Every morning, on the way to one of my favorite coffee shop in London before classes, I come across a graffiti message scribbled on the wall of a bustling intersection between Euston and Hampstead, which reads:
FRENCH RIOTS GET RESULTS!
U LOT ARE INSTAGRAM ZZZOMBIES
I vaguely have heard of the riots in France that started over gasoline prices from the daily briefings from the New York Times, but I have gathered a rather negative sentiment towards them according to my immediate vicinity of individuals that influence my thoughts. Nevertheless, I found the quote quite provocative. The riots in France, relative to my existence, can only be abstracted through a source of news. Because I have not been nor have the intention to go to France since the riots have started, I can only conceptualize them through news headlines of the news sources that I read. It is an other to me; this is my existence, and that is their existence.
Sooner or later, the riots would follow a predictable set of events. If the French government utilizes too much force to put down the riots, then the world media would criticize the French government similar to how the criticized the Chinese government after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In the French government does not utilize enough force, then the country could potentially descend into chaos and become a failed state. If French government remains complicit to foreign intervention, then the regime could be overthrown by CIA-backed rebel groups like Libya after Operation Odyssey Dawn. There exists countless possible scenarios, each with their own historical precedent, but each of them would follow an unsurprising set of events.
Sooner or later, regardless of which path the French government takes, the news would stop reporting on the French riots, and I would stop thinking about them. Sooner or later, the thought would completely escape from my memories, and I would continue to live my life with a new event that remains in abstracted through my limited conception of the world. The world may happen around me, but I exist in a state of privilege where I could be isolated from the events of the world if I choose to be. I remember that Syrian civil war had been the topic that defined international relations during my time in high school. Because I have not been exposed to any new information regarding the Syrian civil war for some time now, my abstraction of Syria exists in the past. But, unfortunately, just because it exists in the past for me does not mean that it exists in the past for the countless refugees and soldiers who are still involved in the conflict.
To me, the Syrian civil war is just a concept because I have never observed the conflict. I have never been to Syria throughout my entire life, and I cannot even come closer to understanding the conflict except through news articles with an occasional scholarly source from a peer-reviewed journal. But, because the universe exists more than through my perception, the conflict in Syria is still undergoing regardless of whether the thought of the conflict occurs to me. There exists the objective state of the world that is marred through conflict, and then there is the reality that I have come to observe through my immediate perception and categorization of stimuli. All abstracted events understood through the news follow the same cycle.
I certainly care about any conflict in the sense that it does not bring me happiness when I hear that millions of individuals have either been killed, displaced, or imprisoned for reasons beyond their control. But it would be an insult to say I cared about the conflict with any justice to the true meaning behind the intention of caring. I am not invested in the conflict, and I have not sacrificed my life towards any cause. If the Russian plane bombs a hospital in Aleppo killing hundreds of individuals, it does not affect my life. I would be saddened to hear about death, but, sooner or later, I will move on with my life. If on the off-chance, France devolves into a civil war, I would be directly affected slightly in the sense that I can feel its macroeconomic effects on the US economy. But, realistically, I am in a position where I have the privilege to continue to be indifferent.
I cannot even think of the last time I attended a protest for a cause I genuinely believed in. I had attended a protest in sixth grade for bringing attention to the Syrian civil war, but mostly because one of my best friends had asked me to go. Sometimes, I enjoy thinking about the world in the framework of vague topics in modernism, aspects of literature that only exist in the realm of literature but have no tangible benefits to society. Of course, the benefits of the humanities cannot be measured relative to contribution to GDP, but I still find it deeply unsettling that the vast majority of my thoughts on understanding my own life exists completely abstract and unaffected by society. The French riots can happen around me. The Syrian civil war can happen around me. Nevertheless, my thoughts can continue to be unaffected.
I can perceive my thoughts. But, at the end of the day, my thoughts do not exist on the same plane of reality as the actual happenings in the world. If I die, my thoughts die with me. On the other hand, the various conflicts in the world do not depend on my existence to exist or not exist. It is because the happenings of the world are very much real despite my ability to perceive them. While I can only perceive events outside of my immediate perception in the form of abstraction, the events truly exist in a state outside of my abstraction. I can convince myself that conflicts around the world are not really happening because I can convince myself that my abstractions are not real, but that does not change the true state of the world.
According to Berkeley, a tree can only fall in the forest if there exists someone to perceive its falling. Otherwise, outside the realm of abstracting the state of the world into an idea, then the world does not exist in an uncategorized state unconstructed by individuals with the ability to construct. It would imply, by the same doctrine, that the amount of reality an attribute of the universe would have would also be dependent on the amount of ideal constructions that metaphysically cause the attribute. And, because I can only observe objects within my immediate perception of the world, within my subjective construct of the world, the amount of reality and object has is causally dependent on the complexity of my ideal construction of the object.
