Derrick de Kerckhove, PhD: E-mobility: The Social Impact of the Internet as a Limbic System
The Internet has a very important emotional dimension. People increasingly feel the need to share more and more personal details about themselves, their thoughts, feelings and ideas with the wider world, as part of their online existence.
This is true not just for the "friends" on Facebook, or for couples using match-making sites, but also for the whole of our lives as lived on this medium. It is true for how we share our politics via Twitter or our viral videos on YouTube. Social media act as the agent for conveying and sharing emotions. The online world works as an integrative system of impulses, desires and frustrations, which is moving at the speed of light. The great movements as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, or Spain’s grassroots movement Los Indignados, all represent collective emotions and connectivity amongst peoples across borders and cultures.
I like to use the organic metaphor of the human limbic system to describe this new system of social interaction. By using this metaphor, I want to explore the conditions surrounding the creation, communication and development of emotions on the Internet in order to throw light on the relationship between technology and psychology. It is important to understand this interplay before trying to analyse the ways in which the media modify our environment and how people are changed by the use of the media they are exposed to on a daily basis. This is especially important when it comes to a technology that transmits language, and which therefore becomes an interface between the technology and the mind of the user. Furthermore, in exploring the relationship between knowledge and the media, we can also examine the ways in which new technologies affect our conscious and unconscious processing of information and our affective responses.
When a medium is connected to the Internet, there are many emotional and cognitive events being transmitted from person to person, which in turn motivates the sharing of experience and also the call to political action. It is clear that today's geopolitical map of the world has been changed by the arrival on the political scene, via the Internet, of a new class of mass political activists, who are no longer the "Silent Majority".
So now that the majority is silent no more, the result is a kind of interactive human ‘massification’ consisting of the connections between many individuals who respond to some current issue as a significant collective. The Spanish network sociologist Manuel Castells called this the collaboration of many "mass individuals". Castells identified that the relationships that are established between individuals on a personal basis, from one person to another, are much more complex and articulated than those that come out of the reactions of the crowd or the anonymous mass. We can therefore imagine that the result of this endless interaction between individuals on the Internet is equivalent to the infinite multiplication of conversations over a cup of coffee.
These changes in the way we interact and relate to others in a mass social context are directly reflected in how we use contemporary media. In particular we can see a clear redefinition of the distinction between public and private in the conversational context of the sites connected to social networks, as well as the emergence of new forms of intimacy and the expression of emotions that reinforce both individual action and social interaction. This new experience of real-time sharing of information, emotions and opinions by individuals rests on what I call the emotional limbic system.
The limbic system regulates emotions in to the human body (as it does in all mammals). It is a complex set of smaller brain structures which occupy the inner part of the brain and is repeated in the two hemispheres. It was formed hundreds of millions of years ago, and is present in many other animals which are less evolved than man. This region of the brain, which is closely connected to the cerebral cortex, or grey matter, regulates vial biological rhythms, including emotive responses such as fear and aggression.
So what, in fact, are emotions?
•They are part of a system of bio -regulation which facilitates survival
•Physiological responses triggered by certain systems in the brain in response to stimuli and situations that are outside or inside the body
•There are two major categories of emotions:
Ø Primary emotions: those created through the process of natural evolution – eg. happiness , sadness, fear , anger, disgust
Ø Secondary emotions: those related to a social or cultural situation – eg. jealousy , embarrassment , guilt , pride.
The limbic system operates through the biological relationships between the various operating units of the central nervous system:
· The thalamus takes information from outside the body via the senses and transmits it in a different part of the brain, such as the cortex or the amygdala to trigger responses.
· The hypothalamus takes and sends information into the body by means of different regulating mechanisms. For example, it triggers the response of the adrenal gland to stress, which then causes more energy to be released for immediate use.
· The hippocampus record facts and data. It does not stimulate emotions, but transmits data to the cortex to be processed.
· The amygdala record tone and intensity of the emotions and informs other parts of the brain, especially the hypothalamus, if danger is present.
The concept of the 'social being' is not just a metaphor. It began as part of early tribal culture, but nowadays even in a modern city, where people are part of the collective social being, they are continually subjected to the emotional currents of the moment. The great theorists of the crowd, Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd: Study of the popular mentality, 1895), Elias Canetti (Crowds and Power , 1960) and Jacques Ellul (Propaganda : Shaping the attitude of men, 1973) have all made similar relevant observations about man’s social being. Similarly, it is also understood that where people have physical needs in common, an emotional exchange also occurs as part of the interaction. The arrival of real-time media, radio, television and now the Internet, magnify this process and speed it up more than ever before. In summary, therefore, we can say that the Internet has extended the influence of the limbic system of the individual body to the crowd.
