It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Some called it a modern Renaissance. Others called it a new Gilded Age. There had been no single war with 100 000 or more casualties in decades. Yet, there were more wars being fought than ever before—proxy wars, wars of ideologies, wars on terror, wars of oppression, and wars of misinformation. How did the world get here? Was it doomed to continue its path toward violence, disease, and death? Or was there still hope for change?
A paradoxical Loneliness created by Social Media
Social Media has been one of the most significant trends created by the open Internet. Though I was an early participant and it influenced my entry in the technology field, after coming to Silicon Valley and getting an inside look, I realized the psychological toll it takes on your mind, uninstalled every social media app except Reddit, and never looked back. That was in 2015.
Five years later, conversations around social media and how it has influenced culture are just now gaining steam because of its potential influence on US politics. By giving a platform to every person, it has diluted the average opinion and amplified opinions on the fringes. Before, some crazy white supremacist or an authoritarian government official might read a history book for information about the state of politics. Now, they read social media posts. Furthermore, the algorithms that have been developed for engaging users will reinforce these users’ fringe beliefs. Our innate narcissism is being used by the robots to keep us hooked onto our devices longer.
This is the cycle as it happens on any social media platform. 1) You selectively “like” posts that you agree with. 2) The algorithm, a machine, in an attempt to keep you coming back to the platform, keeps showing you more posts that agree with your view point. 3) This leads to greater engagement on the platform at the cost of ignorance because you are only shown posts that you have been inclined to agree with. You do not know what you do not know. Think about that.
To social media companies, this is no problem at all. Why would they want you to think when you can just mindlessly buy products through their advertising? Free comes at the cost of your attention. Free comes at the cost of your sanity. Free comes at the cost of your creativity and willingness to change.
The Rise of the Uncompromising Idiot
After enough days being caught in the loop above: check media, like posts, find more posts that agree with my view point, write some comments on them, etc. Occasionally, you come across a post that doesn’t agree. You engage. Deep down, you know you’ll regret it but you engage anyways to get a different point of view. After a few messages you realize the discussion isn’t going anywhere because the other person is already set in their point of view and nothing will change their mind.
In response, you become a staunch defender of your own view point. Neither side budges. Out of frustration, you go to a different social media platform and participate in boycotting the first famous person’s message you disagree with. Welcome to cancel culture.
In your mind, you are a perfectly reasonable person because you found many other people on Facebook groups and Twitter channels that agree with you. If so many other people agree with your opinion, you can’t possibly be wrong. Why are there so many uncompromising idiots who don’t see your point of view?!
Nowhere has this behavior been more amplified than during turbulent times. 2020 has been the first global recession in human health and well-being since 2008. Yet the world today seems to be a twisted dystopia compared to before. In 2008, there was a clear person to blame. It was Wall Street. It was bankers and their unbounded greed.
Since the problem was easily identifiable, the people were also more willing to act. The USA elected its first black president by a landslide on the promise of hope and change. Not only was Obama a decent human being and a charismatic leader, the timing of his election was a unified American response against the greed of Wall Street and the careless bankers in the financial industry that had destroyed the livelihoods of billions of people around the world. No other President in modern history embodied so many qualities of the American Dream. The premise that not just all men, but that all people are created equal; by creating a culture of a meritocracy, we can lift the brightest and best among us — regardless of race or economic background — to lead the free world and create a more perfect union.
Yet, it was too good to last. Over the next decade, the American people realized that the institutional, systemic problems within our society cannot be solved by one person. In fact, the real puppeteers are behind the shadows and they come from all directions. With the rise of social media, a new puppeteer entered the picture: the mob.
Keep these uncompromising idiots who make up the mob in mind because this is the first extremity. They make up a small but vocal minority of Internet users.
Social Proof is not Proof — it’s evidence
Social media and its machinery is also designed to show evidence of what is accepted by its users through likes, favorites, shares, and retweets. This evidence leads us to believe that a particular viewpoint is broadly accepted by thousands (or tens of thousands) of people. So it must be true? Not really.
Compared to the population of the world as a whole, a few thousand people is a drop in the bucket. Even 1 million people is less than 0.1% of Internet users. So how do you distinguish between truth and lie? Do you believe your gut and fly by the seat of your pants? Or do you dig deeper? Find a hidden meaning? Rarely does anyone on the Internet (especially on social media) have the time or the inclination to show that the truth is nuanced. There are gray areas, things that are not true 100% of the time but operate according to a rule of thumb — a guesstimate.
