Sunday 07 January 2018

A tale of two philosophies (or, how philosophy saved me from the pressures of social media)

A tale of two philosophies (or, how philosophy saved me from the pressures of social media) Krivec Ales, CC0

In September 2003, philosophy changed my life. I didn’t realise it then, but hindsight is 20/20. And, looking back, I now realise how important it would become for my future. I was entering secondary school in Portugal, and we were offered some optional classes. We could choose either French or German as our secondary languages; I chose German. We were also given a choice between Philosophy and Latin; I went with Philosophy. It’s not that I knew what was expecting me. To be honest, I think I just didn’t feel like learning two new languages in one go.

The first class was... enlightening. Or rather, let me put this into my teenage self’s terms: philosophy felt easy. Sure, the topics were complex, but it was easy to get to a right answer, as long as you justified it in a fairly consistent way. In other words, you could bullshit your way out of a teacher’s question or a test. I realised I was fairly good at doing that type of reasoning, so I’ve enjoyed and read about philosophy ever since. This long-lasting relationship was born out of the desire to not have to study that hard and just go with the logical flow of things.

How come something as ‘easy’ as philosophy came to play such a big role in my life? Looking back, philosophy was behind some of my most significant decisions in adult life, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I started working in advertising in 2009, only to realise later that the logical deconstruction of philosophy would become handy when coming up with an idea. I started falling more for strategy, as the various thinkers I learned to admire provided useful advice to break down a complex issue into simpler chunks we could address. My job is to understand people, and philosophy provides a handy guide to think about human nature and the higher-order values that govern our lives, whether you lived in 1962 or 2017. In the last few years, I started questioning my relationship with my own technological devices. I realised that you can only go so far in competing with the relentlessness of social media, notifications and information overload.

This, then, is a tale of two philosophies. The first one is a modern one – the very post-modern philosophy of individual achievement, where the world is to adapt to our needs, as portrayed by our increasing dependency on our smartphones as gateways to everything. The second one is a mix of classical and contemporary thinking which tries to balance our tech obsession with other pursuits. Things like mastery of our own skills, or social exchanges that don’t depend on technology alone. It’s not that it’s a philosophy of disconnection, but rather one of reconnection, with ourselves and others.

The first philosophy is probably best represented by one of the most pivotal books in digital product design that came out the last few years. Authored by consultant Nir Eyal, Hooked is a quick but insightful read about how digital products (including social apps like Facebook and Instagram) are designed to keep us (the users) coming back for more. What’s fascinating about it (or worrying, depending on your perspective) is that the models and insights Eyal provides are actually strong predictors of behaviour, backed by other research on what drives us to do the things we do. In other words, these people know their shit… which isn’t always a great thing.

Consider this: 79% of smartphone owners check their device within 15 minutes of waking up every morning. In other words, if you’re one of those people who take a little while to fully wake up even after you’ve opened your eyes, you’re more likely to be checking email or Twitter than washing your face. If you’re more likely to wake up fully energised and pumped to do something, your phone gives you the perfect opportunity, means and motive to do just that. Answering work email, responding to notifications, posting a morning selfie to kick your day off... you name it. The phone is designed around your needs, but it’s also designed to shape your needs. And, as a result, your behaviours.

According to Eyal, every human behaviour is driven by one of three core motivators: we might do something to seek pleasure and avoid pain; we might do something to seek hope and avoid fear; and we might do something to seek social acceptance while avoiding social rejection. If you look at your phone’s homescreen now (or your ‘Social Media’ folder if you’re that organised), I’m sure you will find relevant examples of how each of those applications address one or more of those core motivators. Instagram can be pleasant to browse. We might go to YouTube and see a video of someone doing awesome (or as they say, ‘restore faith in humanity’). And every selfie is the ultimate act of social acceptance, but only if it gets enough likes.

Beyond behaviour models and our own anecdotal experience, there’s more evidence that we’re truly addicted to our own devices. I recently delivered a class to international Masters students and asked them how many times they thought the average person touched their phone on a given day. Some said dozens, others suggested hundreds. No one ventured to thousands, which I understand – it feels like one figure too many. But reality disagrees: according to research firm Dscout, the typical user touches their smartphone some 2,617 times every single day. On top of that, they found that on average Android users spend 145 minutes on their phones and engaged in 76 phone sessions per day. For Apple users, that figure amounts to 80 phone sessions. Or, for perspective, six to seven times every hour.

