Offbeat 29 May 2015

In a column I wrote, donkey’s years back, I mentioned a favourite science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, and how so much of what he writes about comes true. For now, think about the mobile device, which I suspect inspired Apple. Also think about nanotechnology which is rapidly entering the realm of the practical. Perhaps, one day, there will be a seed for a self-building house. Plant it, and watch as the nanobots replicate themselves and grow a house.
One of the ideas that he used as a plot element and story device was the idea of a franchise nation, embassies that sprout up and sell citizenship in geographically dispersed enclaves, sort of like gated residential communities, but with citizenship, micro-economies and legal, social and values systems modeled on the parent nation. Just buy your passport as a way in. Maybe he got it wrong, but maybe he got it almost right.

Here’s where I am heading: China has a populace of about 1,32 billion, Catholics number about 1,3 billion and Facebook had 1,44 billion active monthly users in the first quarter of 2015.
In terms of global commonality, Facebook is the largest hegemony on earth. It is a dispersed commonality, akin to the franchise nation. ‘Sign up for free and see where things go.’
Obviously Facebook has vast political and social potential for better or for worse. To their credit, they limit the control they exert. They draw certain boundaries on things that repulse normal human beings: pedophilia, gratuitous violence, and intolerance that leads to hate crimes and cyberbullying. For the rest, they leave it alone, warts and all, as a mirror of society. For instance, if you don’t like racism, don’t go to pages that are obviously racist.
For some reason they seem to have a thing against female nipples and genitalia of both sexes, but my guess is this is as a result of general consensus on the part of its users. In some ways, it’s a mercy. I wouldn’t really want to be a voyeur to the sex lives of couples that I know.
I know Facebook is huge enough to significantly alter the social evolution of humanity and, when you begin to comprehend the phenomenon of ‘popcorn brain’, you will understand that it also contributes to the physical evolution of the brain. Popcorn brain? Google it. If you follow the CNN link, you will find a link to a dry but interesting study on PLOS One.
Personally, Facebook has been kind to me. It has given me with friends who share interests that I can barely hope to find in Namibia. On the other hand it terrifies me, culturally. Although there is equal scope for individual interests and group interests, there is also a tendency to narrow association: fitting in and excessive agreement.
The perfect example of this is the huge number of quote memes that appear every day. These are typically quotes usually with a background of some kind of scenery, a kitten or something bland. The quote will travel virally between friends who repost the same thing from one another. I see the average quote about four to eight times.
The effect of this is that inspiration itself becomes uniformity. The quote makes everyone believe the same thing. That may seem desirable, but in accepting what I shall call the ‘MacInspiration’, there is a reduced need to arrive at a personal insight and little or no need for self-realisation. Facebook becomes the opiate of the masses.
This may have ramifications for global peace as warring parties in the Middle East realise that they all share a love of the same smiling kittens, but if everyone begins to rely on the same quotes for brain food, who will produce the next quotes?
Suddenly, the need to highlight differences is becoming important to me. Like any great commonality Facebook has the power to alter the future, but the prospect of uniformity of thought is alarming. Although we can all theoretically communicate, the quality of the bulk of communication and the transfer of uniform beliefs are sufficient reasons to be very concerned.
Who will think, and how, in future?


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