Virtue, Strength and "the Social Dilemma"

Some thoughts on the Netflix documentary

We face uncertain and complicated problems that are evolving faster than we can understand.

Because we can't define or predict the future, there is no eureka solution to this. And there is no top-down solution to this. Having the "best" people try to solve it by laying out a plan to create special-purpose people -- like High School seems to be calibrated to produce factory workers -- doesn't seem like it will work. Right now that system is producing factory workers for factories that don't exist.

The only workable course of action is to create better general-purpose people. Smarter, if possible, but since we don't really know how to do that, we can at least try to make people more resilient and useful to themselves and others. Which is another of my fumbling definitions of what I think virtue is.

Strength of character is an interesting term that deserves to have the dust blown off it. That's a subject for another essay, but by strength of character, I mean the ability to struggle with yourself and win. This means that you're good at fighting with your own weakness and propensity for error.

If you've taken any responsibility for yourself as an individual you've had the experience of setting a goal out for yourself, something like -- I'm gonna lose 10 pounds by July! -- and then have totally blown it with another, completely, contradictory voluntary action.

This is a fundamentally human problem. Perhaps the fundamental human problem. We set targets for ourselves and miss them; seeming to sabotage ourselves on purpose.

The utility of virtue, any virtue, is that it enables you to get serious about this struggle and helps the better angels of your nature to win it more often. Virtues then are tools that make you stronger, just like a lever makes you stronger.

The Social Dilemma is a Netflix documentary. And it's well worth the watch.

It presents itself as a documentary about technology. But it's really a documentary about how technology is using our biology to hijack our attention. There are some dubious leaps and fearmongering in here -- and I don't begrudge them, this is an entertainment product, after all. And you need some kind of charge to pull you through the story.

But the thing that occurred to me as I watched it, is that this struggle of ourselves vs. ourselves, ourselves vs against our evolutionary nature is hardly unique to social networks.

Evolution has handed us a series of traits and systems that don't quite fit the times we live in. And, upon closer examination, much of the modern world can seem to be a bunch of barely functional workarounds for the systems that evolutionary biology has handed us that no longer serve us well.

The Great Tradeoff

For starters, there is the great tradeoff that creates civilization itself. Agriculture. The evidence seems to be that we function better on the kind of fresh, whole food that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle provides, but you can't have a city of hunter-gatherers.

You can't accumulate intellectual or physical capital -- productive knowledge and resources -- if you're nomadic. For that, you need settled agriculture -- a surplus of production and a way to store it. For example, grain. For another example, beer. in other words, processed foods.

The foundation of settled civilizations, about 5000 years ago, perfectly corresponds to this trade-off. And the funny way to say it is, there is no civilization without fermented beverages. But just because it is funny, doesn't take anything away from it being true -- or profound.

Another example is our inherent laziness. We are magnificently lazy creatures in thought and deed. In an evolutionary sense, this is not a bug, it's a feature. Don't expend calories when you don't have to. But you making something of yourself as a person requires defeating this essential biology. You must defer gratification, foregoing current enjoyment for a later reward. And this requires that when you are at your most attractive and indestructible that you spend most of your time NOT doing every attractive person and drug that crosses your hormone-addled path.

Another problem is while our bodies have evolved to move, the modern world rewards us for sitting. And all of the technological progress reduces our daily needs to lift and haul and run and climb.

I don't want to downplay laziness. When combined with creativity, it is the source of all progress, and thus something of an under-appreciated virtue in itself. Guaranteed, the people who invented the aqueduct and irrigation system were smart, lazy, and very, very sick of carrying water.

Consider also, our stress response. We evolved for short bursts of acute stress, “Holy Shit this Tiger is going to eat me!” and then to process this trauma through physical activity in social settings. But the modern world plays havoc with this stress response system. We are faced with a constant low-level of stress, no movement, and an epidemic of loneliness. Where once there was a bowling league or sewing circle, now there is Facebook.

Virtue as Resistance to Biology?

Another way I can conceptualize virtue is the resistance to those aspects of our biology that no longer serve us. We have a profound instinct for self-preservation. Yet people can and do sacrifice themselves for others all the time. Yes, we have also evolved to be social animals, but when evolutionary drives conflict, we do have some power to choose. Or rather, we could be powerful enough to make a virtuous choice, if we make the effort to develop that power.

A key claim of one of the interviewees in the Social Dilemma is that the power of technology has overcome human weaknesses. That it is stronger than we are when we are at our weakest. And that someday, technology will overcome human strengths. It's lovely, squishy, TED talk hyperbole, but that doesn't mean there's not a grain of truth in it.

The danger suggested is that we become addicted to social media and because the algorithms which power social media are ruthlessly amoral -- not only not interested in truth, but also cannot make determinations of truth -- they will just feed us reinforcing information, placing each of us in our little bubble. So that we come to think that our preferences are objective reality.

There is a real danger in this. And I see this the effects of this in people, in the real world, all the time. But people rarely updated their beliefs before the advent of social media... so I wonder if now, some of the horror of this is that we have data on it. In essence, we can see it clearly.

The root problem, becoming addicted to a substance that hijacks our biology to make us feel good, but winds up being terrible for us, is neither novel nor an existential threat. This happens to people all the time.

There's are lots of things that are addictive in precisely the same way that social media can be. More addictive, in fact. I could accept that Facebook is more harmful in aggregate than Cocaine or Tobacco, but I can't accept that Facebook is more addictive, chemically than those substances.

