Keep Modernity, Exit the Metaverse
Changing our relationship with social media and smartphones will help us regain our humanity.
Every week, I write about technological and cultural norms; the goal is to figure out how we improve our well-being in the modern world.
Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in - it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.
— from Midnight in Paris
To make the magic of the modern world disappear, simply read the news. Time and time again, the press successfully hammers home their unifying thread: the world is going to shit. Even if one assumes positive intent for this overwhelmingly narrative, it is not aligned with historical realities, which paint an entirely different image: the modern world is, actually, fantastically good. Poverty, literacy, health, democratic freedom, and education are improving dramatically; nearly everyone is working less than they used to; and jobs today are way cushier than they were in the past.
Yes, we still face many problems today, but which period would you prefer to return to? Would you like to experience life as a sun-toiling peasant as 96% of France did before the Revolution? How about the Golden Age of the Renaissance when fifty to seventy percent of Italy’s population was impoverished? Want to give working at an industrial factory a shot given the splendid reviews? Would you like to live as a woman at any time before the 20th century? Do you want to live in a world where slavery was commonplace? How about trying out some of the maniacal punishment that was up for grabs in nearly all historical civilizations? Here’s a benign example:
After the reading of the judgment, the executioner had him get into a cart and he was placed on the knees of the executioner's wife. The executioner then began to torture him with red hot pincers until they reached the house of the Canon, whom he had murdered there.
The executioner cut off both his hands upon a chopping block that had been placed for this purpose on the cart, the executioner's wife blindfolded him, and as her husband cut off a hand, she would place the stump from which a spurt of blood was escaping into a kind of cone, which she solidly, tied up to stop the hemorrhaging. He was then led to the court of bail, where he was decapitated and cut up into four pieces, which were then hung from olive trees outside the city walls.
We should be very grateful for modernity. And, simultaneously, we should continue to progress socially and technologically. To do so, we must constantly examine what constitutes progress. Which social movements are really improving the world? Which companies are moving humanity forward in a meaningful way? Where is our culture getting it right? Where are we getting it wrong?
These are big questions; today, I’m going to narrow my focus down to two technologies that, I feel, could derail much of our progress: social media and smartphones. While seemingly innocent, these inventions are incredibly harmful. Individually, they’re turning us into cyborgs; at scale, they’re breaking down society.
We’re Already in the Metaverse
Most of the talk about the metaverse assumes that it is either a place (i.e. Ready Player One) or a time in the distant future, but we’re already in the metaverse:
Americans spend nearly six hours a day consuming video, over eleven hours a day interacting with screens, and over two hours a day on social media. For many of us, our digital identities are already more important than our physical ones. Whose getting invited to Neymar’s party: the strikingly beautiful girl who doesn’t use Instagram or the girl whose latest bikini picture is making its way through every teenage boy’s inbox? Younger generations are increasingly more likely to skip the party entirely: they’re already choosing texting over dating, porn over sex, and online over in-person.
When it comes to politics, a small percentage of political extremists (that, before Twitter, used to get the same amount of attention as homeless men pissing on poles) are successfully spreading their agenda online: millions of Americans believe in QAnon, and thousands have been canceled unjustly after online mobs came for their necks. State actors share a similar love for the digital battlefield: they find it more effective for imposing their will on society than many forms of physical warfare.
Why We Should Exit the Metaverse
Social media and smartphones can be beneficial when they are used as tools; however, in their current state, it is very hard to use them as such. And while there was never a time when we sang Kumbaya together on the subway (see image below), there is a spectrum relating to how we distract and how we indulge. Reading a novel or a long newspaper article doesn’t train your ADHD the way scrolling Twitter does. Addiction to hardcore porn is worse for society than boys masturbating to nudie magazines. Being reminded of your friend’s glamorous lifestyle once every few months is less toxic than being glued to her idyllic stories each day.
At the individual level, social media and smartphones are stripping us of our humanity, reducing us to dopamine-addicted, enraged primates with attention spans that resemble fruit flies’. They are sapping our courage and destroying romance. They are killing poetry and replacing it with bite-sized videos. Most importantly, they are making us incredibly unhappy:
All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media… The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.
