An Essay on Our Digital Transformation Communitea Books Writing Digest

Digital Transformation: How Social Media Reset Behavior in the Modern World

I was getting breakfast at the Northern Pacific Beanery one morning—it’s really a cool spot, attached to the train depot in Livingston, the diner has served patrons since the early days of passenger cars skating into the depot filled with people excited to explore Yellowstone National Park. I always sit at the bar on a stool with cracked and peeling crimson vinyl, across from the counter where the remnants of the old grill are, nearly concealed now by the coffeemaker, the grill has moved to behind closed doors; every time I go in there, I think about what the Beanery must have been like sixty years ago. The cook upfront, behind the counter has got his timing down to an art, the smells lingering throughout the diner, the sizzles, the whistles, the hisses; the clothes people were wearing, stiff fedora hats hanging with coats on the coat hooks by the door, the world was different, and yet, not that different. When I sit at the counter my back is to the dining area, and there is a row of tables directly behind me, and then a partition, and behind that the rest of the dining area. Behind me there was an elderly man, easily in his late 70’s, and he was sitting alone. Can you picture the man, coming in at the same time every morning, sitting at the same table, he might exchange pleasantries, only, with the waiter as they bring him coffee, because they already know his order, it’s the same every day. That’s what I imagined when I saw him sitting there. I would like to tell you that he was nursing a ceramic mug of coffee and a plate of eggs, over-medium, with bacon and hashbrowns, while flipping through a newspaper, and that he would lick his fingertips before peeling at the corner edge of the paper, turning, and then straightening the page with a swift, ‘flap,’ as he scanned the rag, and then continued reading. I would like to say that that’s what he was doing, but it wasn’t. He was scrolling through his phone. He didn’t stop scrolling long enough even to read whatever it was that he might have been looking at, just the continuous motion of his finger cascading downward. Suddenly, he would recognize the monotony in his behavior, and then set his phone on the table, and then he would sit there for a moment—less than a minute, even—fidgeting, and uncertain of what to do with himself, fearful of making eye contact with anyone, and then he would pick his phone up again.

I was born in California in ’84, we lived for several years in Japan before moving back to the states, my hair was sun-bleached platinum because I was always outside. I was in the fifth grade in ’95 in the Texas Hill Country, and I started high school before the millennium. Cell phones became popular when I was in middle school, and all of my friends had one. We were really good at T9 texting, because it was all that we knew, and we texted under our desks at school so our teachers wouldn’t see, and if they did they would threaten to take our phones away, and hide them in rectangular transparent Tupperware bins with lids that snapped shut as the air was removed; our teachers kept the bins in their desk drawers, and we might have gotten our flip phones back after class if we were lucky, but most of us didn’t care. My friends and I spent our weekends playing basketball, and if the weather was bad, we would wander around school campuses looking for open windows to sneak into so that we could play in the gymnasium. Afterward we would find a place to hang out, usually a Mexican restaurant, so we could order chips and queso, and waste our afternoons.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my ACT/SAT prep class, in a trailer classroom adjacent the high school, and none of my teachers let us watch the footage on the large wooden television sets that usual sat on top of the four layered set of metal shelves on wheels that our teachers would wheel in from the closet on days that, we would learn later in life, they were hungover. I went to university in the fall of 2003, and a year later, sweeping across select college campuses was a new social media platform, I had heard that it was kind of like Myspace, and that it was exclusive to college students—you initially had to have a college email address to sign up—it was called, The Facebook. I was pretty vocal on the Facebook, in part because we had invaded Iraq, and my generation had a lot to say about it, we had a lot to say about everything, because we were young, and we thought that everything we said was the most important and avant-garde thing to have ever been thought or shared, and also, because suddenly we could share every thought we had, whenever we wanted, for anyone in the world, all of the time.

In 2007, I had recently dropped out of college, packed what I could into my ’99 Honda Civic, and started driving west on Interstate 10, and without direction or intention, and after a period of exploration, I stopped in Pocatello, Idaho. This was around the same time that the original iPhone was being released. I was exploring the country on foot while others were dabbling with constant online access; we could access every single little thing from our phones, from our pockets, at our fingertips, the world had changed overnight; it was as if a switch had been flipped. The renaissance would affect far more than our technology. The tech renaissance would affect our behavior in ways that were so immediate, unconscious, and universal, that the influence was almost instantly normalized, and permanent. I wouldn’t buy an iPhone for another three years.

This was the beginning of what I refer to as the Great Reset.

There were a lot of conversations about how all this tech crap would affect the way people interact with one another, how it would limit our attention span, and how people might be oblivious to what was happening right in front of them. In the meantime, Facebook became mainstream, and the social media platform went on even to outperform Google’s search engine, before younger generations decided that the platform was for old people. ‘09, ‘10, ‘12, ‘15, like a montage, came and went, and the world got smaller and smaller, and the tech debates were buried in content. Our past concerns on the subject were traded for a new routine, anxiety, immediacy, and notional thought. All at once, it seemed that our political atmosphere had crumbled, parenting strategies were reevaluated, social dynamics were reinvented for virtual living, conventional media became challenged by social media, traditional rites of passage disregarded, and solving problems was no longer as important as forecasting and ejaculating them. Somewhere between ‘10 and ’15, the greatest regulators of prudent change in our society, overwhelmed by the reactivated mob, surrendered their talking sticks, abdicated their pedestal of reason, and faded into the noise as enablers, much like Homer, dissipating into the hedges.

