Why it’s so important that we try to understand what’s really happened over the last few weeks.
With the world’s media focused exclusively on our present hysteria du jour, it’s easy to overlook the real significance of the covid-19 illness: we’ve just stepped into the future.
Sometimes it takes a while to see the true impact of something entirely new. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, it wasn’t obvious that the result would ultimately be an entirely new type of society hitherto unknown in human history. No one could have foreseen the connections between making it easier to replicate information and the subsequent explosion of scientific knowledge that led first to dramatic improvements in agriculture and then, thanks to the surpluses thereby created, enabled to the industrial revolution.
Neither could anyone have foreseen that by making books cheaply available, mass literacy would change the way we think about ourselves.
In Gutenberg’s day everything was ordained by an imaginary invisible magical creature and everyone believed their place in society was predestined as part of a Grand Plan for the overall good, no matter how obviously real-world facts contradicted this idea at every turn. Today we believe in “freedom of will” and imagine ourselves to be independent actors in control of our individual destinies. These beliefs are also illusory, but the point is that they arise precisely out of the many changes engendered by Gutenberg’s invention. We no longer think in the same way, as a species, thanks to the technologies of mass communication and the many changes they have brought in their wake.
The Internet emerged from DARPA and academia in the 1990s and at first it was, like the printing press, seen simply as a way to do old things in a slightly new way. For the most part this is still how we regard it. Commerce merely moved out of bricks-and-mortar into the virtual world, but it’s still commerce. Mass media organizations now rely more on page views than on selling paper-based product, but they’re still pushing the same content. Facebook is still mainly virtual graffiti. Just as the first movies merely replicated stage performances, so the Internet at first merely replicated our ordinary actions in the real world. Equally, cellphones merely enabled conversations in much the same way as fixed-line phones, albeit with text as an optional extra.
But thanks to covid-19 we can now begin to see that the Internet plus ubiquitous communication technologies have created a new period in humanity’s history. We have, in the last few weeks, stepped decisively into the future.
As we all know, homo sapiens is a group primate species and as such our highly evolved behaviors are purposed towards group membership. We feel deeply uncomfortable when we’re not conforming to group norms, because for 95% of our evolutionary history our survival depended entirely on being part of a group, no matter how dysfunctional that group may have been. Any group was better than no group. So we are hardwired to conform and hardwired to reinforce group norms. We automatically feel disquiet and then anger and then hatred for anyone who has the temerity to resist conforming to what we feel in our hearts are essential behaviors.
What few seem to have noticed during this period of media-induced mass hysteria is that the unprecedented combination of modern telecommunication technologies and our hardwired cognitive models has led to something unique in all of human history.
Of course, there have been mass panics before. Thanks to our hardwired need for group affiliation we humans are very susceptible to hysteria and mob mentality. History is littered with examples of large crowds of people doing extremely stupid and harmful things because they were whipped into a state of fear. Demagogues have always known how easy it is to manipulate large numbers of people.
The difference between localized hysteria and global hysteria is however very significant. It’s as significant as the difference between one hand-copied medieval manuscript and a 50,000,000 copy print-run of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Just as a single animal cell is not at all the same thing as billions of cells organized into a body, so local hysteria is not at all the same thing as global hysteria. The concept of emergent properties is essential here, so we’ll digress for just a moment to explore this very important idea.
When we study a single cell we can learn about a wide variety of cellular mechanisms from metabolism through to the production of proteins. But when we study an entire animal we see behaviors that no amount of studying individual cells would ever have predicted. There’s simply no way to imagine the cooperative behavior of a pack of Orca circling a bait-ball by studying a cell taken from an Orca liver.
Each level of organization requires its own level of abstraction. That’s why physics looks at quarks and gluons, why chemistry looks at larger structures comprised of atoms, why biology looks at cells and at bodies, and why environmentalists look at entire ecosystems. At each level of abstraction we see phenomenon that could not be predicted by studying the levels below. And conversely we will learn nothing of quarks and gluons if we’re busy studying the interactions of foxes and rabbits in a field. So it’s essential for us to understand the level of abstraction we require in order to learn about a particular level of organization.
Most of psychology is focused on trying to understand ourselves at the level of the individual human, and this can have great value. But we also need to remember that none of us operates alone. We are all, at all times and in all places, also members of one or more groups. That means we have to study ourselves at the group level in order to arrive at a more complete understanding of human behavior.
Of course, some have understood this implicitly since time immemorial. Plato correctly determined that all democracies will always end in tyranny because he understood how easily a demagogue can exert control over a significant percentage of any population, thus enabling him to seize control by creating a mob rallied behind him. The French word for madness (fou) is etymologically connected to the French word for a large gathering of people (foule).
But never before have we had the means whereby to whip our entire planet into a single-focused frenzy of terror. The Internet in combination with ubiquitous display technologies (smartphones, tablets, laptops, televisions) has created an entirely new condition for homo sapiens. We have, unconsciously and without explicit intention, stumbled blindly into a new emergent property.
Let’s take a look at what’s happened over the last few months. As we all know, the mass media depends utterly on sensationalism in order to maintain revenues. That’s because we humans have no interest in stories like “Small girl in obscure town does well at school and her parents are happy.” But we all love to gawp open-mouthed at “Small girl eats parents before going to school.” So that’s what they feed us, day after day, hour after hour. The so-called “news” is nothing more than a constant diet of plane crashes, celebrity scandal, murder, and terrorist incidents. As our brains are hardwired to reason from anecdote rather than data, and as the media has no interest in providing context, the vast majority of us are thus simultaneously ill-informed and misinformed. We believe the world is a more dangerous place than it truly is because all we hear and see from the media is the sensation they rely on to maintain their revenue streams.
Covid-19 has been, at least until recently (for a summary of why the situation has changed, click here) a huge boon for the mass media and for social media alike. People around the world stare wide-eyed at context-free statements about death and infection rates. This was absolutely fabulous for boosting ad revenues.
In consequence nearly every story and nearly every social media network is flooded with hysterical nonsense that lacks all empirical foundation. Not surprisingly, politicians have responded to mass panic by introducing measures that are ill-considered, largely ineffectual, and often downright stupid. And this merely makes everyone’s panic even worse, which leads to even more stupid measures, which then increase panic further, and so on and so on.
But this isn’t a panic over a local concern. It’s our first-ever global mass hysteria, all made possible by our marvelous modern communication technologies. Politicians in countries around the globe have discovered (with the laudable exceptions of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Iceland) that when citizens are whipped into a frenzy of ill-informed fear by the global media then the only vote-saving thing to do is play along. So almost every nation ends up implementing the same foolish policies in response to a crisis created almost entirely by the actions of less than 50 large media organizations, all of which were merely pursuing their usual mode of operations in order to generate revenues.
It’s a classic example of unintended effects arising from locally simple actions.
The point is, no one anywhere planned any of this, any more than a single cell in a whale plans the whale’s movements. Our present global hysteria is an emergent property arising from our wondrous technologies, just as towns and cities and nations arose from the invention of fixed-location agriculture after the end of the last ice-age. No one planned that, either.
As the effects of global hysteria are profoundly harmful it’s urgent that we begin to recognize what we’ve accidentally unleashed. Today we’re all being herded into mass panic by the blind revenue-driven needs of global corporations; it’s easy to see that tomorrow such hysteria may be created intentionally by ruthless demagogues. And we’ll remain utterly helpless, no more able to control our destinies than single cells within the body of an animal.
It’s time we began to study ourselves at the level of this new emergent property. Perhaps we can consciously engineer mitigations where possible.
If not, the future will look increasingly like the manifest follies of today.