We can more or less correlate the various elements and functions of the emotional network of the Internet’s ‘central nervous system’ to biological organs. The screens and keyboards, and all the technical equipment of PCs, tablets and mobile phones, are co-ordinated via the Internet, which is equivalent to the thalamus transmitting information in order to bring about action. Similarly, data aggregators work like the hippocampus to combine information from different media and sources, and thus enable the system to grow. Social media, like Twitter in particular, can be equated to the amygdala, which plays the role of an accelerator and determines the amount and size of the emotional response to an event. Just think of how Twitter stimulates its followers to instantly experience a wave of shared feelings with the crowd. Twitter is at once both very individual, touching everyone personally and revealing their inner being, while also extending the influence and impact of the crowd.
Social media, the hippocampus of the Internet, carry and store images and text that stimulate emotions and allow the aggregation of information and the sharing of facts and opinion in real time. Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms and forums, as well as other sites are highly regionalised, like Orkut in Brazil, make people react in emotional waves that can bring people from different cultures, religions and social backgrounds together.
The immediacy of social media enables the individual to get involved on an emotional level with current social and political issues. The readiness to respond emotionally to external public events results from the perception on the part of social media users, that they are connected personally with others sharing their own political views, with whom they are willing to share information and news in real time.
Examples of the interface between the personal and the public are the views and arguments exchanged about current issues such the response to the global financial crisis, and the growing call for greater transparency and responsibility by large financial institutions. The collective response via social media to issues such as these raises the growing indignation of the crowd. In the past, people tended to have more tolerance of corrupt governments or firms because there was a lack of accurate information, but now, especially after Wikileaks, there exists via social media a sort of permanent state of alertness which can trigger a collective cognitive response.
The Wikileaks case was the start of a new political reality, where transparency has a value, information is currency, and where awareness and responsibility have become an ethical event. The second shoe has now dropped with revelations by former NSA agent Edward Snowden regarding everyone being spied upon by the National Security Agency of the United States. Transparency is here to stay.
We experience global emotions all the time, but we don’t always realize it. For example, we share the global dismay regarding the revelations – and subsequent treatment of Edward Snowden – and simultaneously experience a subconscious solidarity with the multitude on this topic. The era of transparency throws light on scandalous practices from trusted institutions. A global unease sets in making people ripe for local flare-ups. Everybody is involved in and with Ukraine and everybody has an opinion. The Sotchi Games give mixed feelings to everyone. The mobile society is e-mobile like e-motion.
The reasons for individuals and groups to become indignant about specific events or information can, however, seem even less clear today as the world has become too complex, vast and interdependent . We live in a state of interconnectivity that has never before existed.
For example, a small book by Stéphane Hessel, published in France in 2010 started the international movement called ‘Los Indignados’. It grew via social media first in Spain and then in many other countries, producing over a thousand emotional waves beyond the borders of France. To quote Hessel:
The real outrage is not born hating, but by empathy and solidarity with others, and in this sense it is a natural effect of interconnectivity associated with real political and social unrest . It moves beyond the need of the individual to be communal experience, something more universally human.
The Internet and Web 2.0 tools introduced into civil society a real possibility of unstructured expression, without hierarchies, participatory and collaborative. Through the process of sharing, in a spontaneous and emotional way, a "global village" was enabled.
That said, on the other hand, collective political participation online has also been derided as so-called "clicktivism" from the contraction of the word ' activism ' with the verb ' click'. This means the simple act of clicking on like, which can be seen as a lazy way of belonging to the group, and not a real social membership. See Micah White:
“In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone."
This rather harsh judgement of the political impact of social media based movements ignores the fact that people did get involved through demonstrating in the streets. The Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, clearly goes beyond mere clicking and involves real mobilization of people at the physical level.
From the Arab uprisings to the protests in Iceland, people have progressed from what began online to a street movement that powers and connects heterogeneous communities. The Indignados from all over the world, the aganaktismenoi of Greece, The Anonymous, the M-15 in Spain and all other facets of the Indignez-vous phenomenon, including the reaction to the last elections in Italy, are clear examples of this new phenomenon.
