Real World Wall-E

Fear, technology and politics, and what the hell we might do about it

Fear is, of course, one of the most basic of human instincts, but the way it has been engineered by technology and politics for the powerful and the greedy threatens humanity itself.

At a primal level fear is a basic requirement for survival: the need to sustain ourselves through food, shelter, defence systems and reproduction. Anything that endangers these basic needs creates fear, and that fear creates responses in all of us (fight, flight, freeze etc.)

In 2019 in the western world, though, for the vast majority of us our basic needs are not only met but oversupplied.

This doesn’t mean that fear is removed, however. We are fundamentally hardwired to feel fear, because fear (or the responses which fear creates in us) protects and sustains us. Our brain being hardwired for fear as the most basic survival mechanism, it creates fear in us from the environments we routinely surround ourselves in now, which are completely unrecognisable not only from a hundred thousand years ago, but completely unrecognisable even from 5 or 10 years back. In the past 100,000 years, while the environments we have created around us have been totally transformed, how much have humans really changed physiologically? Not much at all, it seems.

The maneuvrings in Boris Johnson’s UK government are a potentially deadly combination of individuals characterised by callousness or cluelessness or both

The fear that we feel, an instinctive species reaction deep in the amygdala of our brains, and moving from there to some form of conscious thought in our neocortex, is at once so old—as old as life gets—and at the same time so new to the 21st century.

So what most creates fear in us now, in the today of 2019?

Both individually and collectively, it is generated as much as anything by the way the world is.

Or to put that more accurately, by the way the world is presented to us, through the Internet-connected devices that—from nowhere, over the course of a dozen years or so—have suddenly become so central to the way we do everything.

We open up Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever else we’re into [a global digital report published in January this year found that on average we have 8.9 social media accounts per person], and we do so, all of us, for more than two hours a day [same report: two hours and 16 minutes per day of social media use by every person, globally].

And what are we seeing in those 136 minutes we spend on social media every day?

We are exposed, for the most part, to whatever is presented to us by the algorithm that knows us deeper than anyone in the world, even ourselves.

As Richard Seymour, the author of a new book about social media called The Twittering Machine, described it in a recent interview with Ken Early on the Second Captains podcast, for hours every day we are both writing and being written: we are writing in that we are publishing our own status updates, videos, stories and shares; and we are being written in that everything we see (and in the future, perhaps, everything we think and everything we do), is being dictated to us and for us by millions upon millions of lines of written code, carefully constructed to learn how we might respond to any given piece of content, and present us with choices based on that mass analysis.

So the algorithms know us better than we could ever hope to know ourselves. In a world increasingly influenced by social media—where Facebook, through its own platform and its multi-billion-dollar takeovers of Instagram, WhatsApp and other tools, is held to be accountable for everything from the 2016 US election result to the Brexit vote to mass ethnic cleansing in Myanmar —the algorithm is the most powerful of all constructs, and the people who create it are the all-seeing, all-powerful Greek Gods of the 21st century.

Fear, technology and politics: All human emotions -- except, of course, fear itself -- are distilled into the Facebook Like button

The full list of main human emotions — except, of course, fear itself — are distilled into a set of emojis within the Facebook Like button

And because the algorithms are designed to measure our responses, whether that’s a response of joy or one of anger, we are shown things that are more likely to generate some response.

This is why any scan of a typical Facebook news feed is as likely to show a cute cuddly cat video, “hilarious” meme or inspirational 40-second clip, alongside the big news stories of the day reduced to preferably sensationalist short clips and video and sound bites that stir emotional reaction but allow no room for any nuance or depth.

Before I get completely lost in the weeds here, you can be forgiven for asking: what has all this got to do with our happiness?

In short, I think, almost everything.

I’ve often quoted Kevin Barry, the Irish writer, who has said, “The Internet is an infinitude: it contains the best and worst of everything.”

The problem as I see it now, however, is that while it still contains the best and the worst of everything, we see or are shown little of the everything in the middle. We see no grey areas, only black and white. We see no detailed discussion over complex issues, only sensational bluster that appeals to the extremes at the far either end of the spectrum.

We see the feel-the-fear worst of everything most of the time, and the feelgood best of everything occasionally, and so many of us cannot help to judge our own mundane everyday existences as tedious at best, and unbearable and unlivable at worst.

While the opportunities created by technology are beautiful and must be maintained, developed and explored, the development of the algorithms for pure profit by capitalising on complex human emotion threatens everything that’s good.

Social media was built on the base human need for connection with other humans, but it has for the most part succeeded in eroding our attention spans, robbing us of the ability to think at length about any particular subject, and moved us around like pawns in a global game where the short-term winners are a handful of billionaire capitalists and the long-term losers are everyone, the entire population of the world, who if things continue on the current path will be stripped of their ability to be, think or act in a way that’s required for basic human self-awareness, self-expression and self-actualisation.

