Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry.— Philip W. Anderson, 1972
In his classic “More Is Different,” Anderson describes how systems can become so complex that, suddenly, quantitative differences can become qualitative ones: as when boiling water becomes steam. Differences in degree become differences in kind. In 2010, Clay Shirky applied Anderson’s thesis to perhaps the most complex system of all: social life. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky depicts cities not merely as applied communities, but as an entirely alien ecology: the habitat of a new species of social life. As Homo sapiens began to settle in large groups, more became different: a phase-shift, which sent the species into evolutionary overdrive. To keep up with the civic and cognitive surpluses of civilization, which arose as the consequence of social density, humanity was forced to make a series of quantitative-to-qualitative jumps in a very short space of time. In the decade since Cognitive Surplus hit the shelves, however, evolution of social life seems more like a series of quantum leaps. Thanks to the emergence of social media networks, a third surplus has burst onto the scene: an emotional surplus, whose excesses are not adding muscle, but adipose fat to the social life of the species. A century ago, the Great Depression tore through society like a crack through concrete, undermining politics, culture, civilisation writ large. Today, a Great Emotional Surplus is tearing through the social fabric in stepwise fashion.
The Civic Surplus of Urbanisation
The evolution of social life has never been smooth. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky begins with the Gin Craze, which swept through London during the early 1700s, arguing that it did not spread to neighbouring areas, but stopped at the city limits. Between 1650 and 1750, as Britain industrialised, the population of London grew at a rate 250% greater than that of England as a whole. “Gin drinking provided a coping mechanism for people suddenly thrown together in the early decades of the industrial age,” Shirky explains, “making it an urban phenomenon, especially concentrated in London.” Before long, however, Londoners developed new forms of social interaction that could accommodate the proximity of strangers, quell the anxiety of atomisation and channel the complexity of city living—without the help of alcohol. Slowly but surely, the death of a sense of community was counteracted by the birth of a sense of citizenry and, by 1760, the Gin Craze was no more. Socially speaking, London had levelled up.
The Cognitive Surplus of Industrialisation
Just as humanity had begun to acclimatise to urban living, however, technological and industrial progress soon led to another renegotiation of the social contract—a negotiation that, Shirky argues, continues to this day: “Since the Second World War, increases in GDP, educational attainment, and life span have forced the industrialised world to grapple with something we’d never had to deal with on a national scale: free time.” Strangely, however, rather than spending our free time on the real thing, humanity opted to spend money on social simulacra: soap operas, talk shows and tabloid magazines. “Humans are social creatures,” Shirky continues, “but the explosion of our surplus of free time coincided with a steady reduction in social capital—our stock of relationships with people we trust and rely on.” Thus, not only are we failing to capitalise on the cognitive surpluses of industrialisation, we are effectively throwing away the civic surpluses of centuries past. It is at this point that Shirky ends his evolutionary history of social life.
The Emotional Surplus of Digitalisation
Despite the late capitalist devolution of social life, the social fabric remained intact. Traditional media did not pose an existential threat to social life, for television, talk-radio and tabloids were defined by passive consumption. In the decade since Cognitive Surplus was published, however, active consumption—what theorists have christened prosumption—has become the defining feature of the digital mediascape: turning social life into a world of filter bubbles, network effects and limitless growth. Like Big Government and Big Business, Big Tech has capitalized on the surplus, effectively creating a mass market for mass hysteria. Indeed, the monetization of emotion is becoming not a bug, but a feature of contemporary society: both new media companies and traditional media companies like the New York Times are guilty of running emotional experiments on the populace. In 1910, William James wrote that, to survive as a species, Homo sapiens needed to find the moral equivalent of war. Instead, society has found the emotional equivalent: an equivalent, addictive and adrenal, which has rather sidetracked our moral pursuits. Crazes come and go, but social media are here to stay: social messaging must evolve accordingly, and soon.
Social Life has a Simple Solution
We do not live but a quarter part of our life—why do we not let on the flood—raise the gates—& set our wheels in motion.– Henry David Thoreau, 1851
If Thoreau lived a quarter of his life, what fraction do we live today? How much of each day do we spend logged on to reality, awake and offline? Up until the middle of the twentieth century, people lived about 17 hours per day. Virtual reality was restricted to the occasional daydream, which was an addendum to everyday reality, not an alternative. Per day, according to Data Reportal, the average American spends 5 hours and 30 minutes sleeping (an all-time low) and 7 hours and 11 minutes on screens (an all-time high). The average Briton, only slightly better off, spends 6 hours and 19 minutes sleeping and 6 hours and 25 minutes on screens. Today, therefore, people live about 12 hours and 45 minutes per day: 53%. We spend around half our time offline, a quarter online and a quarter asleep. Now, consider, during that 53%, when you go about your day, interacting with strangers and friends and thinking to yourself, how much hatred do you see, how much outrage do you feel, how angry are you, on average?
Very little of our negativity stems from that shrinking offline half of our waking day and a lot from that growing online quarter. Twitter and Facebook did not merely reveal an anger that was always there, but enflamed an anger that did not exist before. The Great Emotional Surplus has not been merely platformed by social media, but produced: for clicks, capital and clout.