Granted, we use our phones for a lot of useful tasks, but what’s worrying to me is not the result of the study itself, but rather the fact that it’s surprising to most smartphone users. It’s often said that worse than knowing what you don’t know, it’s not knowing what we don’t know. And we don’t seem to know how much we’re actually spending (in terms of both time and attention) with our handy personal devices.

On top of that, 2016 research suggested there are now over 3 billion images shared daily between apps like Snapchat, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. If you consider that in 2017 there are 2.8 billion social media users in the whole world, and that, statistically, only about 11% of people actively create or interact with content, that means on average a fairly active social media user will share 9.7 photos every single day. Imagine if you had this pressure on you.

Maybe you’re already feeling that pressure. Maybe you want out. And maybe there is a way out. I’m not here to preach any magic solutions or try to sell you a self-help lecture, but I think there is something humbling in looking back to figure out our path forward. That’s where philosophy has saved my life – it helped me regain some values for myself and let go of some of this pressure. I haven’t disconnected from social media, mind you; but I have found meaningful ways to keep using it without constantly feeling like I’m burned out or just not good enough compared to other people’s amazing lifestyle photos or engagement figures.

That’s where the second type of philosophy comes in – I call it the philosophy of a life well lived. Whereas the first philosophy focuses on individual achievement and the world adapting to our needs and desires, this second type is more about how we can learn to adapt to the world and go beyond achievement to find contentment. If you want a simple way to split them, the first one is focused on how we can build our own identity through external means (like the content we share), and the second one is more about how our identity can be formed through internal ones (like the ability to stay calm or the courage to not have an opinion about everything).

Consider this, then, a philosophy of anti-addiction. But before we get to a few possible answers, let’s re-examine the question. If we can’t control many of our social media behaviours, that by definition is an addiction. How do most addictions start? Usually, by curiosity. I used to smoke (for a brief period of time, I haven’t in years now) and it all started with a curious question. “Can I try it?” The same logic goes with alcoholic drinks (we see others doing it, we get curious regarding what it tastes like), and arguably with social media platforms. After all, all our friends are already there, so let’s see what the big fuss is all about. That’s how my family got on Facebook and my friends on Snapchat (as did I). Everything starts with curiosity.

Now, a moment to reflect on the nature of that curiosity, brought to us by one of my favourite masters of aphorism, 17th century French writer François de La Rochefoucauld. In one of his maxims (from his splendid book by the same name), he states that “curiosity is of two sorts; that based on interest, which impels us to discover what may be to our advantage, and that based on vanity, which is caused by our desire to know more than our neighbour”. And here lies our first clue. What does drive that curiosity to try a new social platform? Surely many do so because of interest, but I’m willing to bet that most of us did it instinctively out of a pure fear of missing out. We wanted in because others were in; whatever it was we were getting into, we’d soon figure out as we began to use it.

The point here is that while modern age compels us to adopt the new philosophies advocated by these tools, I think it’s worth pausing and considering what we might be sacrificing in doing so. Having invested some time in the past several years with a fair share of philosophy books, I’ve found five lessons – or principles, if you will – that help me navigate this fascinating and oh so often confusing new way of living.


"Join the conversation" is ego talk 

One of my favourite contemporary writers about philosophy is Ryan Holiday, who became famous of late due to his thoughts and words on Stoicism, with books like Ego Is The Enemy and projects like Stoicism, for those who don’t know, is a 2,000 year old philosophy that essentially asks us to accept misfortune as a fact of life, and indifference as a way to deap with it every day. The Stoics also ask us to champion actions over words, and to let go of our ego. In today’s reality, I imagine the stoics would question our obsession with ‘joining the conversation’ for the sake of it, and bring us back to the need to talk less and, whatever it is, do more.


“Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization.” – Ryan Holiday


In other words, most of what we feel we need to share is nothing but an instinctual drive from our ego, which is begging for some sort of consolation about itself. We share because we want that moment. We share because we want the feedback through likes or comments. And we do it in real time because we want it now. But it doesn’t have to be this way, at least if our mental health has anything to do with it.

If we call things for what they are, we can slowly realise that none of it is more than us wanting to gain some external validation for whatever we’re trying to say. And in the end, we might just realise that most of our anxieties about wanting to know about the latest news, or being the first to comment on a given topic, ultimately deplete our energy and rarely give as many results as actually doing something about it. It’s the difference between writing a 2,000 word political rant and organising a local civic group or volunteering for a cause that matters, or commenting on a friend’s Instagram photos instead of just calling them and going out for a coffee.

