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The Facebook Supremacy – Part 2

Related Posts: The Facebook Supremacy – Part 1Owning the Means of Connection,
The Koons Moment, Sacrifice and the Dream of Form

Outside a small market on Sunset I pass a destitute Latino man intently focused on a lottery scratch-off. What catches my eye is the sense of urgent vitality in his movements. He is lit up, charismatic even, and because I am thinking about this post I am struck by how his excitement resembles the way I feel when I’m about to present some new photo or announcement (or maybe an astute analysis of current events) on my Facebook page. How positive will the response from my social network be? How much affirmation will I encounter—scratch-scratch-scratch. The dopamine is flowing, my synapses all lit up.

The other thing that strikes me is the wisdom of the man with his scratch-off. The chance that he might win the lottery is vanishingly small, but the dopamine he taps is every bit as real as that which floods the synapses of a hedge fund manager making some bold move on the financial markets. For a moment that dopamine flood relieves the crushing weight of everyday life, putting both men in contact with pure, open capacity. Gambling is for this reason a complex addiction, one that touches on the kinds of existential issues Rene Girard grapples with in his thinking about violence and the sacred. I think of Dostoyevsky here, an obsessive gambler for his entire life and, not coincidentally, among the artists Girard cites most often to illustrate his theories about mimetic desire, the monstrous double and sacrificial violence. Facebook, this line of thinking suggests, is every bit as problematic on the level of social dynamics as both Sean Parker and Peter Thiel, in their different ways, suggest.

I find the colliding perspectives of Thiel and Parker on the company they helped to launch suggestive. Together they link Girard’s ideas about mimetic violence to contemporary brain science regarding the neurotransmitters that regulate human behavior—especially dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine, often referred to as the “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” neurotransmitter, lights up our systems when we anticipate various social rewards—access to money or increased status. Norepinephrine arouses us in the other direction—towards fight or flight—in the presence of perceived threats to our well-being. This is the Pavlovian machinery that influences how we think and act. Any adequate definition of human freedom must now include the question of whether or not we can effectively keep track of, and regulate, these influences. Among the most disturbing aspects of the 2016 election, like Brexit before it, is how effective and sophisticated right wing corporate interests were at manipulating people through Facebook and other dopamine-driven social media platforms. Companies like Cambridge Analytica used advanced information processing programs and AI to flood specific networks with disinformation perfectly designed to penetrate psychic defenses and motivate behavior one way or the other. Without a doubt these same forces—and Thiel is a leader among them—have only upped their game in the months since that shocking night. Perhaps the only response is to look more closely at the underlying dynamics.

The neuroscience of these mechanisms is intricate and complex, but one thing I find intriguing is how the self-enclosed nature of these neuronal systems has a ghostly, insubstantial quality that echoes the hall-of-mirrors solipsism of Girard’s triangular or imitative desire. What I mean by “self-enclosed” is that dopamine and norepinephrine are manufactured within the human nervous system, across the blood-brain barrier. You can’t take dopamine orally, or even intravenously—the best you can do is imbibe a substance (cocaine, heroin, alcohol, etc.) that triggers a release of the dopamine your brain has cooked up. As it turns out, science tells us, this triggering is subject to complex and subtle dynamics that follow a general law of diminishing returns—anticipation of that first delicious bite of chocolate cake transmits a big spike of pleasure, but then the bite itself is a little less special, the second bite loses even more of its mojo and so on down the line.

The secondary, triggering aspect and the diminishing returns become more noteworthy in the social arena—when we enter an environment rich in the tokens of social status, our brains release dopamine. It is not actually obtaining those tokens that does the trick, so much as the promise of obtaining them. Once we actually have them, the dopamine flow begins to taper off, and we need another round of mimetic competition to re-experience the spike that feels so good. Once we have amassed piles of money, for example, we must then use our resources to arrange scenarios of social dominance in order to get more of what we desperately want—that warm bath of feel-good brain juice. Writing on a day the wealthiest one percent of the US population are enacting a vast transfer of wealth upwards through a tax plan that will beggar the country, the mystery of American greed begins to yield to our understanding. The greed of the wealthy has nothing to do with reason, nor with any conception of social good. In reality, a primitive logic governs capitalist accumulation and the ideational structures justifying its pathologies: this is simply addict behavior.

