Social media and the collective unconscious

As regular readers will have noticed, I find the the invention of things like the camera and social media fascinating because of how they have changed our mindset in viewing our selves. The fact that we can now capture moments has made those moments more defining than they otherwise would have been. Not only that, but by enabling us to document moments, moments now exist to be documented. The fact of matter is that the idea of taking a picture of a moment, tweeting about it, or otherwise discussing it on social media is inseparable from the experience of the moment in question at the present time of its happening. It could reasonably be stated that the more people are inclined to document moments, the more they perceive their moments as being subjected to observation.

It is a fact worth remembering that part of what makes something an artefact of a current paradigm or idea in society is that the idea is shared. This is done so on conscious and unconscious levels. As much as we can deliberately circulate an idea, there are also many ideas we do not deliberately circulate or pick up, we simply notice one day that we have adopted ideas in society. In Richard Linklater’s film The Waking Life, one character discusses a study in which participants were asked to complete crosswords. Some were given crosswords from that day’s newspaper, some were given crosswords from an old newspaper. They found, again and again, that the people completing the old crosswords knew more answers, even though they had not done the crosswords used. This is just one demonstration of how well we unconsciously pick up information. If it is true that a significant portion of people feel that life as lived is inextricably bound with the feeling of being observed or documented, then that idea has, and is, disseminated throughout the world. It is a modern phenomenological and unconscious zeitgeist.

Observing this as fact of matter reinforces this feeling not merely as a feeling, but as a feeling galvanised in truths evidenced though life’s moments. As an example, I shall take the front cover story of the I newspaper today (02/11/17 UK)- Sir Michael Fallon quits government amid allegations of ‘sexual impropriety’. Any form of sexual impropriety is without a shadow of doubt wrong, and it’s wholly true that no politician should elicit immoral behaviour (that they do is beside the point of this discussion). However, we see something interesting here. The more serious a story pitted against somebody in the news, even when it is correct to do so, the more we judge and verbally scathe. More to the point, the more we see ourselves judging people who are documented in media, the more we feel that our potential of being observed is weighted. If we are able to judge so harshly, we unconsciously feel that our life is so heavily judgeable.

There is one other way that this is significant. In having an almost unlimited number of possibilities in which we can judge or simply think about people and things in the world, the more we feel that we are qualified to have an ‘expert’ opinion on matters. Each item we consider is a new experience, a new set of data with which to build our understanding. This makes us feel freer to cast judgements about more technical issues. In the current issue of New Scientist (3149), the editor defends their choice to feature Sergio Canavero recently, the surgeon who wishes to perform the world’s first ‘head transplant’. Many people rallied against this, saying he doesn’t deserve a platform because it is absurd, dangerous, even untrue. This shows two things. Firstly, the Joe public elevate their opinion to the same level as the professional’s well informed opinion. Secondly, the public voice also arms its self with the belief that it can chose what is actually said, so that they can only read about and view that which matches their worldview.

Something interesting can be said about censorship at this point. In choosing to restrict the nature and content of information, we also restrict the modalities through which we feel we are being viewed. The more that hateful content is removed from media, the less we feel that we are prospective victims ourselves. One reason that the UK loathes Katie Hopkins so much is in fact that her form of journalism dichotomises people into two sets- those who unconsciously feel like prospective victims, and those who unconsciously become ideological oppressors. What we can say is that the content we are presented with, and the content we choose to view, create the social mind as it is. The social realm is a place in which our subjectivities are subsumed into an unconscious arena through which ideas are stored and fed back. As the odious is fed into the collective mind, the odious is fed out.

Now, as readers of Hegel will be well aware, one corollary of consciousness is bifurcation. In the mere matter of experiencing the ‘now’, we create a clear cut divide between the past and the future. Objectively speaking, there is a tripartite-

  1. That which has happened.
  2. That which is now.
  3. That which will happen.

In (1) and (3) we require the capacity of projection. ‘The past’, as we conceive it, is a mass of collected detail. Distance in terms of time is simply not, before our lifetime, palpable. We struggle enough to achieve a real sense of what the time-measured interstices of the moments of our life really feel like. As for the future, the issue is similar- we have to project from the now to make decisions. The information we draw from is in its inherency an article of the past. What we need to realise is that (2), the ‘now’, isn’t merely a fact of ‘objective moment’. Each snap in time is conditioned by the collective consciousness, the ideas of the present as disseminated, the information in circulation, and so forth.

Our current ‘now’ is a very special one in that social media and the documentation of now (cameras, phones, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Instagram…) has reached a critical point where moments, as we have seen, are unconsciously experienced as observable, documentable potentialities of judgement on things, and therefore back on ourselves. This is very important because any reading of the past has to be conditioned by the mindset looking at it. The act of seeing is never impartial. However, since it is the case that this shared understanding and feeling of ‘now’ is so different than ever before, our perceptions of the past will also be different in a way they never have been before. Perceptions of the facts of our past do exist as defining facts of our identities, so we have a loop-

  1. Different ‘now’s create different understandings of the self.
  2. Different understandings of the self create a revised shared ‘now’.
  3. This revised, shared ‘now’ creates a revised mindset with which to perceive the past.
  4. This new perception of the past also creates a new ‘now’ and a new self.

This means that the self is being recreated firstly in the fact of the new role of media, secondly in the new self-consciousness of the ego in society, and thirdly in the new perception of the past. This offers us obvious ethical implications regarding social media. We do not have to monitor what we talk about, but we should consider well the way we talk about things.

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