Part of the reason for doing this lies in the concept of ‘everywhereness’, coined by author Laurence Scott. He argues that the proliferation of digital tools has created a wonderful new dynamic of being, in which we can be anywhere we choose and therefore we’re in a constant state of being everywhere. However, this comes with a price: that of being partially everywhere, and of never being fully anywhere.


“The pressures of everywhereness, which call for a collapse of here and there, can produce a sense of absenteeism, and the suspicion that, despite being in many places at once, we’re not fully inhabiting any of them.” – Laurence Scott


This collapse is what drives a lot of our anxieties, because it gives us the means to have it all and yet never feel content with any of it. The fact that we have unlimited content to consume, and only limited time and attention to focus on that consumption, doesn’t help in our mission to be ‘connected’ to our interests and the people that matter. Ultimately, our tools can process far more than we can, and if we try to keep up to its rhythm we’re likely setting ourselves up for a failure. Maybe the answer lies in changing our approach or questioning those very tools.


Sharing tools are a blessing and a burden

Habits (good and bad ones) usually require three things to happen: an opportunity to do it, the means to do it and the motivation to do it. We can maintain a healthy lifestyle if we have enough healthy food options in the supermarket or a gym nearby (ie the means), but we also need enough time to do our groceries or work out during the week (ie the opportunity) and last, but not least, we simply need to want to do it (ie the motivation). The same thing goes for bad habits: we spend more time than we’d like to admit on an algorithmically-organised feed because we had a little time to kill (ie the opportunity), so we wanted to just go for a couple of minutes (ie the motivation), and of course we had a phone and mobile data connection at our disposal (ie the means).

This abundance of options powered by our personal pocket supercomputers should mean that, when given infinite choice, we go for the best choices and feel content about it. Alas, our psyche doesn’t quite work this way. In Status Anxiety, one of Alain de Botton’s essential books for the modern age, he argues that abundant options might actually lead us to feel we never have enough.


“A sharp decline in actual deprivation may – paradoxically – have been accompanied by a continuing and even increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it. Populations blessed with riches and possibilities far outstripping those imaginable by their ancestors tilling the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe have shown a remarkable capacity to feel that both who they are and what they have are not enough.” – Alain de Botton


More means, opportunities and motives to share might not always be the best option for our own wellbeing. Of course, none of us individually are in a position to determine who decides how many social media apps a person should have. But we can – and should – make that call for ourselves. If we can share anything, anywhere, then this tends to create a dynamic where the more we share, the more we want to share, in an endless dopamine-induced addictive loop. So the more we share the less marginal gains we get by each thing we share, because, like any addictive drug, no hit is as strong as the first one. We over-compensate, share even more, trying to regain that initial high, but it never comes.

The solution, then, might be in recalibrating our own expectations of what these channels and tools fulfil in our lives. I give myself more or less fixed periods of time per day to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or email. I don’t use my phone in bed. These tools play an important role in my life: I read most of my news on email, and do occasionally post on social channels. But, I limit my dependence on them because, ultimately, they answer to me, not the other way around. Technology is a great servant but a lousy master.


We begin in admiration and end by organizing our disappointment.” – Gaston Bachelard


I remember when social media was championed as the symbol of a great new world, where everyone would be able to become a creator of information and democracy would benefit from this dynamic. I think recent years have taught us an important lesson on the secondary effects of social media ubiquity. It might be easier than ever to share, but that doesn’t mean that all sharing is equal, nor valuable, nor truthful. This isn’t an ode to stop sharing our lives, but by reading the news these days I can’t help but wonder if our admiration with social media is slowly turning, as Bachelard once put, into ‘organised disappointment’. We still recognise the need to use these tools, but often do so by thinking we’ve also lost something in the process.


There's still a chance to set the pace

One of the most fascinating parts of Eastern philosophy is in how there’s such a big focus on the idea of balance and flow. From Zen Buddhism to Taoism, it’s easy to spot in their analogies an indispensable communion between person and nature, the individual and the whole. A key part of it is in both respecting the natural flow of things and learning to go with it, while also keeping a profound sense of composure and self-control. It’s not easy, and it’s definitely not binary, but it’s a worthy lesson from the likes of Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese master who helped popularise Zen Buddhism in the United States in the 1960s. For Suzuki, this dichotomy between speed and stillness is of utmost importance to make sense of what’s around us.


