In a college class on war and conflicts, I was introduced to Steven Pinker's famously debated thesis — that violence of every form was on the decline in our modern-day world.
We debated the topic profusely, divided on our stance. Pinker argued that the spread of Enlightenment values was bringing humanity closer to peace and further away from the impulsive barbaric retaliation that has shaped much of humanity's history.
Some agreed and echoed that from a rational data-driven standpoint, Pinker had a valid point. Political scientist and statistician Bear F. Braumoeller calculated about a 1 percent chance that we would see a new war today as deadly as World War I, and it's not surprising. If we look at the absolute number of war deaths post-World War II, it's a fact that we've lost fewer lives. It's safe to say that international law and state governments have to some degree reduced the likeliness of bad actors to act out without severe repercussions (if they're not the ones being the bad actors themselves).
And then came technology's glorious swoop, stitching itself into the fabric of our livelihood.
The second world war left behind societies that were tired of fighting. We sought out alternatives — different ways to get what we want, to be more powerful, and more importantly, to spend our time. Education levels around the world have doubled since then, with more people spending time in school and the workforce. The technology we use every single day is a result of us that. I suppose we learned to redirect our energy and emotion away from fighting and toward creating.
In an interview with NPR, Steven Pinker sat down to discuss how his decline-of-war thesis would answer the question"Is the world getting messier?" And this was for an article called "The Summer of 2014 Has Been A Messy Time For The World" — as we all know, things have only got much messier since then.
When asked if humanity would continue on this downward trend of violence infliction, Pinker said, "Well, how likely is it that we're going to start throwing virgins into volcanoes to get good weather or that you're going to have a return of slave markets to New Orleans? I think pretty unlikely."
Ask me that question today and I honestly wouldn't be so sure.
I disagree with Pinker for a few reasons, and to make this clear, I view these reasons from a personal perspective: my identity as a young lady in the 21st century, someone who struggles with mental health, a digital native who lives and breathes content online, and more importantly, how all three of these identities interact with each other.
Pinker brings up this thesis in relation to war and conflicts, but I believe that any conclusion about war, conflict, and human nature is incomplete without taking into account our behavior in digital spaces. Violence today doesn't happen on battlefields, it happens in the place we spend most of our time every single day.
The decline-of-war theory suggests that humans have progressed by learning the rules that keep everything in place — like listening to the state, following the law, and not starting an all-out war with whoever you want. But on the Internet, rules don't have to be followed so strictly. It's an opportunity to disguise violence, and the spread of something hidden is always more destructive.
Four years before World War I, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, where he said “How can we possibly expect to keep alive warlike qualities when all our interests and activities … are peace-like?”
If we are indeed becoming more rational and educated creatures, can we say with confidence that our online behaviors are peace-like?
What is The Audience?
I define it as a network of emotions, perceptions, and a sense of identity packaged into an online presence. This presence is a personality speaking to an audience and a personality who wants to be part of an audience. We're bound to the people we are online because we're hooked to how it feels to be in with The Audience.
Our reliance on The Audience fuels violence, whether that violence is to ourselves or to others, physical or emotional. We’re getting angrier and lonelier in a world with so much for us to consume and lose ourselves in.
Every morning, I grab my phone and I scroll through Twitter. Although I make it a point to keep my social media feeds free of anything that heightens my anxiety, I've done my best to avoid creating a filter bubble that keeps reality too picture-perfect. My Twitter timeline is a sharp barb of tangled wire, scraping in a stubborn mix of political and philosophical debate, passionate (and pretentious) techie talk, Korean boy bands (and the fandom fights that come with it), and heavy-handed opinions about topics like race, wealth inequality, religion, and ethics.
It doesn't take very long to find something that gets me uncomfortable — especially in the cross-fire between two raging little icons in a long harsh thread. It may be the lack of mass human interaction over the past 12 months, but I've become increasingly aware of how casually we try to 'fix' intolerance in digital spaces. We can label it "woke culture," accuse "social justice warriors" or continue to put the sole blame on liberals being liberals or conservatives being conservatives — the reality is the majority of us are bound to an unspoken expectation that everything we do is up for public discussion. We want to show everyone that we know better, and when we come across people that don't agree with us, we seek comfort in proving them wrong.
I watch conversations unfold as a member of the audience, sometimes perceiving these responses as shared experiences of my own. I get riled up, emotional, happy, amused. I’m connected to what I’m tuned into, and there's a high chance that my own conversations and social interactions online are a part of someone else’s experience too — as a passing statement, as a punch line to a joke, or maybe as leverage to a bad judgment about me. Being a member of the audience comes with a trade-off. You have to accept the fact that there are others in your audience too.
Everything we do, we've learned in order to gain some sort of social acceptance. Online, that social acceptance is amplified far beyond our schools, workplaces, cities, and countries. Everything we do is up for interpretation, and everyone supposedly has a right to respond and react in their own way.
Humans are social creatures, and for that reason, I think the extreme connectivity of our world today must be approached with caution. We've learned to perceive realities far beyond our reach, and the outcomes have undoubtedly been amazing. The Internet and social media have made information more accessible and transparent while helping create spaces for people of ages to build, educate, heal and rest.
But on the flip side, we've proven time and time again that we're consumed by the convenience of having an audience right at our fingertips. Our relationship with the Internet and social media has been dictated by our obsession to control a narrative. Couple that with technology's ability to help us visualize our utopias and you get an explosive combination of illusion and denial.
The Identity Crisis
If you think about it, human conflict tends to arise to fill a gap, whether that be a gap in wealth confidence, intimacy, identity, or faith.
As social beings, we have a natural desire to impress and emerge victorious because it gives us the acceptance we long for. Conflict becomes a means to an end, and the hurt along the way becomes mere collateral damage to reach our end goal of being respected and more importantly, not being left alone.
The problem isn't the Internet, it's our relationship with it. By depending on The Audience, we've amplified what's missing in our real lives and learned to turn away from it, creating a false sense of identity to be pursued — an identity that isn't ours alone. We are comforted by the idea that we can find a million other people on the Internet who agree with what we think, and that gives us the bravery to lash out at those who don't without an ounce of remorse.
We can't make up our minds. We go wherever we fit in, wherever we can get an audience, and the context doesn't have to remain constant — the only thing that remains constant is how we feel. The temporary feeling of adrenaline after tearing someone down and making a point, or the short-term bliss you get when your pictures and posts get more reactions than someone else.
Are we really becoming socially connected if we're evolving into digital communities that are being socially inept?
Over the past five years, we've slowly uncovered the ugly side of social media and the tech giants behind them who have monopolized our attention. We're beginning to question the autonomy that corporations, like Facebook, have over digital communities that account for almost half the globe.
However, our relationship with the Internet is a push and pull.
Besides chasing after tech giants, there needs to be just as big a commitment to empowering everyday digital users with the resources needed for a responsible Internet experience. That would mean making digitally transformed infrastructures accessible across all economic sectors. The disproportionate usage of online platforms across income groups and education levels further divides our conversations online — hence the reason why conversations on Twitter may differ vastly from conversations on Facebook, considering the platform's popularity concentrated among users who make 9% more than the average American.
Corporations and their business practices are half the equation, and the other half is us. It's how interact with the information before us, how we perceive that information in relation to the world around us. It's how we separate an escape from reality.