On the Saturday Show last week, we talked about the time lag between new technologies arriving and the development of social norms around them. My argument was that issues such as trolling will be less of a problem over time, not because we establish more laws or better policing but because society establishes and enforces a set of social norms.
In fact, we largely enforce these norms on ourselves: it isn’t the permanent presence of a police officer over our shoulders that stops us stealing and murdering. Consciously or not, most of us accept that conformance to society’s rules carries benefits that outweigh the short-term gains of breaching them.
But in the time where those rules are yet to be established, there is an undoubted tension between possible behaviour and desirable behaviour.
Much of this is bad. Social media has become an outlet for ideas and beliefs that many of us hoped were on their way out, even if we recognised that they were far from gone. Absent the physical presence of any sort of societal policing, people are willing to express publicly all sorts of ideas that might otherwise have only been whispered across a pub table.
But the very expression of these ideas brings them out into the open where they can be challenged. Perhaps, painful as it is today, the darkness of trolling is just part of the process of establishing new norms.
While there’s much darkness flying around, there’s also a lot of more positive expression. Not just new art forms but a venue for the discussion of a much wider range of ideas. As the historian Ian Morris suggests, humanity’s periods of greatest progress occur when different societies interact. Nowhere is this more in evidence or has it ever been than online, today.
There is a second form of creative tension that is very visible right now. That between our conscious and unconscious minds, our animal and logical selves. It’s a theme well explored in Star Trek: the cold, analytical Vulcan (and later android) and the rash, emotional human.
Much of our behaviour remains totally irrational, much as we might like to convince ourselves otherwise.
Listening to one of my new favourite podcasts, Science’ish, this morning, a scientist described how accurate electoral forecasts can be made based on no more empirical data than photos of the candidate’s faces. Show them to a bunch of people without any context and they’ll tell you which one they would vote for. Whoever has the preferred face also tends to win the election in the real world.
Yet we are rational enough to recognise this and explore it. To understand our physiology, our world, our universe and the rules that govern it. To begin to manipulate these things to our own ends. We can feel joy and love and wonder, while knowing that these things are the down to the firing of specific neurons and the flow of chemicals through our bodies and brains.
Knowing doesn’t seem to diminish the experience, just as understanding physics doesn’t make a rollercoaster any less enjoyable.
Sometimes we might wish that the rational minds would win more often. Much of the time in my case. But there are plenty of cautionary tales in history and fiction about moving that slider too far in the direction of rationality.
We can revel in our rational capabilities, but no-one wants to see a Brave New World.