Darren McGarvey: We're little more than cavemen on social media

The various social media factions seem keener than ever to dig in their digital heels, writes Darren McGarvey

We are still operating with much the same machinery as early humanity  but now we have got smartphones. Picture: Getty
We are still operating with much the same machinery as early humanity  but now we have got smartphones. Picture: Getty

I’m being careful to make the distinction here between social media and real life, mainly because it’s easy to conflate the two, whipping yourself up into a frenzy as a result.

In the days following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, for example, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the Fourth Reich was on our doorstep if the reaction on Facebook and Twitter was anything to go by.

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Sadly, it seems not many lessons have been learned since then. Rather than step back from the cliff edge, away from the abyss of unending hyperbole, the various social media factions, facing off across whichever political divide tickles their fancy, seem keener than ever to dig in their digital heels. The issues and factions change, depending on the context, but the tropes of the conflict remain mind-numbingly familiar and despite our sense of terminal uniqueness, Scotland is no different.

After taking in the annual GERS mudslinging match (occurring almost exclusively on social media), where seemingly good people on both sides engaged in the sort of bad faith debate usually reserved for nations at war, I am convinced there’s more going on beneath the bonnet of our public discourse than meets the eye.

In fact, while many of us claim to be motivated by a search for truth, the evidence all around us is that we are happy to go with whatever feels good. And nowhere better can we curate an agreeable reality than the nebulous domain of social media.

It is, perhaps, the biggest variable in public discourse; a key-battleground for political parties as well as corporate brands that depend on our unending, deeply biased, digital dither to provide traction for their respective agendas and products.

Yet, despite the apparent levels of sophistication exhibited by spin doctors, strategists, advertisers and, of course, we “the enlightened”, we still know surprisingly little about how social media interacts with our fallible human nature to produce, what often feels like, a complete breakdown in reasonable discussion.

Instead, debate descends into an argument about arguing. This is as true in political discourse as it is in the video game community; everybody, everywhere, is engaged in the same impossible argument.

Which may indicate that the issues we disagree about are only part of the problem.

It might surprise you to learn that, socially speaking, human beings have not evolved all that much since the Neolithic period. Granted, we have made massive strides forward in terms of language, technology and science as well as philosophy and ethics, but these advances are the result of collective efforts, taking place over vast periods of time. In terms of our individual capacity, we are still operating with much the same machinery as early humanity, albeit, we exist in a markedly more complicated era, which we often conflate with our own personal sophistication.

It’s no wonder the world seems to make little sense. When viewed through the prism of Facebook, its arguable that it isn’t supposed to.

Regardless of how highly we regard ourselves, we are simply not designed to perceive the disorientating scale of concurrent complexity social media presents us with. Yet, this profound medium has become the frame into which all of reality is poured and assessed, presenting our fragile, tribal minds with a dangerous world where everything is happening at once.

The contradiction at the heart of tribalism is that it brings about social cohesion.

The threat of the other team is what whips ours into shape.

But between 10,000 and 3000 BC, life’s canvas was not quite so cluttered. We had our family, friends and community and a very basic to-do list.

Everything beyond that, we merely speculated about and this worked because there was little to contradict our assumptions.

It was during this period, for example, that the idea of God began to take root as an explanation for the weather.

In many ways, our minds functioned optimally in that age of relative tribal ignorance.

But while the world we have built since then is certainly far more complex, the window we view it through remains rather simple.

The scramble to make sense of social and cultural complexity forces us to impose makeshift meaning on to events we cannot possibly fathom; constructing narratives that suit our needs and beliefs as we go.

Much of our energy and thought is deployed simply on the maintenance of these comforting stories, about our own virtue, because confronting their baselessness may untether us from the sense of surety we depend on to anchor us.

But rather than orientating ourselves, on the choppy sea of social media, we simply manufacture more confusion in a hysterical wave of Chinese whispers in which at least four billion others engage in similar levels of unwitting insincerity.

The people we disagree with are not just wrong, they are bad people with bad intentions and, having decided so, we reframe the world as a hostile and dangerous place full of idiots, villains and abusers – just like our ancestors did.

Social media simulates forward motion and provides the illusion of discovery, just like superstition did in a bygone age, while, in the real world, we remain trapped in an endless cycle of toxic rhetoric and knee-jerk politics.

Each arriving at our own “truth” through an individual calculation, informed by a slew of ulterior variables that often lie outwith our self-awareness: bias, self-interest, a love of the familiar and, of course, loyalty to the tribe.

Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social ­commentator @lokiscottishrap