“I often see many stars early in the morning. The stars are nothing but the light which has traveled at great speed many miles from the heavenly bodies. But for me the stars are not speedy beings, but calm, steady, and peaceful beings. We say, “In calmness there should be activity; in activity there should be calmness.”” – Shunryu Suzuki


In calmness there is activity, and in activity there is calmness. It might seem like a contradictory idea, but it’s actually a strong representation of what it means to be at one with our thoughts without feeling the need to profess them then and there. Or better yet, to be able to navigate all the energy that comes with an infuriating situation or a moment that requires someone to tweet about it (and why not us?).

Suzuki would suggest that, instead of giving in to our impulsive desires, we channel that energy into another breathing exercise or just gathering more information before reaching a conclusion. It might sound a bit too naive or passive when so much of the world seems to be wrong these days, but the truth is that franticness, panic and rash decisions rarely take us somewhere good, no matter how worthwhile they might feel at the time. To quote one of my favourite modern writers, Austin Kleon, it’s possible to “be woke without waking up to the news”. All we need is some perspective.


"Wealth does not involve having many things. It involves having what we long for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire." – Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Part of this need to keep up with the pace of information is rooted in our fear of missing out. It’s what provoked us to start using social media in the first place, and it’s a powerful hook to keep us there for as long as possible. I’ve struggled more than once in the past to keep up with all the news I wanted to, at the expense of a quality’s night sleep or general peace of mind.

The truth is that no matter how quickly I go through a Twitter feed or my email, there’s always more coming. It’s a rat race to the bottom, one we can’t win. But we can re-frame what winning is, and instead of becoming maximisers who are always looking for more, we can choose to become satisfiers who are always looking for how much is enough. Maximisers seek absolutes; satisfiers seek balance.


It's OK to feel anxious

A few years ago, I had a moment when I realised I was becoming addicted to Google Reader. I spent three or four hours each evening trying to catch up, and when I did I had the oddest of impulses – I’d look for more things to subscribe. Irrational? Absolutely. But such is the nature of addiction, whether you’re hooked on a drug or information. Looking back it feels like a slightly ridiculous anecdote, but it tells me something bigger about myself. To not have that challenge of keeping up made me anxious, so my response was to perpetuate the challenge. Letting to is hard because we can’t imagine what we’d do without the things we’re holding onto.

The same principle applies with sharing – it can get hard to let go because we have too many drivers to share on a given day. A cute dog on the street, a funny pub sign, a gorgeous sunset by the lake, the food you just ordered at the street market. It’s difficult because the world indeed has a lot of interesting things to share, so we feel obliged to share. And if we didn’t, we’d probably feel anxious because we wouldn’t know what to do instead.


“Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact which causes an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself.” – Sarah Bakewell


The existentialist movement, which has been around since the mid-1940s and in various ways impacted most of post-modern philosophy, suggests we should challenge this ‘victimised’ relationship. According to existentialism, as portrayed by people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, to be authentic is to have full agency over our decisions, and to decide with intention at all times.

Sartre and Beauvoir came up with this line of thinking under a different context (the Nazi occupation in France), but as an idea this stuck and is as relevant today as it was 80 years ago. The challenge is that by embracing this sense of absolute freedom, we’re also conditioned by a sense of absolute responsibility and absolute anxiety. To be free to choose our own way means that anything goes, and therefore we must find meaning in things, whatever shape they take. Sartre suggested that life ultimately has no meaning because that meaning is up for us to create. And that creative act never stops, it’s ever-evolving. To do nothing is the wrong choice.


"All of human unhappiness comes from one single thing: not knowing how to remain at rest in a room." – Blaise Pascal


If we contrast this with the thinking of Pascal, we become in a perpetual state of anxiety which, because it’s always there, becomes normal. But it’s also a paradoxical decision. Sartre, on the one hand, suggests we must continue creating in order to find meaning, while Pascal dictates that the sole source of our happiness comes from us not being able to stand still for a moment.

