The Internet's Battle For Our Digital Souls

Every status update, every tweet, every pin is a micro-jolt delivered squarely to the pleasure centers of our brains. 

Harvard neuroscience researchers have just confirmed what many of us have suspected all along: social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest are “brain candy” for Internet users. Every status update, every tweet, every pin is a micro-jolt delivered squarely to the pleasure centers of our brains. We get approximately the same type of pleasure from talking about ourselves on social media as we do from having sex. As Facebook bulks up to take on new challengers after its much-anticipated IPO next week, is it possible that the battle for future dominance on the Internet will actually take place inside our heads?


Emotions, visualizations and new ways to stimulate our senses suddenly matter more than ever on the Internet as companies figure out how to turn us all into Pavlovian subjects lusting after the next viral meme. Getting the neuroscience right, quite simply, is the key to future billion-dollar valuations. Viewed from this perspective, Zuckerberg’s recent billion-dollar grab for Instagram suddenly makes sense. It’s not just that Instagram is a hugely popular mobile network with millions of users, it’s that the company has figured out how retro filters and beautiful light effects actually trigger associations and memories deep within our unconscious minds.

Google featheredWhat's alternately terrifying and inspiring is how all this thinking about emotions, visuals and sensory stimulation is starting to flow through to the actual strategies of leading Internet competitors. For example, it's no secret that Google has long been frustrated by Facebook's dominance in the social networking space, despite numerous new initiatives to push its own Google+ social network forward. This week, Google might have finally cracked the code: a new iPhone and Android mobile app with “sense and soul” that takes everything rational, linear and orderly about Google+ (“Circles” – how geometrically rational!) and transforms it into something marvelously unstructured, nonlinear and stimulating:

"Sharing is deeply sensory. From cooking a favorite meal to getting together with friends, it's the smells and the stories and the smiles that make human connections so essential. With Google+ we want to extend these moments online, so it’s only right to focus on the most personal of personal computers: your mobile phone. ... To be clear, we’re not interested in a mobile or social experience that’s just smaller. We’re embracing the sensor-rich smartphone (with its touchable screen and high-density display), and transforming Google+ into something more intimate, and more expressive. Today’s new iPhone app is an important step in this direction—toward a simpler, more beautiful Google."

To underscore this point, Google gave heavy prominence to a very Instagram-looking “fine feathered friend” in marvelous hues and tints.

Neuroscience, once at the periphery of the way we thought about the business world, is suddenly front and center. Companies are looking for ways to get inside our heads, to tinker with the very neurochemical transmitters that make us human. Of late, there has been a surge of books about the psychology of business and the neuroscience behind thoughts and emotions. These books hint at a future in which marketers can sell us more stuff, doctors can make us healthier, employers can make us more productive, and educators can make us smarter - just by understanding how the human brain works. By assocation, Internet companies can get more users by also understanding how the human brain works.

So what's next? We are pushing against what some have called “the envelope of sensation” as we look for new ways to merge our physical and digital worlds. We desperately want our digital worlds to be as tactile and emotional and visual as the real world. We once thought of technologies such as augmented reality to be far-off and wacky - now they might just be around the corner. How far, exactly, are companies willing to go to blur the digital and the physical? In the battle for our digital souls, will there be a "brain candy" arms race, as companies compete with each other to rush out new innovations that flood our dopamine receptors with new stimuli?

image: Open-minded man with cables out head / Shutterstock

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.