The world runs on one thing: people’s feelings. And no, I don’t mean the coddled, “Oh, we’re spoiling the youth,” safe-space-type feelings. I mean emotions. Emotions rule the world.
This is because people primarily spend money on things that make them feel good. And where the money flows, power flows. So, technically, the more you’re able to influence the emotions and feelings of people in the world, the more money and power will accumulate to you.
Technology is simply one means of doing this. Technologies are invented for the simple sake of pleasing people. The ball-point pen. A more comfortable seat heater. A better gasket for your house’s plumbing. Fortunes are made and lost around these things because they make people feel better, make their lives easier. Entire economies are run on little more than a population’s whims and fancies.
The fact that the world runs on feelings hasn’t always been a bad thing. In the industrial age, it was undoubtedly a good thing. The majority of the population was cold, hungry, and tired. And the invention of machines and cities and divisions of labor and legal orders and representative governments—it all went to great lengths to relieve the population of much of its poverty and hardship.
The more technology and society advanced, the more people were relieved of their physical hardship and suffering. Vaccines and medicines have saved billions of lives. Simple machines have relieved the majority of the planet of backbreaking workloads and starvation.
But people’s desire to feel good never ends. So, during the latter part of the 20th century, with most of its populations liberated from destitution, the developed world continued to advance and innovate to make people feel good. And in this new commercial age, people began to look for greater comfort.
And because of this new desire for great comfort, we had a century of explosive growth in the technology of convenience—toaster ovens, washing machines, automobiles, fast food, air travel, televisions, electric shavers, and so on.
Life became so easy and fast and efficient and effortless that within a short span of a few hundred years, people were able to pick up a telephone and accomplish in two minutes what used to take months.
The commercial age, although more complex than before, was still a relatively simple time. Everyone’s lives were more or less the same. We watched the same TV channels, listened to the same music, ate the same food, relaxed on the same sofas, and read the same newspapers and magazines. There was a certain continuity and cohesion to this era that brought a strange sense of security. I think it’s this social cohesion that many people today are so nostalgic for.
Then the internet happened.
The internet’s intentions were good. Inventors and technologists in Silicon Valley had high hopes for a networked and computerized planet. They worked for decades toward a vision of seamlessly networking the world’s people and information.
Throughout the 90s and 00s, companies sprang up to build the technology that would change and then later dominate our lives. There was a near-utopian level of optimism during this time. Technologists envisioned a highly-educated global population that would tap into the infinite wisdom available at their fingertips. They saw greater empathy and understanding across nations, ethnicities, and lifestyles. They dreamed of a unified and connected global movement with a single shared interest for peace and prosperity.
But they forgot.
They were so caught up in their dreams and visions and hopes that they forgot.
They forgot that the world doesn’t run on information. People don’t make decisions based on truth or facts. They don’t spend their money based on data.
The world runs on feelings.
And when you give the average person an infinite reservoir of human wisdom, they will not Google for the higher truth that contradicts their own convictions. They will not Google for what is true yet unpleasant. Instead, most of us will Google for what is pleasant but untrue.
Having an errant racist thought? Well, there’s a whole forum of racists two clicks away with a lot of convincing-sounding arguments as to why you shouldn’t be so ashamed to have racist leanings.
Ex-wife leaves you and you start thinking women are inherently selfish and evil? Doesn’t take a creative Google search to find more than you would ever need to believe that women are biologically inferior.
Think Muslims are going to stalk from school to school murdering your children? I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theory somewhere out there that’s already confirming that.
The internet, in the end, was not designed to give people the information they need. It gives people the information they want.
And sadly, there’s a huge difference.
For instance, I badly wanted to believe that the Trump administration was floundering and on the brink of collapse all but a month into its tenure. And without asking, Facebook dutifully showed me articles validating this desire every single day.
Yet, when I forced myself to visit conservative websites, to look at polling data, to dig into primary sources and look at historical analogs, I saw that this probably wasn’t true. That we were not in a clown car careening off a cliff. And if we were, Trump probably wasn’t the one driving it, he’s just the hood ornament.