The American sociologist Zeynep Tufecki, who has thoroughly studied the various stages of the so-called ' Arab Spring ', has called this phenomenon "network effects", by which she means the impact of network communications on the behaviour of the mass in times of crisis. The Internet changes the structures and forms of social networks, increasing the speed of communication - modifying and restructuring the public sphere.
In my view, the most important thing to understand and study in these examples is the fact that the Internet allows individuals to extend their impact beyond the confines of their own room and go global. As Tufecki points out, there had been more than 7 street protests in Tunisia before the event that gave the starting signal to the Arab Spring. For example, in Gafsa, a town in the deep south of Tunisia, there were protests in 2008, which were followed by brutal repression, not only of individual protestors, but also of information. Tufecki notes that at the time of the original protests there were only 28,000 Facebook users in Tunisia. But after the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in 2010, the protest movement was launched that became viral. And by this time there were two million Facebook users in Tunisia. This shows that the impact of the network is so strong that it can challenge even extreme brutality of repression, which is why I believe we are seeing a social impact of a limbic system.
We must also understand, however, that the phenomenon of social mobilization was not born yesterday or even three years ago. There are precedents that can be interpreted as stages of social maturation of the limbic system. Even before the expansion of the Internet, as early as 1989 Chinese dissidents were able to use faxes to send news and images of repression at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, despite government censorship and control of the press and the mainstream media.
In 1994, when the masked Subcomandante Marcos appeared on the Internet as the face of the rebellion in the Mexican state of Chiappas, this was the start of public opinion evolving from local to global. It was no longer possible for the world to ignore the injustice done by the Government of Mexico against the farmers in that region in the name of multinational food companies.
The special case of the Philippines is evidence of the different capacities of the Internet and SMS to provoke an emotional response from the people. For a couple of years (1999 - 2001) it was known that the Estrada government was involved in many corruption scandals. But an initial protest in 2000 on the Internet had not resulted in a mass impact because, although there were a million Filipinos connected in the world, only 50,000 of these were in their own country, the rest living as expatriate workers in countries. In 2001 , perhaps because the use of SMS in the Philippines was still free, and it was possible to contact thousands of people with just one message, those with mobile phones raised enough anger and indignation amongst the populace to bring down the Estrada government.
In Iran in 2009, the use of Twitter raised awareness of electoral fraud, threatening to invalidate the re-election of the government, but was stopped because of repression:
More on Iran clashes ….Twitter, .. especially because of its integration with mobile phones…is in fact the only channel more or less open or open intermittently, through which news and information can get through about what is happening in the Islamic Republic after the disputed Iranian presidential election that saw the victory of Ahmadinejad.
As commented by the Washington Post:
What we are seeing is the flickering flame of freedom. People are willing to risk their lives to protest a system that oppresses them and denies them fundamental human dignity. Those who say none of this matters - that it is a feud between factions of the ruling class, that it has no chance of bringing about real change - are missing the point. The people of Iran are exercising their sovereign right as a people to stand before their rulers and say "no more". They are commanding the attention of a world that seeks to make deals with their oppressors. That Iranians are telling us they yearn to be free.
What lessons emerge from these examples? This new phenomenon of bottom-up political activism, not organized by political parties, but by ordinary citizens, has demonstrated that it will be very difficult to suspend democratic constitutions and hand over power to members of the same family or the same " caste" as has been the case before. In that regard, I am particularly impressed by the conclusion that Esther Dyson, chairperson of EDventure Holdings, an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world, gave to her reflexion on Wikileaks:
In the long run, WikiLeaks matters for two reasons. The first is that we need a better balance of power between people and power. Information – and specifically the Internet’s power to spread it – is our best defense against bad, unaccountable behavior.
Second, we dowant to trust our governments and institutions. The point of openness is to make those in power behave better – and to make us trust them more. Rather than viewing them as enemies, we should know what they are up to, and perhaps have a little more say in what they do.
See Inside Job, a documentary about the collusion between the U.S. government and the big financial groups.
Indignez-vous! – or translated into English as Time for Outrage!
Micah White , Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism , " The Guardian ," August 12, 2010
Reported July 25, 2009 by Luke Alagna;http://www.apogeonline.com/webzine/2009/06/25/liran-twitter-ei-mille-occhi-dei-nuovi-media )
Esther Dyson “WikiLeaks’ Flawed Answer To a Flawed World”. On line comment: http://www.viennareview.net/special-reports/wikileaks-flawed-answer-flawed-world-4556.html