Last week, Neil Sinhababu had a great post here at New APPS picking up on an attempted explanation for why members of the so-called Generation Y seem so dissatisfied with their lives (if indeed they are). This latter post has been receiving a fair share of attention at the usual places (Facebook, Twitter), and though admittedly funny, it seems to suffer precisely from the limitation pointed out by Neil; it treats the problem mostly as a psychological problem pertaining to the individual sphere (including of course the parents component, as any good Freudian would have it), thus disregarding the significant economic changes that took place in recent decades. However, I do want to disagree with Neil’s quick dismissal of the non-negligible role that the article claims for new technologies such as Facebook and social media in general in the phenomenon. Neil says:
And I'm suspicious of explanations in terms of the special properties of social media -- mostly it gives you a new way to do kinds of social interaction that have been around forever.
The original post had claimed that ‘Facebook Image Crafting’ is a crucial component generating the kind of dissatisfaction with their lives that members of Generation Y purportedly suffer from. Given that people only, or mostly, post flattering bits of info about themselves on social media, the claim is that those at the receiver’s end form an overly rosy picture of the lives of others, which in turn leads to frustration about one’s own lives. (I discussed this phenomenon in a recent post here at NewAPPS.) Moreover, in the pre-social media period, people were only sporadically confronted with the more successful lives of their high-school buddies, e.g. at graduation anniversaries and such like. Now, however, it can easily become a daily experience, if you happen to be FB friends with an old high-school buddy who makes a point of advertising how wonderful his life is on a regular basis (and you are sufficiently masochistic to keep this person in your news feed despite the negative feelings provoked).
Besides these somewhat superficial observations, I want to claim that there are also philosophical reasons to disagree with Neil’s dismissal of the transformative power of new technologies such as social media. These are related to the general framework of extended cognition, which (as some readers may recall) I find very attractive -- at least in its second-wave (and beyond) incarnation. From this point of view, in my book Formal Languages in Logic I analyzed what I see as the transformative power of the development of a new technology, namely formal languages and formalisms, for human cognition in a wide range of areas. Reasoning with the aid of these cognitive artifacts truly transforms reasoning processes and opens up possibilities that could not have been fathomed prior to their developments – which also suggest the paradox of technologies which are developed in view of certain goals but then end up having much wider, unexpected implications. This point generalizes to a number of other cultural technologies developed by human beings in the course of our history, and especially to writing, which may well be the most transformative technology we ever invented.
Now, while so far I have mostly focused on the transformative impact of technologies for the cognitive realm, there is no reason to think that the situation would be fundamentally different for the emotional realm. (Moreover, I’m one of those people who think that it’s a mistake to treat the cognitive and the emotional as separate realms.) So when Neil speaks of ‘kinds of social interaction that have been around forever’, he is of course right in claiming that new technologies will tap into possibilities that were there all along; but this does not mean that they cannot truly transform certain modes of social interaction (for better or worse!). The sheer magnitude of ‘encounters’ that are made possible by social media and the Internet in general suggests that phenomena such as envy and frustration with one’s life can grow exponentially under these new conditions. It may truly become a new way of ‘being-in-the-world’, which we are just starting to make sense of, while of course remaining constrained by the cognitive and emotional potentialities that animals such as human beings possess all along.
In sum, I submit that those interested in the general idea of extended/embedded cognition are well placed to reflect on the potentially transformative effect of these new technologies not only for our cognitive but also for our emotional lives. In that sense, I do agree with the original post criticized by Neil on the point of the impact of social media for how we position ourselves in this world and towards others; it might seem like ‘touchy-feely’ philosophy, but we are still a long way from properly understanding the impact of these new technologies for human life on this planet.
(Caveat: obviously, for a very large portion of the human population, namely those with little to no Internet access, and who have what we may call ‘traditional life-styles’, none of this applies. I don’t want to come across as Internet-centric, as I obviously recognize that these observations do not apply to a very large number of human beings. And yes, I don't deny that I'm a social media enthusiast!)