This is where the modern education system fails us simply because it was not designed for the Information Age. Separating truth from fiction requires a skill that is not taught to students until college: critical thinking. When writing research papers, the first step a student takes is to research the existing material from credible sources. This first and most important step also happens to be the most difficult because it requires something most of us aren’t used to doing when being constantly bombarded with information — thinking deliberately and objectively.
Aristotle is considered by many to be the father of modern philosophy. Highly respected and revered by people of the ancient world across all religions, he is now known as “The First Teacher” and one of the greatest philosophers because of his influence on Alexander the Great and various branches of ethics, military strategy, public speaking, metaphysics, and religion.
Aristotle laid out three ways that a speaker can persuade his audience and by the same measure, three ways that you can evaluate someone’s message. These three methods are credibility, logic, and emotion: ethos, logos, and pathos.
Ethos is the credibility of the speaker. Unfortunately in the Information Age, people are known to fake their credibility, listing degrees that do not exist and exaggerating their own expertise. While it’s comforting to know that you are listening to an expert, ethos is also about doing what is ethical. Listen to someone who appeals to higher morals, not just someone with an impressive degree. Evaluate the speaker or writer not only by their previous accomplishments but the goodness within their argument because goodness comes before greatness.
Logos is the logical argument made by a speaker or writer. The speaker or writer presents evidence that is connected to the thesis. This evidence can be used to further the argument through inference and conclusions. A reader or listener will evaluate this evidence for consistency and whether it fits the whole of the message that is being conveyed. Highly educated people will often prefer to evaluate a message based on logic and reason. Yet, with the time constraints presented today, most people do not have the time to stop to think and digest the information that they come across.
Pathos is the emotional appeal. Whether positive or negative, a viewer will evaluate a piece of media based on the strength of emotion he or she feels after consuming this media. Whether it’s a sad movie, a funny sketch or a political speech about pride and nationalism. The stronger the emotion, the more persuasive the message. In fact, when used properly and with ill will, pathos will override ethos and logos when delivering a message because it provides the viewer with a new lens to look at the message — a lens of optimism or a lens of rage. This is the most difficult part of crafting a persuasive message but one that polished public speakers are good at.
Which of the above three techniques do you use for evaluating the information you consume? Are you a logical person? Do you trust the opinion of experts? Or do you follow your own emotions and “gut instinct”?
Seekers of Information
Most people form their beliefs by absorbing information through just one of the above methods — ethos, logos, or pathos. A few people use two. Rarely, the occasional super-consumer of information will use all three. Just as the Information Age and social media have led to the rise of the Uncompromising Idiot, they’ve also led to the rise of the Seeker. This Seeker of Information recognizes the value of the smartphone is in the hand of its user. When the entirety of the human condition can be tapped into with just a few fingers, a select few people are bound to be fascinated by it. Not just for the sake of reinforcing their own beliefs, but for the sake of truth because this truth is absolute. It is woven into the fabric of life itself. Sometimes it feels harsh because it has no patience for your opinion. But it is there. Inescapable. It is the Hand of God.
The Seekers make up the other side of the spectrum balancing out the Uncompromising Idiots. These are the knowledge workers that make up the last standing moat of the shrinking middle class. In a world where automation and robots will slowly whittle away at the lower end of blue-collar jobs, the Seekers-to-be use the tools available to them — namely online education, YouTube, skills training, mentors and peer groups — to join the ranks of the knowledge workers. Some choose to go even further.
To become a Seeker is to recognize that the Information Age presents knowledge as an endless quest — that ignorance is not just a trait of the Uncompromising Idiot, but of all of us. The Uncompromising Idiot is not someone outside of us on the Internet, but also within us. So is the Seeker. The greatest adventure of the Information Age, then, is to experience life in its newest and richest forms. To allow for the feeling of emotion (pathos), to allow for being corrected about what is right and wrong (ethos) and to look hard within oneself for the truth of all life and your life (logos). This human condition is inescapable and has been here since the dawn of ancient civilizations. That is the most pressing quest of the Information Age — the discovery of humanity.