Why Are There So Many Obnoxious People? Technological Isolation and the Antisocial Trap
Is it just me, or are there more bullies out there than there used to be? The tropes such as Karens, Kyles, Carls, and whatever name the depths of the internets decide to churn out next to be used to label less than savory characters, I think, are symptomatic of something else going on. While there is definitely a stress state in society at large, and this article is not going to address all the inputs that lead to people being generally nasty to one another, I am going to hit on one topic that I have been worried about and wrote on back around 2004ish after the launch of Halo 2 and Xbox Live became mainstream. I can just hear the younger people saying, “How old is this guy?” Let us just say that my first gaming experience was on a Mattel Intellivision and Atari 2600, and I still have the Intellivision to this day. Effectively the equivalent of a living fossil in gamer terms. Where I come from, there is no “pause” button, and there is no “save.”
I was around when the internet got kicked off, and AOL scattered CDs across the planet to the extent that Johnny Appleseed would be jealous. Side note, they always made for fun crafts, especially if you stick them in the microwave for approximately three seconds. Do not try this at home; it may nuke your microwave. It is pretty cool, though. It was a fairly innocent time on the internet with ICQ, AOL IM, Yahoo IM, Yahoo chats, modems screaming at you only to be drowned out by your parents screaming at you to free up the phone line. “Hacking” typically consisted of what was deemed “Script Kiddie” stuff where you would prank your friends online with software that would allow you to knock them offline, take control of their mouse, or notify them that they are being monitored by law enforcement. Good times had in all. I remember when blockchain was first introduced, I read the Satoshi Nakamoto paper when it first came out. Debated it with other information security professionals in my group and, unfortunately for me, decided it was a waste of time that would never amount to much. Pity, I did not go the other route. I would be typing this from the comfort of a private island somewhere tropical. Essentially, saying all that to say this, being a Xennial, I was around prior to digitization and followed it up through its adoption to where it is now woven into our lives. I have seen this transformation take place technologically and socially first hand.
Despite all this awesomeness of connective technology, a sinister force began to grow in the dark corners of the net. “Trolls,” bullies, people who were obnoxious in general, grew in the likes of 4Chan and pretty much any other _Chan channels and began to become bolder. People found that they could be rude, callous, and outright malicious to individuals online, and there would be no real ramifications and, in many instances, gamified it. If 4Chan sounds familiar, that is because that is where the QAnon conspiracy originated from. I swear, there should be a warning that anything from a “Chan” site should not be considered factual. What has occurred is that the traditional social contract of where if a person was malicious to others around that person, that person would ultimately find themselves alone with no one else to really interact with, positively or otherwise, or take a solid right hook to the jaw has become null and void. Someone could jump into a chat, reduce a person to tears, and then hop to another or take on another identity without any repercussions. When online console gaming went mainstream, this accelerated from good-natured prodding to trash talk to outright abuse.
While the thought is troubling, it would be relatively harmless if this malicious behavior that could generally go without traditional social recourse would have stayed in cyberspace. Still, the problem with humanity is that we are creatures of habit, and what works for us in one area of our lives will slowly begin to migrate to other aspects. Norms do not happen overnight. People do not like change, so effects ripple outward, slowly, like a rock thrown into a pond but moving at the speed of years instead of seconds. Going that slowly, no one generally notices a wave is even there. It just “is.” That is what makes societal level change so deceiving. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this condition itself, it is something that we should be aware of to make sure that humanity moves in the right direction and avoid toxic, destructive paths.
Technology is neither good nor bad; it is strictly how it is used, just like any other tool. The thing with connective technology such as the internet, social media, and online gaming is that it can act as a force multiplier. People who want to become better informed about the world, in general, can connect with people and with local news agencies from those very parts of the world. However, on the more malicious side of the fence, it can become an echo chamber, ever-increasing radical views and isolating people from sources that would be outside their typical interests or social circle. Social media has monetized this concept in the form of algorithms designed to increase views and clicks on sites to generate more revenue and was a major player in the 2016 and 2020 election cycles.
Put all of this together, and you have an unregulated, revenue-driven, engineered toxic stew of behavioral economics and echo chamber effects giving people license to behave in specific ways. We have allowed ourselves to become brainwashed without us even realizing it. This isolation created by the echo chambers and driven by behavioral science alienates people without realizing it. Think back to what happened through 2020 with the QAnon Conspiracies, the Trump Trains, violence against those of different viewpoints, the Capital Raid of Jan 6 this year, upticks in people attacking customer service, and general rudeness. Society is being isolated into groups and feels that we collectively have the license to do whatever we like to whoever we like with no real ramifications because that is what we have had reenforced starting in 1993 with the birth of the first internet browser.
Granted, I am glossing over many, many other aspects that have led us down this route. Between television, politicians, stagnate wages and social mobility, economic hardships, and weaponized social engineering to create division, to just name a few, the United States society is badly battered and bruised. However, I am pointing out how technology can lead to isolation and has led many people to a more callous and less empathic state due to the effectively non-existence of the social contract that requires us to at least be civil to one another. Humans are social creatures, but we are like cats. We have to be socialized with other people, less we act feral. As such, socialization is needed. We are wired for it, and ramifications for harmful actions should occur in the cyber world, just as in the physical world. Now I am not necessarily talking about legal ramifications but rather social ones. If a rude, self-focused person continuously gets what they want by being rude and hostile, they will continue that behavior. As such, there is no psychological (or evolutionary, for that matter) detriment to being antisocial where there may be a detriment for being cooperative due to sharing and compromising. Instead of splitting the cookie, just take the whole cookie and leave the other person without. Who cares about their feelings, right? That sounds really familiar to the mantras of mostly the political right but now being used by the left regarding the “f&$% your feelings.” And when people such as this are held responsible, they act aghast, surprised, and enraged as can be seen and frankly laughed at with video of some of the individuals being arrested for the Capital attack or being kicked off a plane for refusing to wear a mask. The shock that these individuals experience demonstrates the level of desocialization and detachment from reality that has taken place. It should not be a surprise to someone committing a hostile act to experience a hostile or antagonistic response.
So, how do we at least address this one component of the much larger phenomenon currently happening in society? How do we protect loved ones from what is effectively brainwashing for clicks? Maintaining real-world socialization is paramount. Screen time should be low and social media should be monitored. Watch the language being used. We are taught that words are not important but, the reality is, and what is understood at the highest levels of organizations is that words are critical and set the tone of every conversation and every interaction. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will win the wars” is closer to reality than what we chanted in grade school. Is that still a thing now? I am not sure. I found out the other day that I am so far out of the loop that I need a translator for the new slang. Also, there has to be regulation on social media and advertising platforms. Not just for the sake of privacy but for the algorithms that drive the recommendations that trap people in echo chambers. Arguments about the censoring of speech (while not applicable to private organizations) would be null just by focusing on the regulation of the recommendation algorithms as speech would be unaffected. Currently, the algorithms are focused on maximizing interaction and attention so the outcome is blitzing people with only what they are interested in as far as the algorithm is concerned. A simple solution is modifying the systems so that it could be a 60/40 or 70/30 split of likely interest and new or outside information to help combat the echo chamber effects. This is a relatively easy fix without altering existing infrastructure but strictly user interaction. Of course, this would most likely negatively impact the revenue of these organizations but what price tag should we put on long-term social stability?
Granted, this is just one small piece of a much larger problem, but that is how to attack these massive societal issues. There are other variables at play with how people are acting, and those will be described in later articles as well as my previous article here. The only way to resolve problems is to address the root causes and not focus on the symptoms.
As always, thank you for your time and attention, my friends.