What Hath God Wrought? Capitalism Contributes to Cultural Decadence and the Atrophy of Social Capital

The first message sent by the new technology of the telegraph in May 1844 was “What hath God wrought?”  The text was a bit misleading because an American had invented the telegraph and the U.S. Congress had paid for construction of the first telegraph line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland.  Neither Samuel Morse, nor the Congress, had much divinity to speak of.

But apparently, Morse’s “message” was of deeper meaning.  He took the question from the book of Hebrews in the Bible referring to God’s plan for the Hebrew people to achieve greatness in a land reserved for them.  I think Morse was not only referring to prospects for his own native land, but to God’s plan to have humanity invent new technologies in his creation.

Now, when we contemplate the impacts of social media, should we again praise God for what we have done to ourselves?  Is social media part of a loving and gracious God’s plan for humanity? Or maybe it’s a plan of the jealous God of the Old Testament who takes care in his own ways of the recalcitrant among us who “walk not in his ways?”  Who knows for sure?

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, recently wrote an encomium to his invention in the Wall Street Journal.  His case is: “Today’s young people haven’t been ruined by social media. They’ve been equipped to unleash the power of a new technological era.”

He complains about the narrative that social media has turned them “into entitled narcissists, hopelessly distracted by superficial and trivial concerns.”  He then cites a 2018 Pew survey that found members of Gen Z valuing social media as “a key tool to connecting and maintaining relationships, being creative and learning more about the world, keeping them in touch with their friend ‘feelings.’”

Hoffman finds the Gen Z cohort living lives characterized by participation and community.

He also touts the value of growing up as a “we” and not an “I’ because careers today are all about the team, not the individual.  The individual, more and more, counts for less and less.

No wonder young people are more and more anxious and depressed.  They, themselves, don’t matter all that much.  Without safe spaces provided by “community,” their personal lives have little purpose and less meaning.  Their lot is not to find vocations, but to slog away as dependent cogs seeking recognition from the machine and always vulnerable to cancelation by the mob action of others.

In short, these network natives have little sense of personal agency.  That’s God’s plan for humanity?

But Hoffman believes that “adaptability is the new stability,” so that personal and professional networks are essential to developing that adaptability.

On the other hand, Jonathan Haidt gave us a very different take in the May issue of The Atlantic. His commentary offers as its thesis, “How social media dissolved the mortar of society and made America stupid.”

Haidt claims that Americans are disoriented, cut off from one another and from the past, unable to find common truth.  Haidt observes that users of social media learned how to present themselves as a brand, not as a person, putting on performances designed to spruce up their brand appeal.  Brand to brand relationships are not friendships, nor do they build trust in others, a form of social capital most needed in democracies.

Social media became a blood sport, a game of likes and clicks.  Thousands of unknowable strangers lifted you to fame or buried you in ignominy.  The new social game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics.

Haidt is of the opinion that social media has magnified and weaponized the frivolous.  He reports that, according to a recent Edelman Trust Barometer, people living under the autocracies of China and the UAE have more trust in their institutions than do Americans, Brits and South Koreans.

He notes that when people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the narratives told by those institutions.

He quotes Martin Gurri saying that the digital revolution has fragmented the public and “it’s basically mutually hostile.  It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.”  It is a discourse regime where stage performance crushes competence and “nothing really means anything anymore – at least in a way that is durable and on which people widely agree.”

In other words, those communities touted by Reid Hoffman are not wholesome and healthy expressions of social capital, but rather, are toxic and insidiously corrosive of human commitment to the common good.

Social media has given more power and voice to the extremes, while reducing the power and voice of the moderate middle.  The online world of networking has allowed, Haidt claims, a small number of aggressive people (“jerks,” he calls them) to attack a much larger set of victims.  This may result because non-jerks are easily turned off and drop out, leaving the stage to the jerks.

But people who try to silence or intimidate their critics become more stupid in the process.

Social media has privileged confirmation bias – selecting to heed those who think as you do – which is the most pervasive obstacle to good thinking in people.

Haidt alleges that after 2010, American institutions got stupider en masse “because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear” of getting attacked and belittled or worse.  “Participants in our institutions began self-censoring to an unhealthy degree, holding back critiques of policies and ideas… that they believed to be ill-supported or wrong.”  In short, the communications technology made everyone more stupid.

It was a Gresham’s law at work – stupid people drive away smarter ones.  Thus, has technology created a “stupefying” process.

A third recent article which bears on our assessment of the goods and bads – the net impacts – of social media was written by Arthur Brooks in the March issue of The Atlantic.  He looks at our innate need for self-affirmation – satisfaction with our lives.  As a living system, our body tries to maintain stable conditions, avoiding extremes.  This is called homeostasis.  When we experience a shock – alcohol, drugs, emotions – our brains work quickly to get us back to the status-quo ante.

So, when we experience a lift from, say, success, our brain puts us back in our pre-happy state and so we act to get that happy feeling once again.  This is called the hedonic treadmill.  Once our sense of self-worth turns not on our inner convictions, but on what others do or don’t do for us, on externals, like money or position, Brooks says we will run from small victory to small victory, but never get “no satisfaction,” as Mick Jagger famously complained in song.  Without internalizing the insights of the Stoics and the Buddha, our race through life is, as Schopenhauer said, like drinking seawater; the more we drink, the thirstier we become.  And the same is true of fame.

How do we link this struggle against homeostasis with social media?  When we see ourselves only as others see us, we have become objects, no longer in control of our satisfactions, always needing the next hit of reassurance, the sense of power over others, validation of ourselves from submission to their norms and tropes.  Social media attaches us to others dysfunctionally and so triggers a need for more and more exposure to seeking what we are attached to.  This is the state social media puts us in if we do not defend ourselves from within using our moral sense and good conscience.

Brooks goes on to contrast haves with wants.  He argues that while we can never have enough, we can manage our wants and so slow the pace of wanting to have more and more.  He advises that the sources of happiness are intrinsic – “They come from within and revolve around love, relationships and deep purpose.”

There is very little of that on social media.

So, did God plan for us to have social media or have we presumptuously built ourselves a tower of Babel which will end up leaving us divided and without community?