Was 2017 that terrible? Everyone feels like they’re losing and the world is going to hell, and in many ways it does feel like a dark cloud is approaching.
This article, about a sex robot conference being moved after a threat from Islamic extremists, did strike me as the sort of thing one of the more pessimistic of 20th century writers might have predicted about our age. People are so depressed about the year they even got angry about Taylor Swift being happy, because how dare she.
And yet despite this being such a terrible year medical progress continues in a miraculous way, worldwide poverty continues to tumble and while the planet is more violent than at the beginning of the decade, it has nothing like as many wars nor as many casualties as the 70s or 80s. Christmas is still being celebrated in Damascus and Aleppo, something I didn’t expect to see four years ago. Things aren’t at all terrible, it’s just that it’s become painfully obvious that social media is making a lot of people very unwell.
The paradox is that we’ve become much more aware of mental health in the past five years, as anxiety rates shoot up, but much of this awareness has been spread through one of the biggest causes of ill-health – social media. Personally I hardly ever use Facebook because I’ve never in my entire time using it closed the browser feeling happier than when I opened it. Instagram I don’t do either but I can see that looking at lots of people more beautiful and happier than you will make anyone miserable. What vanity is to Instagram, sanctimony is to Twitter, the competition to be purer-than-thou and to gain status in the moral community the most tiresome aspect of the site; it turns comedians into bad preachers and writers into lazy partisans. This sense of moral superiority is also what drives so many high-status people with blue ticks to be so unpleasant and bad mannered on the site, which I think mars it almost as much as the extremist untermenschen.
There’s an interesting theory that social media is to bad ideas what the first cities were to diseases, and that they are having the same radical effect. Civilisation allowed both memes and genes to spread much more rapidly, but the effects could be devastating at times. Similarly social media allows hysteria and catchy, simplistic themes to spread like plague through a medieval city.
Another comparison might be with a product associated with the first civilisations – alcohol. Social media is enjoyable for most, harmful to a minority and devastating to a smaller group, especially those with anxiety or other mental health problems. But as a friend pointed out, AI may one day be able to predict just by our tweets whether we have the sort of mental health problems that make social media harmful. Actually, maybe the future is going to be terrible after all.