Real World Wall-E

In many ways we’re so close to becoming the people of Wall-E , chronically obese, carted around on self-driving seats with screens in our faces and junk food in our mouth.

The more we become locked into our phones, the less we will see of the real world, and in many ways we’re so close to becoming the people of Wall-E , chronically obese, carted around on self-driving seats with screens in our faces and junk food in our mouth.

What we have in front of us is, on the face of it, an incredible, unprecedented set of opportunities, among them:

  1. the possibility that we can reach people all over the world, virtually instantaneously, and virtually for free, provided we have a message that resonates;
  2. the ability to navigate roads we’ve never travelled on with up-to-the-second information about destination, time required and traffic or obstacles ahead;
  3. the never-before-seen chance to build personal and professional lives that are not tied to the 20-mile radius from your front door, and which can find friendships, audiences and customers all over the world, in real time.

On the other side of that opportunity, though, there is the overwhelm that comes from this new technological norm, which has been specifically designed—using devices and mechanisms that have long been in place in casinos and online gaming rooms—to addict us to always-on phone connectivity and the instant hit of the like notification.

All this has been buzzing in my brain for a couple of years, and among the defence mechanisms I’ve tried to implement include daily disconnection from the almost incessant buzz of technology (my phone is now unwelcome upstairs, and I know when I bring it there I’m on a path to a depressive dip that needs corrective action to avoid) and tangible groundedness to the earth and physical environment that surrounds me. My general success rate has been two steps forward, one step back, but even that has allowed me to see the potential damage all of this can do to my brain, and from there my entire life.

This week I experienced one of the big steps back that occasionally come my way. Over the past week I became glued to the TV screens from the Houses of Parliament in London to watch the maneuvrings in Boris Johnson’s UK government, a potentially deadly combination of individuals characterised by callousness or cluelessness or both.

I couldn’t get away from it.

I watched as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party called out the despicable Jacob Rees-Mogg for lounging full-length across the front benches and treating historic parliamentary debate with utter contempt.

I watched as Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi of the Labour Party delivered a passionate speech in which he asked Johnson to apologise for labelling Muslim women as letterboxes, accusing the prime minister of inciting a spike in hate crime.

I watched as Jess Phillips stood, visibly seething with anger, to say that she does not trust a single word that comes out of Johnson’s mouth [and apologised to the Speaker if such a condemnation might be seen as “unparliamentary”].

I watched as balanced Conservatives like Dominic Grieve and Antoinette Sandbach outlined their reasons for voting against their own Government.

All those moments were captured and uploaded as short clips to the various social media platforms, although as their reach expanded, their power was somehow diluted and diminished, because it was presented alongside the bluster and propaganda of Johnson speaking to camera and on script from the comfort of his office, in a video that will probably have been subjected to paid promotion by people with an agenda, and thus displayed to far more people via careful targeting based on people’s personal data and typical behaviours, than the organic reach of the earlier explosive moments.

When we are presented with two opposite viewpoints like these, two viewpoints that are passionately at the furthest end of the political spectrum, and when each viewpoint taken on its own sounds like it might be plausible, the normal human response is to be confused.

That confusion—the confusion of hearing all sides and understanding none, the confusion of being assaulted on all sides by noise every few minutes of every day, the confusion of being unable to take a step back and away from the storm that is engulfing almost every one of us—is something that triggers the fear deep in our brains, and from there to a rising sense of anxiety, panic, anger or shame deep in our chests.

And authoritarians, dictators and plutocrats crest the wave of that confusion, shame and fear to deliver themselves to power, where they say one thing and do another to their own ends.

I realised with a sinking feeling that the only thing really in my power to do was to switch off, and that switching off was so insufficient.

I realised that there must be a way to be balanced about all the political shenanigans of our time, a way to engage in meaningful discussion about issues that matter without reducing ourselves to snap judgments based on short sound bites that appeal to our basest fears and anxieties, all propelled our way by sophisticated code written by some of the world’s brightest minds at the behest of some of the greediest.

But while disconnecting is insufficient, it is what we must do. We must disconnect from the noise for long enough for us to look around and breathe and rediscover our sense of perspective and wonder.

And then, when we reconnect, because reconnect we must, we must strive to read and watch and communicate intentionally.

We must try to have honesty and integrity in our macro ethos and in our micro conversations.

We must try to embrace compassion and kindness and understanding, because for all our manifold flaws, people up close are mostly good people.

We must try.

The price is too big if we don’t.


Shane Breslin is a writer, coach, speaker and podcaster based in Ireland. He has spoken at a TEDx conference in Dublin and runs the Life Well Lived Project, whose mission is to provide support, guidance and inspiration to help people overcome their own challenges, embrace their once-in-history uniqueness and live a life of vitality, fulfilment and happiness. The Life Well Lived Project includes includes regular writing and a podcast series. You can sign up for free to receive regular email updates from Shane here.