I once had a University Professor who explained to me why so many people, that were otherwise placid, tend to get road rage at the most trivial of instigations. He explained to me that because we interact with the car instead of the person we lack that vital human connection to experience empathy with our fellow road user.
When two people are walking in the street and find themselves almost colliding there is generally the briefest moment of eye contact that reassures both parties that they are dealing with another version of themselves. This is a calming empathy that immediately encourages forgiveness and patience.
When we’re on the road however, we find ourselves interacting with a large hunk of metal; emotionless, unforgiving, and un-relatable. Whilst we know in our brains that at the helm of this inanimate object is another human, just like ourselves, this lack of face to face interaction permits a level of contempt that would otherwise be tempered. This is why even the fleeting glimpse of a friendly wave, or even the sight of a face through the window can almost immediately alleviate the rage.
Some 15 years later, I can’t help but feel my Professor could have predicted that the world of internet online message boards and social media comments sections would provide humanity with the medium to propagate what is consistently the worst example of social communication.
The natural inclination of most human beings is a desire for harmony. The human race has ultimately succeeded due to this innate ability to understand the experience and desires of our brethren. By working together and for each other we have progressed as a species, from basic unity at tribe level, to the building of Nations. Whilst difference of opinion is invariably inevitable, the most cohesive of societies have had an inbuilt capacity for an exchanging of ideas and expression of desires that has more often than not led to a unifying middle ground.
The internet removes the vital components of human interaction. Instead of experiencing the human qualities of a person expressing an idea, we are instead interacting exclusively with the ‘idea’. At best it may be attached to an avatar or small photo indicating its human origins, yet the manner in which this idea is expressed, the context, the tone, in fact the very character of the person expressing it, will be almost entirely the manifestation of the imagination of the consumer.
This artificial and unnatural consumption of the idea is then replicated with an artificial and unnatural response. The most placid and non-confrontational being finds less concern with causing offence when not presented with the human recipient of their own ideas. Just as the driver finds themselves yelling obscenities at a vehicle that they would never direct towards another human in any other similar interaction, the internet permits the conscience to forgive outbursts that it would not permit were it face to face with another human being.
This then leads to an almost irretrievable escalation of inhuman communication. Both parties, convinced of the inhumanity of the other party, and emboldened by the anonymity of the medium, have descended to a level of discourse that neither would have been capable of before the age of the internet.
The most extreme, and probably most sinister, result of this phenomena is the ‘Troll’. Instead of unintentionally succumbing to trappings of internet discourse, the ‘Troll’ intentionally lavishes the inhumanity of the experience. In what could possibly be best described as a bizarre fetish of the human experience, they gain pleasure from this unprecedented capacity to interact in a manner which any sane human being, including themselves, would be incapable of doing face to face.
The manner in which we as a global society are becoming more divisive is a matter of much concern. The inability of groups of people to agree on basic concepts of fact is troubling and has led to an increased polarisation of the population across the political spectrum.
But perhaps this has less to do with differences of opinion but more to do with how we are sharing these opinions. Only decades ago, the majority of political discussions were had over dinner tables, in work lunch rooms, or in established halls of democratic institutions. Now they are the domain of inhumane internet pages, argued by faceless internet avatars. Devoid of the vital components of human communication that has served our species for thousands of years. We are instead left only with the bare bones, the words, the inanimate remnants of the human that expressed them.
The reality is that the internet and the realm of social media aren’t going anywhere. After evolving our society over hundreds of thousands of years, we need to rapidly adapt to this new form of communication before it surreptitiously exacerbates our otherwise manageable divisions.
How we do this is reliant on self-awareness, restraint, and the constant reminder that the person disagreeing with you at a keyboard or smart-phone on the other side of the world is a human capable of looking you in the eye, smiling, and sharing your experience.
We must evolve the ability to empathise over the internet or the fissures of divisions will grow to chasms. The human community has grown to encompass billions of possible human experiences that will never be directly shared. Our ability to understand and value the elements that unite us will be pivotal in ensuring the continued success of our global tribe.