Meanwhile, everyone over the age of twenty-five experienced a behavioral and cognitive reset. Everything that we were afraid of happening, everything that might affect the generations growing up in an intrapersonal tech bubble happened, but it didn’t only affect the younger generations, it affected everyone. We were all caught in a bandwagon effect of the tech renaissance as unwitting participants of a psychological and behavioral awakening. A few years later, instead of experiencing the natural evolution of life, we got stuck in post-adolescence, and we’ve been stuck there ever since. We cannot seem to figure out how to get ourselves out. Unlike our biological evolution, nature is not going to strong-arm us through the emotional development that awaits us. We are standing at the precipice, and we are going to have to figure out how to cross it together.

The gentleman’s behavior at the diner was only a glimpse into our new reality, and yet I couldn’t get it out of my head. The elderly man had lived much more of his life without the presence of cell phones, and even longer without smartphones, I would imagine fifty years, at least, of conventional living and still it was not enough to combat his dependence, because it’s something greater than just dependence. My study didn’t conclude with him, I made note of the behavior everywhere; the elderly in parks, sitting on benches, overlooking remarkable scapes, while on their phones. The middle aged, out with their children, their friends, in social arenas, walking on paths next to ponds, rivers, and oceans, while on their cell phones. It’s remarkable to me that such a new addiction can completely replace years, decades even, of learned, and natural human behavior (especially when so many people are using their phones to talk about, “share,” and to “like” the importance of being present). It frightens me that there are accepted behaviors that were at one time discouraged, or even nonexistent, that are now normal, and they are so deeply rooted into our everyday way of life that the influence of the behaviors goes unrecognized to most of us. I realized that this isn’t an addiction, it’s far greater than a simple addiction, what this has become is a global shift of behavioral and psychological norms, it’s as if we shifted into an alternate reality.

The internet is an incredibly negative place, and it’s difficult to balance, or to separate our lives, between the two worlds, so we are constantly berated and/or absorbed by negativity. Even if we are in a prudent search of positive ideas and quotes on the internet, we are far too secular a society to relate to the context of any one idea at an introspective level. We are simply not emotionally intelligent enough to recognize, for example, that [in The Italians] when Gandhi’s response, to being asked what he “…thought of Western Civilization,” was not in reference to a political ideology, economy, religion, or culture, it would have had nothing at all to do with our cultural story and our social dynamics, but rather that we are stuck living in the story of our personal and cultural experience, and not outside of it, or living in the awareness of our experience; conscious living. Gandhi knew that it wasn’t that the West is incapable of experiencing life, it’s that we are yet incapable of recognizing our awareness of that experience. If all the world’s a stage, and we’re all merely players, how do we recognize the play, and stop performing?

We are struggling to accept that life is difficult, and a great many of the outspoken, those that protest the trials of life the most expressively, may find solace in knowing that life is going to continue to be difficult; regardless of politics and prejudice, of money and power, and of anxiety and fear, the truth of it is that the problems out there only seem as considerable because of our outlook in here. I know that a lot of people may not like that, and that they might adamantly disagree but there are two absolutes, respectively, the first, is that if you are fueled by anger, regardless of whether you feel your anger to be justified, you are causing harm, and the second, from a pervasive perspective, our societal differences are not universal, they are compartmental, it’s important to recognize that although we disagree, our disagreements are of the importance or the inference of an individual issue or idea. The argument(s) is not wholly, “who is morally, or collectively, wrong?” That is a relatively new, mainstream ideology, and that ideology is fundamentally flawed. Again, I know that many of you, at a personal level, might disagree with that, however, from a progressive perspective we simply cannot afford to think that way. We have to move forward collectively, which means we have to collaborate.

Enforcing an ideological sweep of an entire mindset is just about the stupidest f$&king thing I have ever heard. Part of the reason that it’s so difficult for us to understand today, is because we’re way too tribal of a society, we all have our own personal interests in mine—whether they’re actually based on anything or not—and we are activated by any slant of the proposed standard—and we are fueled by anger. It really is imperative that we learn to work together, regardless of our differences, and to think of, and to serve, others before ourselves. This “me…me…me…” ideology is a misattribution to personal strength and growth; not only do we not have to be selfish to be in charge of our emotional, mental, and spiritual evolution, it’s actually counterproductive to the cause. We are all in an infancy, in a manner of speaking, and without the luxury of guidance. We are not going to be moving forward, in any respect, until we can calm our minds, and our hearts, and figure out how to live with each other. 

            We need to find meaning in our process, regardless of whether that process, for you, right now, is one of spiritual growth: where meaning exists within you, and the process means a plunge inward, and a number of valuable and difficult subjective questions that have nothing at all to do with anyone but yourself; if the process, for you, right now, is one of artistic and skilled growth: where meaning exists in the work that you do and in your service for yourself and to your community; if the process, for you, right now, is one of physical growth: where meaning exists in your physiology, and your health and your wellness. In any case, we will not find our oasis, peace, emotional intelligence, societal reformation, or anything online, or in the minds and the hearts of people that we disagree with, or in the past, and in the tribulations of our past. We have reset, and that didn’t come with a disinfectant or complete system failure or a blank slate or a manual, it just came with a lot of confusion, and bitterness, and indifference. Fortunately, because of the great reset, were are experiencing as DIY of a situation as we’re ever going to get—I know how much everyone is into that now—and we can’t just want or wish our way past our differences. We have to relearn that whichever direction we do finally start heading there’s no finish line, there’s no ultimate goal—even in the event of a meteor, the apocalypse, or human error—if there’s an end, it’ll be abrupt. In the meantime, it’s the process, and, perhaps most importantly, a process fueled by love, that is going to allow us to progress.

          We have reset; we cannot run away from where we are, or from living, we have to grow up, and trust the process, we have to stop trying to force things, and start planting the seeds of growth, we need to realize that we can absolutely just pause, reevaluate things, and look at our situation from a different lens. There is benefit to everyone sharing a similar emotional maturity, because it means that we are starting from the same place. And I think each of us reevaluating the cardinal prerequisites is by far the best place to start. 

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