Social Brain

February 7, 2021

by Steve Stofka

On C-Span’s Washington Journal call-in show, I  heard a caller say that they were glad to see the government back at work. The show allows callers to briefly say their peace. Roughly half of the people in this country don’t want the government in Washington to work, half do. Because of  the show’s early morning airtime, callers in the eastern time zone are overrepresented and most are mature. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, most appreciate the show’s unfiltered approach.

The Greek philosopher Plato observed that we are social creatures by nature. Each of us has the capability of reasoning – it is the distinguishing feature of human beings – but an individual walks around in a cloud of misperception. Only through dialog with our neighbors do we arrive at some universal truths.

Indoctrinated since childhood in an egalitarian, individualistic society, we reject this “group think,” but the founders of Facebook and Twitter have made billions creating a social platform for us to interact. Whether we unfriend a family member on Facebook or engage in a spirited debate with a stranger on Twitter, we are demonstrating the Platonic notion that we try to arrive at truths in our dialog with others. The Social Dilemma documentary explores the techniques of manipulation by those who wrote the code.

Some people hate capitalism. “It turns people into numbers!” We don’t think of money as a dialog. Bitcoin is worth $40,000 or it is worthless. The marketplace is a dialog. There is a group of “investors” on Reddit who are one-share owners of the volatile stock GameStop. One share. When one investor sold his shares – he had much more than one – he missed the sense of community with others. Yes, he had made several hundred thousand dollars, but he felt as though he had betrayed the community by selling.

We are human beings with big brains, but our fundamental character is that of individuals in a monkey troop. We assess danger by looking at our neighbors. Are others afraid or is it me? This berry tastes good. Has anyone else gotten sick eating it? We may choose to isolate ourselves from the group, but we don’t like to be isolated by the group.

In Star Trek: TNG, a race of cybernetic beings act as a hive of bees, a collective coordinated in thought and action. They convert U.S.S. Enterprise Captain Picard into a Borg member to communicate with other humans. Picard must endure the withdrawal of the Borg implants and never fully recovers from the psychological wounds of being part of that collective.

Plato’s take on this process is different. We communicate with and understand the world through the group. We are like the Borg in that sense, a collective of creatures, whose distinctive feature is their reasoning. We are intrigued by the social life of bees and ants, who use chemical clues and dancing to inform their fellows about the world.

Bees dance. Ants share chemicals. We dance by talking and writing, by tapping on our phones. We aren’t sensitive to pheromones, so we wear clothes and adopt lifestyles that signal our position in the group. In the new world of tech and social media, the chemicals we share are our data: what we ate, what we bought, what our moods are.

What do Plato and social programming engineers at Facebook have in common? We are Borg. We form a social contract not because it is convenient but because it is in our nature.


Photo by Boba Jaglicic on Unsplash

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