Even so, I would not ever be able to justify to myself that the world that exists within my immediate perception could be understood as something that is real. There are plenty of facets to my existence that do not accurately reflect my optimal distribution of reality according to my values. Because I am imperfect by nature, I can only distribute my attention to ideally construct ideas and objects relative to my instinct that is reflective to my subjection of various aggregately constructed aspects of society that are, by nature, are less real than me because they are causally constructed by me and countless others, but also, on the contrary, possess more metaphysical power to cause than me.
Some constructs can be intuitively understood: justice, love, religion, etc. Such ideals can drive individuals to act in the name of an ideal as opposed living in the absence of an ideal. Even though ideas are constructed by the society constructed by individuals, they still have the ability to affect the same individuals who caused their existence. If all humans were to perish off the face of the earth, then any construction by humans would cease to exist. Such is the nature of metaphysical causality. Yet, how can I articulate an explanation for the ability for aspects of society that are less real to exercise metaphysical power over the same individuals who supposedly have more metaphysical good than the ideas they supposedly caused?
I wonder which of my actions are performed in pursuit of a constructed ideal as opposed to an exercise of free will. As someone who used to pursue the ideal of happiness, I wonder which parts of my life truly bring me happiness; I wonder which parts of my life have I convinced myself to bring me happiness due to my education by the culture industry of what should cause me happiness. It is yet another example of a construct created by the ideas of countless individuals throughout time to now influence my actions and my perceptions. Perhaps it is those individuals who influence me as opposed to the ideal they created who influences me. But, as someone who also perpetuates the validity of an idea unto others, how can I know for certain the direction of causality?
Some of those aspects of my life I could identify and categorize within the binary of causing or being caused, but the mere act of identification and classification is not sufficient in terms of escaping from this pillar of society. Just because I could identify the issues that cause me unhappiness in my life does not mean that I can control my life to the degree of escaping from them. The culture industry, among others, is the cause; I can identify the cause; I cannot erase the cause. Because I cannot escape from the cycle of causality even after identifying the nature of the cause, it seems to me that I am powerless to influence the actions of my own life, especially relative the ideas that have less reality than me but also have more power to influence attributes of existence that are more real.
Events from around the world come and go in my life relative to what the media chooses to bring to attention. My social media use, on the other hand, is not subject to the same cycle that defines my attention towards various happenings around the world. Since fifth grade, when I created my Facebook account for the first time ever, I cannot imagine living absent of the identity I have created online. Even when the idea of social media is not in my immediate consciousness, its influence within my unconscious pervades every point in existence in the sense that I can construct almost every aspect of my life relative to the value of social media in my life. I would find it hard to convince myself that I could live completely free, even when I perceived it so.
For a long period in my life, I have convinced myself that social media could potentially be used as a source of happiness. I thought that the act of staying connected to individuals who would otherwise not remain in contact given the absence of technological advances marks a transcending viewpoint to justify my continuous use of social media despite my apprehension in opening my folder of social media apps at any given instance. Although my sentiments back then are not false per se, I do believe that my viewpoints had neglected the integration of social media platforms within various facets of the social identification of perceived happiness. It is true that I can stay connected, but I would find it hard to believe that I am genuinely staying connected to the individual, as opposed to the idea of the individual.
Similar to news headlines, social media posts cannot communicate reality; they can only offer an abstraction of reality to fit an imperfect mean of communication. If we do not observe the individuals in social media on a regular basis, the only form of reality we can operate on is an abstraction of an abstraction. Each post goes through two waves of idealization: 1. The person who performs an action on social media must internalize the sentiment they wish to communicate, and 2. Their sentiment of communication must be internalized by us through another mode of internalization in order for us to observe. If each wave of idealization decreases the validity of the a priori state of reality, then abstractions created through social media exist on one degree of reality less than perceptions created through immediate observation.
That is not to mention the effect of the culture industry on our choices that contribute to the selection bias that further decrease our interactions on social media in terms of realness. If we act in accordance with an ideal (for example, the perception of being happy), which is already a tier fo reality below the reality that is not abstracted into idea, and then we further add more filters of idealization, then the end product created by the platform of social media has been diluted through so many levels of abstraction that I could hardly consider it to be real, not that there is anything inherently wrong with living in a reality that is not as real as the unabstracted version of the world.