There are reasons to believe the abstract valuations governing much of Western thought—disembodied truths defined to apply everywhere and always—leave us vulnerable to the kind of neuronal dynamics we are talking about. The idea of a universe governed by non-contradictory truths is seductive, suggesting our formidable minds might be able to master universal laws. The idea of essential, universal truths also seems to promise final relief from the discomforts of groundlessness—of not know what one should want, of not knowing, in the language of Socrates, the nature of the Good. Accessing in God-like ways a timeless realm above the material world, we feel as if we might defeat the temporal finitude of our lives. The idea of universal truths buttresses in subtle but powerful ways, in other words, the affective structures we deploy against the terror of death and dying. As a paradigm of truth mathematics, the most abstract form of knowledge, is especially dangerous in this regard. The eternal aspect of a math equation provides warm comfort, its immaterial nature transporting us to an ideal realm immune from change and impermanence. The tendency to anchor a self-image in that timeless terrain is very strong. And yet, of course, as Roberto Unger points out, we know today that these abstractions are themselves time-bound—in the first inflationary stage of our universe the fundamental symmetries expressed in mathematics came into being. It is not that these symmetries are somehow “wrong,” it is simply that they are not timelessly true enough to provide a basis for the foundational identities we desperately want to build atop them. It has been difficult over the past three centuries to lever Western culture away from such habits of mind, despite the lurid evidence that they are destroying life on this planet. We cling to the idea of abstract, universal valuations precisely because it feels so good to do so, even while our planet blackens around us as a result of the techno-social processes these modes of thought have unleashed.

This is where the story becomes quite interesting, because these factors obviously connect with the symbolic medium we use to organize value, i.e. money. The very notion of an ideal realm up and above the world, it turns out, can itself be traced to the arrival of metal coinage. Arising in the dynamic social milieu of the 6th century Greek world, coinage quickly demonstrated how values might have an abstract, universal quality. This is why various scholars and thinkers (Seaford, Shell, Goux, Horisch, Graeber…) have come to view Western philosophy as, to some extent, a by-product of monetization. The substitutive sado-masochism of contemporary American culture—in which the wealthy project their human vulnerabilities upon the poor, and then seek to eliminate the poor as if doing so would eliminate also their own frailty—can here be dynamically traced to the abstract valuations governing financial markets. And these same scholars also have also come to view the great religious traditions that flourished in that same Axial Age—Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc.—as, in many ways, responses to the radical distortions of monetization on the social fabric. The battle against these dynamics extends back across three millennia–the blink of an eye on an evolutionary time scale.

In this context it becomes natural to ask about how the issue of dopamine arises in these religions traditions. There’s the obvious connection between the “pleasures of the flesh” and the ascetic practices of monks and hermits. But in Buddhism and other awareness traditions a host of meditation practices (tonglen and some of the Immeasurable practices, for example) are specifically designed to neutralize the influence of neurotransmitters on our thinking. In these traditions a central value is equanimity—the attentional fortitude required to resist the tug of reactive formations. Other techniques involve accessing highly positive affective states of joy or loving kindness, as if the practitioner were forging new and more stable, autonomous pathways to the sources of dopamine-driven pleasure. The forward edge of our evolution as a species, it might be argued, involves overcoming the crude neurological dynamics we inherited from our primate ancestors before they undo us. One of the central recognitions of the Buddhist traditions is that experience itself is inherently non-conceptual, and thought therefore must be grounded in the situated, embodied present. There is a recognition here that the pleasures of abstract conceptualizations are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The addictive quality of such ideas feeds cycles of lack, alienation and suffering rather than helping to resolve them.

A useful way to view these practices is that they are internal technologies designed to re-engineer our neuronal wiring, allowing us to by-pass primitive reward structures and relate more directly to the real. It would be easy to construe an embrace of meditative practice in this context as a purely ethical issue. At the level of neuronal structures, the meditator enacts a version of John Rawls’s criteria for ethical action—imaging you have no feel-good stake in the outcome. It would be equally valid to recommend such practices by citing the many utilitarian benefits of sidestepping apocalypse and extinction. But as every long-term meditator comes to understand, the practice also just feels better. Expansive joy is a part of this, but so is simply being fully present with the way things are instead of bouncing through each day like a tin can dragged behind the jalopy of the social.

Comments

  1. Dov Rudnick says:

    Brilliant post! There is irony that we consume your ideas across a medium that is so much like the the pin-ball machine of hormonal/neuronal juices you speak of…perhaps that is part of the point: we are dependent and in love with the technologies that take advantage of our madness. I especially love reading this from you because I recall being surprised with the enthusiasm you embraced facebook years back. I had conspiracy theorist paranoia early on but weakly caved to the cravings. You seemed to relish it like a highly functioning modern.
    Another point that intrigues me is the rise of philosophy and religion alongside monetization. Never considered that it could be a response to the abstractions and symbolic values associated with money. And it also sheds light on Karl Marx’s religious overtones in the Communist Manifesto and other works. For a guy who deplored religious thinking and dogma he seemed to copy the prophetic thinking of religions. The dictatorship of the proletariat a stand-in for the heavenly afterlife. Could this style be yet another attempt to grab something sacred and non-negotiable from a world where everything becomes commodified? Your thoughts?

  2. Ricardo Rocha says:

    Really enjoyed both parts, Guy. Thank you for your awesome work. I used some of your insights in class – and quoted you. I found this especially useful to deliver an understanding for students about the rehearsal/discovery processes in dramatic art which have changed drastically in the last ten years or so.

  3. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Thanks for the note, Ricardo. Thrilled to hear the post had some value…!

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