A firestorm erupted across the world wide web when Facebook announced that it had made over half of a million of its’ users subjects in a large-scale, short-term psychological study on the impact that social networking has on people’s emotional states, using linguistic analysis to assess which posts had a positive or negative emotional connotation, and editing the subjects’ feeds to skew one way or the other to see if that emotional slant would be mirrored in that user’s own posts. The (unsurprising) result? It was. After the experiment was revealed and the results published, angry critics of every age, nationality, cultural background, and political alignment rushed to decry Facebook’s audacious violation of privacy and autonomy…. on their Facebook pages. Leaving that palpable irony aside though- do these criticisms have merit? I, for one, would contend that they do not, and would wholeheartedly welcome and encourage more research of this kind, and would urge critics to consider the double-standard they are setting given the radical ways in which we have used the internet to redefine norms of privacy and social structures already- and only for the better.
When I was a child, just a couple of decades ago, I can still remember being told how “rude” it was to engage in public or even semi-private conversation and discourse about politics, religion, sexuality and romance, or any myriad of other “private”, “personal” matters. Of course it goes without saying that the same people who told me it was unacceptable to talk to someone about these things in the open were all too happy to talk about them behind close doors- a monologue, rather than a discourse where one might actually run the risk of learning something about someone else’s experience or being challenged in one’s own ideas.
Then, something wondrous began to happen- and at first it happened so gradually and subtly that it has perhaps taken us this long to even notice it- just how much we’ve opened up to each other. While once we only took the time to inform our extended social circles and families about the most significant events in our lives, we now allow them to see who we are day in and day out, through all the petty trials and tribulations and joys. We upload hundreds of pictures and videos of our adventures, exploits, triumphs, and moments of inhibition that would once have been considered shameful in some way. Things like age, education, employment, sexuality, identity, relationships, political causes, religious convictions which were all once considered the most closely-guarded details of a person’s “private” life are now worn plainly on the sleeve of a digital profile accessible to all. Through this new technology, we allow ourselves to share with each other, to understand each other, and yes, to influence each other to a greater and more intimate degree than ever before… and I would contend that it has always been our destiny to do so, from our earliest days as a species.
How else are we still alive? Our species evolved on one of the harshest climates on earth, wrought with scarcity of the most basic resources and replete with predators and natural perils large and small. We were not the fastest, nor the strongest, nor the best adapted to our surroundings. Yet we not only survived, but thrived and pushed outward to become the dominant lifeform across all the Earth. Why? Because of our ability to connect to each other. We communicate, organize, coordinate, act in tandem (a network), and share tools and knowledge with each other to augment our natural abilities. We even adapted cells in our brains called “mirror neurons”, whose very purpose is to cause us to intuitively read, experience, and, well, mirror the mental states of those around us. We are also linked to each other by, of all things, our noses- through a veritable biochemical wi-fi network of pheromones and hormones ebbing and flowing between us, dictating far more than mere sexual arousal as some errantly believe. Our minds are not stone, but water, and we are constantly melding with and flowing through and reshaping each other, whether through such direct biological means, or through the abstract influence of personal relationships and social interactions.
The first artificial augmentations to this ability were stone tablets and papyrus, then, thousands of years later, the printing press, then, a couple of hundred years later, the telegraph wire and mail service and mass transit, then, decades later, radio and television and the telephone… now, in the era of the internet, then wi-fi, then smartphones… we measure our evolutionary leaps in mere years or sometimes months. It isn’t at all hard to see why so many people are alarmed and overwhelmed by this exponential acceleration and all its implications, and some of those fears and concerns are perfectly rational. But not this one.
Any theories about any sinister and conspiratorial motives Facebook might have had for conducting this experiment would seem to be thwarted by the fact that they’re the ones who told us about it, and published the results in full, that everyone might study and learn from them. And once again, what were those results? They were that the mild tweaking they were able to conduct on people’s emotional states were no different than the vast myriad of mind-altering variables and influences we subject ourselves and each other to, both wittingly and unwittingly, every single day, almost constantly. Perhaps, if anything, that is the reason people are so outraged- we like to believe that our identities and minds are fixed, constant, immutable to any external influence… but that is delusion. We are a constantly shifting, tumbling chain reaction of events and interactions and influences, and most people are inclined to find that realization degrading, frightening, and humiliating to our fragile little egos.
I, however, find it nothing short of beautiful. We are our choices, our surroundings, our experiences, our friends, our enemies, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the colors we see, the sounds we hear…everyone and everything- all of it alters us and we in turn alter it; and while that may mean that nothing about our selves or our world is certain, it also means that everything is possible, and so I urge you to look upon this and rejoice, not recoil. We are poetry in motion, and through research like this, we will learn better and better how to pen our own verse, and shape our own future for the better.
J.L. Arguendo is an undergraduate student in Political Science with a concentration in meta-theory and Philosophy with a concentration in ethics & public policy, as well as an elective focus on consciousness and identity. JL now lives in Chicago studying intellectual property- partly in the hopes of using those skills to help further transhumanist goals and interests in protecting and promoting new technologies and keeping them from being impeded and/or grossly exploited for profit or personal ambition.
JL’s vision of the future and of transhumanism is unapologetically and unequivocally one of universal inclusion and opportunity, collective strength and knowledge, and a relentlessly forceful but fair pursuit of the advancement, transformation, and elevation of the human condition for all- not the chosen few who concentrate and control wealth and means of production and seek to establish a permanent, immortal oligarchy while the rest of the planet withers and languishes outside the walls of laboratories and windows of ivory towers.