossard, Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, Peter Ladwig, gave a nanotechnology text for random people to read. Sometimes some hatred comments were shown below the article, and sometimes they were omitted. The researchers (sorry doctors but you are too many to quote) discovered that when the bad comments were displayed, the subjects of the study tended to be more polarized. Even if they didn’t understand what the text was about, or had doubts about their understanding, the hostile comments made them choose a side. And this is what worries me the most.
Of course, we cannot crucify social media, saying that it made humanity lose all its empathy. Multiple cases show how social media helps us to actually relate with situations we might never even know if it wasn’t for technology. Take as an example the terrible airplane crash that happened last week with the Brazilian football team Chapecoense. Literally, the whole football world was mourning for them. A situation which most likely wouldn’t have happened in the same scale without the internet. Political outbursts, like the Arab Spring, which also were only possible because of internet are as much as an example of good use of internet.
Unfortunately, even though we have some times of empathy shown in internet relations, it consists of the minority of the cases. Social media not only accentuates what’s worst about society, but it also potentiates it. This can be seen in any online forum: how people crucify the other for a simple disagreement, or disseminate wrong information or use videos/audios as the ultimate source of knowledge. There are so many studies, articles and educational material about how bad this type of use of internet is to our society, that it is beyond the comprehension of this article. What I can say is that these articles not necessarily talk about internet or specifically internet troll, but they explain why our behavior takes place like that in a Wild West like scenario that internet is.
To take one of the points mentioned above, and to finally put into use my philosophy classes in high school, let’s take as an example the fact that nowadays people believe every WhatsApp audio, YouTube video and tweet they see and hear. In one of the stories used to explain his theory, Plato (oh yeah I’m definitely going for that) talks about men who are leaving inside a cave and since they are chained to a rock,they can only see the shadow of whoever is passing in front of the cave. Their world and their truth is exactly what they see, the shadows. One of them is able to break free, and upon seeing the outside world he gets amazed with the real world. Excited about telling his friends about what the real world looks like, he comes back to the cave and starts talking about everything he saw. His friends, believing blindly(see the irony?) in the shadow world they lived their whole lives, they kill his friend, saying that he went crazy. Funny how this is similar to internet debates over politics and economics right?
In the end, what determines how internet is used is who is behind that monitor, which is me, you and everyone else in the world. The lack of empathy, the shallow discussions and the political discussions which we see every day on Facebook are just the beginning of what could be a Black Mirror future. Regulation won’t take us anywhere, cause all things considered, as the prohibition of alcohol in the US in 1920 and the censorship my country, Brazil, had in the dictatorship, punishment is not educational. What would take us in a different path, as usual and almost too repetitive, is education. Empathy is taught, not given, and if we want to see bad use of social media to stop, we have to be the first ones to do it. Especially, millennials. We were born in this scenario, and we are not only its main composition but also its future.
In summary, as the poet used to say: “All we need is love, and a beer”.