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Losing ourselves in social media

Why do people of good reputation and perceived high level of moral integrity fall into online scandals that involve sexual voyeurism? A basic moral analysis of the matter, while fundamental and crucial in reflecting on the meaning of "What was I thinking?" in such instances of moral failure, is not sufficient. The answer requires an understanding of the critical relation between the instrument (in this case, social media) and the human being.

The social theorist and philosopher Michel Foucault gives us a vivid conceptual framework for this analysis as to how certain systems and techniques manipulate the individual - the technologies of the self "which permit individuals by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations in their own bodies and souls, thought, conduct, and a way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality".

The common understanding of people with respect to technologies around us is that these are instruments. These are our tools for manipulation. The instruments allow us to control things, the world, and, sometimes, in the case of material production, people. But a more objective assessment tells us that not even the moral grounding of man has absolute power over these instruments.

Instruments control us. For instance, nuclear weapons, while acting as a deterrent to total global destruction, possess a powerful effect on states in terms of political bargaining and leverage, and it is preposterous to suggest that the United States or Russia are superpowers because they have strong leaders. They are very powerful states because they have enough nuclear warheads to destroy the earth 5,000 times over.

Take the case of cell phones and Facebook. Your typical teenager cannot leave the house without their cell phone. Tech companies brand this as the mobile phenomenon. But a much deeper thought will reveal that it is because your child will feel disconnected from her world if she does not bring her cellular gadget.

Whatever noble purpose they have for ensuring their connectedness and capacity for contact, this capacity is now reduced to an instrumentalist ideal. your child has incidentally become the instrument, and not the other way around.

That example needs further explication. Social media has dominated the world in the last decade. When common people talk of social media, they usually think of "selfies", "Instagram" or "YouTube". All of these are a result of the desire "to be seen" in public. But this desire was not there previously without social media.

You were content to visit your grandparents on a Sunday, send a letter to your girlfriend once a month, or simply listen to the radio on a lazy afternoon. But social media has created a new space for all of us where we deposit ourselves and, ultimately, our autonomy or freedom. We have therefore since lost our innocence.

This whole phenomenon then brings us to the realisation that the lived world is not only a place where we communicate certain actions or do some linguistic exchanges. We have actually created a new world - a matrix, so to speak, where we are all subsumed and dominated and where we all lose our original selves and, sometimes, our sense of humanity. The human person is no longer there. What you see is a "picture" or a "video clip" which society uses to judge others.

Technology, in this regard, is not innocent. Technology is a monstrosity created by a process into which all that we are has been dissolved. From Wall Street to the computer screen, all of these processes denigrate the individual into a mere object; each person is reduced into a mere unit.

If in the past Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" was able to dissect the whole notion of man being inside the factory as the diminution of human existence into "a cog in the machine", we may very well speak right now of the individual as "a pixel on a screen".

What then are the moral implications of this phenomenon? At the outset, it can be said that the mighty force of capitalism's new centre in Menlo Park, California, has so far succeeded in masterminding this modern type of alienation. The players and actors have not changed. We still have the imperialist western world subjugating and colonising the natives in us.

Of course, I would be an ingrate if I say that social media is all negative. It has positive points, too. For instance, it empowers people to reach out to others at tremendous speed and efficiency. But my point is this. Since social media, like any form of power, has a tendency to corrupt, we must not lose a sense of our humanity. A hug or a smile, when authentic, will speak more than a thousand selfies.

After all, the internet was not invented to create life. Since it emerged out of a war room, we must not forget that its primary intention then was to help destroy a huge part of humanity.

(The writer teaches philosophy at the Ateneo de Davao University)


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