At scale, these platforms present existential threats. With every viral political tweet, our societal fabric suffers another tear as warring factions fuel themselves with ammo and relish in online gunfire. And that isn’t even accounting for the success that evil state actors, terrorists, and the like are having online. The Digital Maginot Line beautifully illustrates many of these examples: Facebook becoming the government’s primary weapon for genocide; Russia’s interference in the 2016 US Election; ISIS’s effectiveness in recruiting terrorists online. Organizations will always take advantage of new tools to gain power; however, we are currently ill-prepared to handle these attacks. Until people, companies, and countries learn how to use these tools we should take specific precautions: you shouldn’t give a loaded gun to a four-year-old.
How to Exit Social Media
To regain our humanity, we have to change our relationship with social media; we have a few options: completely exiting, boycotting until social media platforms fundamentally change, or changing how we use social media.
A full exit, as the name suggests, means a deactivation from all platforms. For many, the results are as extreme as the action: lower anxiety, increased productivity, a massively improved attention span, and countless other benefits. Except for a select few, social media’s benefits are likely not worth their costs: replacing Twitter with long-form articles will make you more informed, and replacing Instagram with socializing in the real world will make you happier.
However, if you are trying to grow your audience or your network, then it may be worth keeping social media, but drastically changing the way you use it (as I’ll detail below). Whether or not you choose to exit now, you should independently capture your networks (i.e. newsletter subscribers, phone numbers) so that you have the option to leave social media platforms in the future.
You could also temporarily exit until you own your data. The fundamental problem with social media today is that there is an incentive misalignment between you and the companies: they want you to spend as much time on their platforms, and they’ll do whatever it takes to achieve that result.
However, if you owned your data, hundreds of companies could build different user interfaces that you could plug your data into. For example, a company could create a “mindful Twitter” that reminds you to stop scrolling and logs you out after you use the app for ten minutes each day. Another organization could create a version of Instagram that only allows you to post and not consume others’ content. This is how email and podcasts currently work: since both are governed by decentralized protocols, you can use any email application or any podcast application you like.
If these two paths aren’t right for you then it might be worth changing how you use social media:
End your addiction by giving your password to a trusted friend/sibling that you can message every few days when you want to log in.
Make each platform distraction-free by muting everyone that you follow while you can still use the platforms to grow your audience.
Commit to a month-long detox each quarter where you deactivate all of your accounts (shorter amounts of time don’t allow you to feel the full benefits of Amish mode).
How to Exit the Smartphone
Similarly, there are different options for dealing with the crack pipe in your pocket: switch to a flip phone, use a flip phone in public and a smartphone at home, or change how you use your smartphone.
Switching entirely to a flip phone is only possible for a small percentage of the population: those that don’t need one for work, those that can manage without calling Ubers, and those that don’t need to use apps such as WhatsApp (this small percentage includes Aziz Ansari and Aaron Paul). However, just like exiting social media, the benefits are tantalizing: more peace of mind, more productivity, more happiness.
For those that need a smartphone for work or other use cases, it might be worth getting two phones: a smartphone without a data plan and a flip phone. You can still call Ubers by connecting to WiFi and you have access to WhatsApp at home, but you aren’t plagued by your phone addiction everywhere you go. (I’ve found this solution to be incredibly effective.)
The last option is to modify your smartphone so that it becomes far less addictive: turn on grayscale, remove Safari, keep it off until noon each day, regularly use airplane mode, leave it in a different room, have a friend block social media applications so you can’t re-download them. The more extreme the better: the addiction to dopamine runs so deep that you’ll find yourself scrolling through old photos after your phone is cleansed.
While smartphones and social media present the biggest barriers to regaining our humanity, there are still infinite digital distractions: we should choose amongst them wisely and use our free time to maximize our humanity. Diligent planning helps: Social media checks can be replaced by walks outside or short meditations. The itch for YouTube can be replaced by keeping a guitar or a book next to your desk.
The time to act is now: technological development will only accelerate in the coming years. Algorithms are already shaping the news that we consume, which shapes what we believe. Do we want to continue to give them this much power? Screens are already rewiring our brains, which shape everything. Do we want to lose the ability to enjoy timeless afternoons on beaches?
Technology and culture, once a week 👇🏽