Are Social Media Soma?

“If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant…” Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World follows a character named John who tries to navigate a world defined by endless and silly routines of social behavior, and in which everyone is addicted to a drug, called soma, that lets them feel connected and valued, in stark contrast to their regimented real lives.

John’s eventual descent toward suicide gets sensationalized by onlookers and journalists.

Both Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 (published 17 years later) saw a dystopian future in which individuals were robbed of their freedom, but the mechanism of that theft differed: Where Orwell saw a Soviet-style oligarchy that hid truth and policed behavior, Huxley imagined that nobody would care about the truth, and that they would opt to let entertainment define their actions.

When Huxley revisited these themes in a non-fiction 30 years later, he noted that the world was quickly coming to resemble the fantasy he’d imaged, saying that anyone who opposed tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

All of this was before the Internet and mobile devices put social media into everyone’s hands.

Granted, the worlds of Instagram and Snapchat aren’t as immersive as the drug-induced dreamworld of soma, but the parallels are stunning. People spend many hours “there” every day (though more like two hours, not six), and their exaltation of self-expression is reinforced by feedback from friends and strangers. The slightest aspects of everyone’s lives are as significant as they are equal. We are connected, and we are never alone.

All the while, the real world is changing beyond our ability to perceive it directly.

The folks selling us on spending more time online will make the exact opposite case: Social tools connect us to reality in a direct, unfiltered way that was never before possible.

Only it doesn’t…

Read the entire essay at Linkedin