Discover more from Free Thinking Through the Fourth Turning with Sasha Stone
Fear and Loathing in a the Panopticon
It didn’t used to be this way, real life.
Panopticon: From the tower, a guard can see every cell and inmate but the inmates can’t see into the tower. Prisoners will never know whether or not they are being watched.
Even if the internet and social media has been pretty horrible for a while now, we had an escape because we had our lives. We had bars. We had movie theaters. We had Tinder. We had gyms. We had hot yoga. We had ice cream shops on hot summer days. We had hugs. We had pizza on Friday night. We had smiles.
Social media is wrecking humanity. Maybe you still feel comfortable in it. Maybe your brain is still getting high off of it. Maybe it makes you feel really good to be really mean, to say something you would never say to someone face to face. It’s as though none of that even matters anymore. Do our biological selves change if we become accustomed to dehumanizing each other? Does that mean if you’re at a coffee shop and someone next to you is wearing a Trump hat or a Biden shirt you would feel justified screaming at them?
It didn’t start out that way. I got online in 1994. Sucked in by those three words, “You’ve Got Mail.” Did they know along that it was a brain-addictive process? Have I just been a junkie all of this time, getting my fix day in and day out while willfully abandoning the “real” world in favor of the virtual one? It was partly a way of dealing with crippling shyness, and partly a pure expression of narcissism - a way of writing your own version of yourself as you went along. I see that has now become corporatized and we’ve slipped quite easily into the idea that we are two selves - real world and the image we project, the life we project. Looking at the lives of other people, comparing them with your own life is a way to get you to participate in showing off your own best self. If you want the marriage proposal that got a 500 likes on Facebook, well you better get cracking on the real life part so that you can satisfy the virtual part.
Social media is a different animal than what the early internet was. The unexpected side effect is that we are all the watchers and we are all being watched.
When you compose a tweet or a status update or an instagram post you are being watched. We have become way too comfortable with self-censorship because we know the high cost of stepping out of line. To become “uncancellable” as many have, from Sam Harris to Bret Weinstein to Joe Rogan is to be free to say whatever you want and grow an audience outside of the mouth of madness that is social media. But you also have to give up, for the most part, thriving in the mainstream if you have something to sell. You risk friendships, status and worst of all, you might become the center of a public humiliation frenzy. I’ve survived several of them by now and they only hurt if they are right. If the shaming feels authentic. And honestly, even if it isn’t right we have evolved to do everything we can to avoid it.
It isn’t only online, the panopticon. We are being watched potentially everywhere. An army of tattle-tails waiting with their phones ready to catch you doing something that would freak out the internet so the video would “go viral” and then you get all the brain drugs, maybe money if it’s on YouTube. It’s become so routine you sometimes wonder if there is a performance aspect to it - those who don’t wear masks and make spectacles of themselves, or the particularly obnoxious protesters who scream in other people’s faces. Do they want it to go viral? Does that make them also somehow internet famous for a day?
On social, that’s your most powerful weapon, shame. It’s slightly shocking it still exists in our biology but it must, otherwise we would not do it. Now we have a way of shaming someone and then getting hundreds, sometimes thousands of people to pile on. But even just one person favoriting a nasty tweet can sting. I don’t know how anyone can spend a day on Twitter and not come away from it feeling lost and hopeless. You have to either join in on the public shaming or be the one shamed or the one ignored.
My daughter has come of age in a virtual world where she has learned how to hide what she really thinks and believes. If she finds someone in the real world who is “safe” she can talk about things as they really are. She can abandon this strict code of language and conduct on the left that we’ve all somehow gone along with, like an “at ease” soldier speaking freely. But even she sometimes comes away from Twitter feeling lost and hopeless as she watches things she loves interrogated and destroyed for not aligning 100% with the strict doctrine. The Orwellian nightmare of thought-crimes has indeed arrived. The government isn’t Big Brother. WE are Big Brother.
The “resistance” throws around words like Hitler and fascism all of the time but seem to have no clear understanding of who Hitler actually was, what he did and what he wanted. Trump is no Hitler. He could be, maybe, at least in terms of authoritarian rule in his second term. He could be Putin. But Hitler? I’m not seeing how he gets it together to drive his meth-infused army to conquer the entire world and kills six million Jews. He isn’t Hitler but what will he allow on his watch? How bad will it get in trying to ensure “America First” and what kinds of checks and balances will we have in place if he wins re-election? Maybe we win the Senate. But we can’t impeach him now. Not again.
At the same time, all we had to be on the left was not the crazier side and yet we’ve somehow managed to freak out the general population with the bizarre movements that are pushing through to higher institutions. Censorship? On the left. Shutting down of dissent, on the left. Policing art? On the left. All that leaves for Trump is using the military to keep people in line. So far we only saw one instance of that and he backed off pretty quickly. That, my friends, is not what Hitler would have done. Not what even Churchill would have done.
I remember life outside the panopticon. No one was watching the conversation you had at a bar or a coffee shop or in your living room. No one was judging what ticket you bought to what movie. Our imperfections were part of what shaped the decisions we made in life. Our mistakes were our own. Public humiliation wasn’t active engagement. It didn’t fuel the algorithm. It didn’t make people rich while ruining lives. The end result of that was an array of individualism - and if you grew up being that, knowing that forced conformity is a hard pill to swallow.
My dream is to escape it entirely. To just disappear one day, completely vanish from the virtual world taking my massive internet footprint with me. None of it is permanent anyway. The content we put on websites can disappear when the website disappears. There isn’t any permanent archive yet. Maybe someday there will be. Maybe someone smart will capture this moment in time of mass hysteria and group surveillance for future generations as a cautionary tale. Or maybe it will never end. Maybe this is the new normal and your only option is to escape. Too many people are getting rich off of it to do anything about it.
Today is the first day of a long road trip driving my daughter from Los Angeles to New York. We’ll be taking the Southern route. Road trips are the best way to shut off the constant pull of the algorithm. Whatever America is must be out there where life has not yet returned to normal. But that world calls out to me, the one with actual people walking around in it, people with faces you can look in the eye calling upon your deeply evolved nature to decide whether or not you can trust them. Put them in front of a keyboard and all bets are off.