But the fact that I’m most easily given the information that confirms my fears and quells my insecurities—this is the problem. This same network of systems designed to make me feel good every time I open my laptop is the same network of systems that is disconnecting me—disconnecting us—from the rest of our country and often from reality itself.
Economics 101 teaches us that when there’s an oversupply of something, people value it less. If we wake up tomorrow and there are suddenly 3 billion extra lawnmowers in the US, the price of lawnmowers will plummet. If suddenly everyone had a Louis Vuitton bag, nobody would care about Louis Vuitton anymore. People would throw them out, forget them, spill wine on them, and give them away to charities.
What if the same is true for information? What if increasing the supply of information to the point where it’s limitless has made us value any particular piece of information less?
If I read an article today telling me that processed grains are harmful, there will be three articles telling me tomorrow that they’re fine, and then another article telling me why all of the previous articles were wrong. By now, I don’t even care anymore. I don’t trust any of them. The abundance of contradicting information scrambles my brain and makes me just want to go play Mario Kart for an hour.
And not only do I check out mentally, but I become cynical and jaded as well. Fuck nutrition articles. What do they know anyway? They’re all probably just trying to make a quick buck.
This has become our response to seemingly everything.
The problem is when this level of distrust is turned on a people’s own political system, that political system will corrode itself.
Democracy relies on trust. Rule of law requires trust. If we lose our trust in our institutions, then those institutions will either crumble or turn cancerous.1
But the internet lines up incentives in such a way that it makes it profitable to breed distrust.
So, we’re fucked.
This isn’t a Trump or US thing either. This is happening everywhere. The Philippines, Turkey, Brazil, Russia, France, the UK. They’ve all had right-wing populist elections. They’re all becoming more fractious and uncompromising. The world itself is becoming more politically polarized. And people don’t trust most of the information they receive anymore, and as a result, they no longer trust many of the people in their own societies.
That’s because infinite information doesn’t enlighten people. It confuses them.
And when people become confused and distrustful, they resort back to their basic impulses, their instinctual drives to be tribalistic and self-absorbed: I take care of me and mine first. Fuck everyone else. If I can take care of myself, why can’t they?
Some techies argue that politics is currently being “disrupted,” a favorite buzzword for any negative fallout that may come from technological advances.
If you aren’t unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically a fancy tech way of saying, “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” Leaps in technology usually bring about a lot of disruption and destruction to older systems before more efficient and beneficial systems can take their place. Think the automobile killing off the horse-drawn wagon industry. Or Amazon devouring bookstores.
But what’s happening in politics isn’t disruption. Disruption implies that there is some superior system ready to swoop in and take democracy’s place. Disruption implies that the chaos is being caused by a greater level of order, not a lower one. But right now, we’re being disrupted not by the higher and more advanced parts of our nature. We’re being hijacked by the lower ones.
Civilization was built on people’s ability to suppress their baser instincts—their tendencies towards tribalism and narcissism, their penchant for slaughtering each other over superficial and imagined differences. It took millennia of education and advancement for us to learn how to not do this. Much of this education and advancement revolved around a respect for science, public debate, rational argument, putting multiple institutions in power to balance one another, and so on. We’ve barely even gotten it right the couple hundred years we’ve had it.
The problem is, as far as I can tell, the internet and its technologies don’t deliver us from tribalism. They don’t deliver us from our baser instincts. They do the opposite. They mainline tribalism into our eyeballs. And what we’re seeing is the beginning of that terrifying impact.
Everyone is pessimistic and fearful at the moment. Doesn’t matter what country you’re from or what side of the political spectrum you’re on. To everybody, everywhere, it feels as though shit is hitting the fan.
This is despite the fact that war, violent crime, and authoritarianism are at their lowest points in world history, and education, life expectancy, and income are at their highest in world history.2
It doesn’t matter, everyone thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket anyway.
And if everyone is feeling this way at once, despite the realities, it can’t be because the radical left is winning or the radical right is winning or the patriarchy or communists or Muslims or anarcho-fascist-ballerinas are winning.
It can only be because our information is losing.
- For more on this idea, see Francis Fukuyama’s Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity↵
- See: Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.↵