And this becomes especially clear when you think a bit more deeply about addiction. Many people want to explain why someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. But that's the wrong question. The thing to be explained is not why a few people become addicted to drugs -- the answer is simple. Drugs are great. Who doesn't like a massive dopamine hit? The question is "Why doesn't everyone become addicted to drugs?" Or more to the point, "Why doesn't everyone become addicted to social media?"

Now, you could argue that everyone is addicted to social media -- or perhaps, email, at least -- but for me, that is to say, that everyone who drinks is or will become an alcoholic.

But they don't. Why is a fascinating question, that I'm not qualified to fully unpack. But while addiction is a serious problem for humanity, it's not an existential threat.

Some of our resistance to this is undoubtedly cultural. We have been handed a culture that helps us be more effective. That protects us from all kinds of things. The workweek is a convention. Rage on the weekends, but come Monday, you should be reasonably sober and industrious. If everyone around you is doing basically the same thing, it becomes easier for you to do so.

But there is another source of resistance to dissipation. The idea that the hard thing you are trying to do is more worthwhile than getting drunk, or wasting your life on social media. A sense of meaning, purpose, and moral worth.

Purpose, Meaning and Moral Worth?

But what shared sense of meaning, purpose and moral worth do we have as a culture? What do we have as a general-purpose way to make individuals better and better at co-operating with each other?

In the West that used to be Christianity. But not anymore. Maybe not for 200 years or so among intellectuals.

I think humans need religious systems to orient themselves in the world. And we need them so much that it seems like we will create them, on the spot, out of whatever stories we have at hand.

As Reinhold Neibuhr observed in 1937.

"An explicit denial of the sacred always contains some implied affirmation of a holy sphere. Every explanation of the meaning of human existence must avail itself of some principle of explanation which cannot be explained. Consequently, the avowedly secular culture of today turns out upon close examination to be either a pantheistic religion which identifies existence in its totality with holiness, or a rationalistic humanism for which human reason is essentially god or a vitalistic humanism which worships some unique or particular vital force in the individual or the community as it's god, that is, as the object of unconditioned loyalty."

Our understanding of virtue has been grounded in religious belief. Maybe Neibuhr is right and this is inescapable. But maybe not.

I think because our concept of virtue in the West is grounded in Christianity and religion has fallen into ill-repute in educational institutions, we have stopped teaching moral examples.

I can see how you can object to many of the moral examples of the past and you should. Rail at all of these things and see which ones stand up as something we could reasonably agree on as true and worthy. But to reject all moral examples? To suggest that no one way of life is no better or worse than another? To appreciate all values equally? That's madness. And it leaves an individual with no way to orient themselves in the world. If all ways of viewing the world are the same, then nothing matters. And the individual becomes adrift.

What hard things are worth doing and why? If you have no answer, well, suicide, why not suicide? And compared to suicide, why not fritter and waste the hours of every day on Social Media? It's all pointless anyway?

As I've been thinking about Humility and the epidemic of Narcissism that plagues our society, I've wondered if you took Social Media back to 1944, would people adopt it in the same way? I don't think so. My sense is that my depression-era Grandparents would have been mortified to post a picture of what they had for lunch online. And they would have been revolted by influencers who were famous for merely being famous.

The documentary also has what I find to be a pretty shoddy intellectual lapse. It that the tech people fail to question their assumption that tech is the most important thing; and only technology can solve the problems that technology creates. This may be true, but every time I have have a convenient thought like that -- for example, like the idea that everyone should read more fiction -- my intellectual integrity demands that I check that assumption. It's just a little too convenient.

Making the World a Better Place?

There is another strange thing about this documentary. Many of the people interviewed speak about how they thought they were going to make the world a better place with the tools they were creating. And that they are surprised and saddened at the unintended consequences of their work.

They wanted to make the world a better place. But the closest the documentary comes to have having a discussion about what better might actually be is a vague intuition that people should not be used as means but treated as ends unto themselves.

I am left with the suspicion that maybe they wanted to believe that they were trying to do good, but didn't examine themselves too closely, because they were too busy making truly astounding amounts of money. And that thinking about it too deeply might have given them the kind of spiritual indigestion that nobody wants to live with.

And lastly, most of the people interviewed seem to tacitly assume that they, or people like them, should be allowed to solve whatever problems they created. And that they are uniquely suited to doing it. This seems akin to making an arsonist your Fire Chief or hiring a guy who beat his wife to death to be your marriage counselor. The problem is not that they don't have credible expertise in the subject.

So, to the extent that you think Facebook is a nightmare, maybe you shouldn't rely upon its creators for a remedy.

I don't think Facebook or YouTube or Twitter or any other social media is a nightmare. Anymore than whiskey is a nightmare. Alcohol is a dangerously addictive substance. But most people manage it just fine.

The question we should ask is, how do we manage not only Social Media but all of our addictive, evolutionarily-wonky struggles better?

And I think that there is a sound basis to characterize virtue as those traits and tools and habits that help you overcome the very human proclivity to self-sabotage. And there is nothing about this definition that requires you to believe in any particular divinity or sense of right or wrong. You can believe in anything you want and this still works.

Which is why I think it's worthwhile to ask, what are the traits of character that allow you to reach your goals whatever those goals may be? And right now I don't think enough people are asking these kinds of questions.

What do you think? Posted it in the comments or, if you absolutely must, on my Facebook page.