The answer might not be in trying to understand which philosopher is right, but rather what are the key dimensions in which we can apply both their ideas. After all, we can live a creatively active life without feeling the need to constantly talk about it on social media. And, if we go back to Suzuki’s thoughts on activity and calmness, it’s possible to be creatively active while remaining at rest in a room. The process here becomes more mental and individual, but it does allow us to remove sharing from the equation and therefore, slowly, break free from its anxieties. These are mental exercises, and like any type of exercise, it takes a while until we stop feeling rusty when doing them. To be anxious about our separation from our devices is absolutely normal, but only because it’s a type of hangover that we must learn to control in order to avoid relapsing. Like any rehab, it tends to get worse before it gets better.


Pick the right type of pride

But things can get better, and eventually they do if we’re disciplined enough about it. In order to find balance in our relationship with our devices, it helps to re-define what that relationship is supposed to be in the first place. Remember: technology is a great servant but a lousy master, so the role of mastery is our responsibility. Even here, though, it’s worth questioning ourselves: what does that mastery look like? If you’re an adept user of a piece of technology or social media app, you can say you’ve ‘mastered’ it. The problem is when we confuse mastering how something works and mastering how we should work with that thing. You can be an Instagram master and still be the servant of this photo-sharing plarform.


“Our pride increases proportionately to the faults we overcome.” – La Rochefoucauld


In order to battle our addictions, it’s important to understand what pride means for us. I was once a proud Snapchat doodler and fairly good at it, scribbling away little stories around my surroundings with stick men characters I chose to call Charlie, Peter, Dennis and other such names. But looking back, I can’t say I was proud of being so invested in Snapchat as I am proud today to be able to say I don’t depend on it to feel I’ve had a good commute. Pride doesn’t have to be a result of something we get good at doing, it can be equally about something we refuse to do. Sometimes it feels fucking great to be a contrarian.

Another way to think about this is to reject an obsession with connectivity and instead pursue a bigger sense of empathy. All our social media apps excel at connecting us to more people, more information, more things to do, but that doesn’t always translate to us stepping outside of our own world to understand someone else’s. In fact, you could argue the opposite happens, because when we get used to having everything tailored to us, we become the heroes of that story. But the world doesn’t know we’re the hero of the story, and most likely it doesn’t care.


“Empathy is a constant awareness of the fact that your concerns are not everyone’s concerns and that your needs are not everyone’s needs, and that some compromise has to be achieved moment by moment.” – Roman Krznaric


By stepping out of this perceptual vortex, we might be able to realise that the world is far bigger than our perfectly tailored Facebook feed, and that instead there’s far more richness from serendipitous discovery than absolute relevance. It’s the difference between only seeing the friends or journalists you follow on Twitter and having a completely unexpected conversation with someone on the train because of the book you were reading. These small moments matter precisely because they’re not tailored to our proclaimed interests. Our needs are not the be all, end all of our daily social experience. What’s the point of being more connected if we disconnect from what other people need in the first place? And ultimately, all we really need is to spend a little more time with each other, with fewer screen-intermediated interruptions.

All of this brings us back to the very first point, of how philosophy saved my life. I’ll be honest, I may have slightly exaggerated that statement, because I don’t feel my life is saved yet. All of this is a work in progress, driven by daily rituals, small actions and frequent mistakes instead of just big thoughts and complex contemplations. And that’s the nature of philosophy: to help us think wiser, but also act wiser. But as with any moral code, it’s not a fixed state, it’s more of a spectrum that evolves over time.

It feels important to open up this conversation in an age when everything seems to be too binary and polarised (no, I’m not gonna talk about politics), with ‘conversation’ being the key word here. After all, if we do live in this tale of two philosophies, then we need to choose what we take from each to make the best out of both. I’m not advocating for extremist views here, and that’s why it’s important we start – and continue – talking about these things, and seeing where we land as we go along.

I like to think that, for all their differences, there are common threads between the two philosophies, if we bother to look deep enough in the thoughts of some of their main proponents. For example, I enjoy the caustic honesty of La Rochefoucauld when he says that “the man who thinks he can do without the world errs; but the man who thinks the world can do without him is in still greater error”. But at the same time, I am still a bit of a nerd who cares about technology, and so find incredible consolation in the words of technology writers and individuals who are contributing to that field. To that point, one of my favourite modern aphorisms comes from venture capitalist Sam Altman, who upon turning 30 concluded that “the days are long but the decades are short”.

So for all the opportunities, means and motivations we have in front of us today, whatever we do, let’s make it count – together.



Rob is a freelance marketing strategist who likes to think about how to use technology wisely. In his free time he writes Salmon Theory, a weekly newsletter about philosophy and strategy. You can follow him on Twitter @restreitinho.

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