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Be there, wherever you are

By Christian N. Kraus


It should come as no great surprise to anyone who regularly reads my columns that I am not a fan of social media.

Actually, that’s being far too nice.

What I really think is that one day, back around 2007, down in some dark, dank, and too-cold conference room in Pandemonium, Lucifer, Beelzebub, and the rest of the assorted crew of under-devils were all sitting around brainstorming ways to get human kind to engage in greater self-flagellation.

One particularly evil joker brought up increasing the number of “reality TV” shows, and pitched one that follows an inexplicably wealthy California family around for no apparent reason and another that follows around a snotty child pageant “star” and her motley entourage, presumably just to see what awful thing will happen next.

Another devil, with a penchant for the ironic, suggested that more marketing energy be directed towards increasing sales of plastic Easter basket “grass.” (That stuff is absolutely hellish…you know you’re still finding “strands” of it in the couch on July 4th)

A third recommended that someone needed to go back to whispering in Kanye West’s ear at night that it would be a great idea for him to run for President.

And then, from the far end of the conference table, pointy horns poking out from behind his Macbook Pro, a timid voice rises above the din.

“Ummmm…sir?”

“Yes, Rory?,” Beelzebub asks, eyes rolling slightly as he glances sideways at the Boss.

“Ummm…sir, I have been following this young kid named Zuckerberg for a few years. And, ummm…I really think he’s onto something with this Facebook thing.”

“Zuckerberg, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” Rory says, feeling a tiny burst of confidence, “And I think that this whole ‘social media’ concept has real potential to do some serious damage to the fabric of human existence.”

A hush falls over the conference table as Lucifer leans in, pointy nails stroking his neatly trimmed goatee.

“Rory...,” he says, his British-accented consonants now dripping with curiosity, “how would you like to be responsible for overseeing the future development of this project?”

And just like that, the fate of the human race was sealed.

Since the inception and meteoric rise of social media use in younger and younger adolescents and children, the number of ways humans can interact with one another in the online/virtual world has reached staggering proportions, in direct tandem with the ways we can potentially punish ourselves. And, in much the same way that you boil a frog alive (placing them first in a pot of cold water and gradually raising the temperature), the changes in our own reality, and our relationship with it, to it, and in it, have been so slight and imperceptible that now, some fifteen plus years later, the world is filled with what I can only call iPhones with legs—human-like creatures who move around in ways similar to people, but who are either walking with their phones in front of their faces, or are looking down, always with some form of ear-bud in—but no one really knows how we got here.

I ask my classes each semester to monitor the amount of time they spend on their devices for a week. This past semester, almost no student could say they spent fewer than ten to fifteen hours a day on their devices, the vast majority of them admitting most of that time is spent on social media.

That’s more than a full-time job.

It isn’t just the time-suck that social media places on our lives, either. Study after study reveals correlations between the amount of time people spend on their phones, especially on social media platforms, with increased instances of depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and suicidal ideation, not to mention reports from emergency rooms around the world of frightening increases in the cases of both attempted and successful suicides.

The evidence is bare and conclusive. As Tim Kendall, a former Facebook executive interviewed in the documentary, The Social Dilemma notes, “These services are killing people…and causing people to kill themselves.”

And that is not the worst of it.

We, as a society, also used to value privacy in our lives. Having your home’s doors and windows open for anyone walking by to see what you were doing was sort of an inconceivable thing. Now in some sick societal twist, social media has turned us all into willing voyeurs, not only constantly looking at what everyone else is doing, even in their most private and vulnerable moments, but also compelling us, inescapably, to both record and broadcast our own personal lives for the whole world to see.

And that is still not the worst of it.

In his book, Being and Nothingness, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre talks about two different ways of be-ing in the world…two different ways that human consciousness…identity…manifests itself. One way, the way that, arguably, leads to the greatest sense of personal worth and fulfillment , is to live existentially authentic lives. In other words, to live as we truly, deeply, and really desire to live, hopefully, too, in a positive, productive, and good way.

The other way humans can be in the world is to live in a state of existence he called daesin. To live in this state is to live not as an authentic self, but to live as a “they-self,” a state characterized by a consciousness that exists and lives as defined by what others determine to be “good.” This is the polar opposite of an authentic self. It is a self…an identity...built to live a life that others determine for it.

The Walt Disney story of Pinnochio centers on a puppet who, through magic, gets a taste of what life would be like if he were given the opportunity to be free of his strings, to be able to move and walk and talk and act on his own free will, making life choices without the controls his puppet-master father has over him. It is a story that, I think, is especially well suited to demonstrate the most horrifying thing that social media has done to humanity. It has convinced us to willingly abdicate the very thing that makes us free, authentic, real human beings…our identities. We have willingly put the strings back on.

We are not real.

When you look around, out at dinner, or on the bus, or anywhere public, for that matter, and you see the “people” around you, faces consumed by their screens, it isn’t just that they aren’t able to fully enjoy be-ing in the moment they are in, or to fully enjoy be-ing with the others they might be with, although it IS that.

It is also worse than that.

It is that there is no one really there at all.

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