Although my usage of social media has changed over time, I still open the same apps with the same degree of reluctance in every instance. Being aware of the irony of flaunting money that is not mine to flaunt, I no longer use the app to show off my extravagant expenditures in food through my stories or my exaggerations of my knowledge of pop culture through the concerts I attend or my pretentious identity as someone who travels the world through the pictures I post. Such actions, I now consider, to be undeserved expenses that should not be celebrated as a means to demean others with fewer opportunities to be materialistic. Instead, I now use social media as an expression of an idea: that sadness is beautiful.
Also, that I hate colonialism.
My use operates on the same level of abstraction, but somehow, to me, it feels more real than the presence I had previously, which had been largely limited to the materialistic highlights of my life. It feels as if I have lessened the thickness of the filter between the actual state of my life and my perceived state of life. It seems almost a defining feature of social media — to portray a happy persona — but I can say with almost certainty that life is defined through a continuous stream of happiness. No one’s life is defined through a constant stream of happiness, and if it is, it is in accordance with my truth that they are never living at all. My life has not been happy for awhile, so why should I convince others that it is?
I can sympathize with the word choice: INSTAGRAM ZOMBIES. There is the content on social media that I create, and then there is the content that is perceived by others. Sometimes, it feels as if there is a leaky bridge that causes the majority of what I say to fall off the side before reaching the other end. Sometimes, it would feel as if I were screaming into the void, only to hear my echo. I would make a post on Instagram detailing exactly how I was unsatisfied with my life, hoping to change the landscape of a constant overflow of happy content, and all that would happen is that I would receive likes, the overwhelming majority of them by individuals I have not spoken to in the past year.
Even the mere nature of social media is driven by a desire for validation. The mere concept of the like is an abstraction of the communication of validation. Oftentimes, the act of liking feels transactional. The logic goes: if I like your photo right now, then you will like my photo later on. Sometimes, the act of liking is thoughtless; some of my friends would like all photos they see in hopes of maximize the number of likes they receive whenever they would post a photo in wait of validation. In such cases, I find it deeply ironic that the act of liking has been abstracted to so many degrees that the original intention behind the term like is no longer a thought. Photos are not liked because they are liked; they are liked for the sake of liking.
I remember, when I first started to use Facebook or Instagram, I would be friends with individuals and follow individuals without even knowing the person in real life ( in this case, I am referring to peers, not celebrities). I would like their photos whenever they would post a photo, and they would like my photo whenever I would post a photo. I wanted friends and likes on my photos to communicate that I was “popular,” and it would be well within each of our incentive structures to maintain such an equilibrium. Such a relationship would be completely devoid of intimacy and completely defined transactionally through something as unreal as social media. Likes on photos without even the sentiment of liking.
I remember, when I first started to use Snapchat, I had been obsessed with creating streaks in order to accumulate Snap points. I remember tallying my points at the end of each month how much pride I had felt when I increased my points from 4,400 to 160,000 in a matter of a year. I remember the hours it would take, just opening my phone and sending pictures of a face back and forth to my 40 streaks between the hours of 5 and 11 p.m. every day. I remember how I used to consider my prowess on Snapchat to be one of the greatest accomplishments in my social life. I used to consider my streaks to be proof of my ability to maintain relationships. But it’s been a couple years — how many of those 40 streaks do I still talk to?
I have since deleted Snapchat. Where are my points and streaks now? I tend to think that my faith in Snapchat points and streaks follow the same laws of currency. The value of any currency is dependent on the faith that I, as a collective, put into them. It is intangible, like a concept, similar to the ideas in modernism that dominate my thoughts. Unlike modernism, however, principles of economics dictate my life in tangible ways. I am limited by the absence of money, and I am liberated by the having of money. I used to define my value through my possession of streaks, so I had faith in the value of streaks and points. Now that I do not have my faith in Snapchat anymore, the points and streaks that used to be real are no longer real.
As someone who did not receive validation for much of his life, I craved the validation afforded by my use in social media. But, like any other facet of life, I soon found that my desires were rooted in deep-seated unhappiness that could not be addressed through social media. If anything, the constant cycle of validation and inadequacy creates a positive feedback loop that furthermore increases the difficulty of escaping from the cycle perpetuated by the culture industry that is the abstracted form of existence that is social media. Wanting is caused by dissatisfaction. The need for validation is caused by wanting. Further wanting is caused by the attempt for validation. Soon enough, that is all we have come to know.
It is only now do I feel as if i have fully made sense of Bing’s Speech in Black Mirror:
Cause we’re so out of our minds with desperation we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves is buying shit. I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new hat for our doppel, a hat that doesn’t exist. It’s not even there, we buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful, you couldn’t. It’d break us, we’re too numb for it, our minds would choke.“Fifteen Million Merits”, Black Mirror
Thank you, unknown graffiti man, for pointing out my existential enslavement to an idea.