The picture of ease brings various things to mind, chief among them luxuries and hours of leisure. And, although a bit more extreme in its connotations, frivolity serves to animate the former condition, suggesting reckless abandon enjoyed in springtime meadows, or playfulness expressed amid blossoming trees. Above all else, ease and frivolity evoke a soft and colorful mood, a sense that the good times will continue unabated for reasons unknown. After all, who questions good fortune? In the case of history, this overall mindset can be said to apply to certain eras, times of prosperity (or the semblance thereof) and peace, halcyon days to which the society in question feels entitled. And it is here, at the point where we assume entitlements, that things become complex. A wider view can help to lend clarity.
A time of comparative ease can weaken the resolve of a society, fostering a generational sense of entitlement, even going so far as to render consumerism a general habit, an unquestioned way of being. And we are at that point. Beyond this, however, it can do more; in an age of ease and frivolity, we can become unwary, ignoring the wisdom of common sense, as danger laps at our heels and approaches unnoticed. In such a climate, comfort becomes the substance of life, and traces our character in the outline of softness, not in the rugged contours drawn by hardship. And yet, for all its pervasiveness, an age of ease and frivolity—underwritten by technology and the displacements of entertainment—cannot easily hide itself, so extreme are its visual aspects and so loud are its movements. What it does conceal, however, is a form of decay. For a more complete understanding of this phenomenon, we can consider the issue of social media, as well as our entertainment habits, and examine these elements alongside a very simple but powerful solution.
Not long ago, in a series of memorable and oddly candid interviews, the founding programmers and executives of social media platforms made an announcement: they had sold us a bill of goods. These captains of technology blithely admitted to manipulating human psychology, creating, as it was termed, “social validation feedback loops” which few can ignore or escape, thus making social media a consumer of the consumer’s time—time, perhaps, being the greatest of all commodities in the busy modern age. Indeed, these technologies of gratification were designed to be addictive; the more “likes” you receive, the more you desire, and so forth. As if this situation were not troublesome enough, people are now beginning to lose social interaction skills, thanks to the intervening powers of new media. One programmer even admitted that they had, essentially, destroyed the “fabric of human interaction.” So, they capitalized on our desire for entertainment and gratification, making use of social engineering techniques—and time-honored methods of salesmanship—to change society and turn a handsome profit. And what can we say of the long-term impact related to these developments? Ultimately, there is no turning back; we are living in a new era of social systems and their far-reaching coercion.
The changes made to human relationships and interactions were administered by design, and their impact will likely be irreversible, possibly growing more profound with time. Even at a basic level of daily living, the situation is grim. Most drivers, to make use of a common example, narrowly miss hitting pedestrians on a regular basis, those who walk out into traffic while texting or reading messages. The latter individuals often remain totally unaware of the danger, so engrossed are they in their cell phones, so anxious to keep up with tweets and newsfeeds. Really, is it more important to stare into a screen or safely cross the street? The obvious answer has been subverted by marketers, manipulated to defeat the power of common sense and reverse our instincts of survival. How? A brilliantly—and perhaps deviously—crafted piece of technology has convinced people that it is more important than anything else in their immediate surroundings, even surpassing the importance of their safety and lives—and the lives of others. Imagine a magnitude of marketing that subverts the instinct of self-preservation and manages to disengage our normal concern for the safety of those around us. Edward Bernays, the founding father of marketing, would be proud. And where do we go from here? We must consider that we live in a social system more complex than is generally recognized and take a moment to glimpse its underpinnings.
At this point, it is useful to consider what a system is, in all its complexity and influence. On Being Human, by Erich Fromm, provides us with a succinct overview. He states:
This notion sheds light on the development of technology as a mediating force with “inner coherence.” In dealing with such a system, we know that making a small change, by relying less on social media, for example, might seem like a vain attempt at escape. But is it? I would argue that a modest change of lifestyle could indeed restore a significant measure of satisfaction to those who attempt it. In short, a mindful consideration of the day, attention to the environment and one’s surroundings—without a phone anywhere in sight—is not impossible to achieve. In the final analysis, it is very simple; just leave the thing at home and go for a walk. Outwitting the intelligence behind the rise of social technologies can be a straightforward endeavor, a matter of removing oneself from the system for dedicated periods of time, allowing for relaxation and attention to interpersonal relationships. Moreover, disengaging from technology could mean the difference between aimlessly walking out into traffic and moving safely across the street. Although changing such a pervasive system—one founded on the exploitation of human nature—is challenging, doing so a little at a time could do wonders for an intrepid individual. In the best case, it could provide a means of preparing oneself for the vicissitudes of time, refocusing to address the new challenges of history. Even if the system resists our efforts, we have the power to change our own outlook and behavior.
We began by examining the nature of ease and frivolity, considered what their unchecked propagation could mean in the future, and took a brief look at social media, one of their main vehicles. In so doing, we noted that the engineers who transform society while turning a profit (a nearly incalculable one) have truly capitalized on our desire for ease, and increased our love of frivolity. The work of finding a weakness and exploiting it was fairly simple, a ploy founded on human nature. That said, as we consider emerging from the snare, there are numerous complications to bear in mind. In short, we must recognize some of the undeniable benefits of our current situation, even as we consider the problems it poses.
Diversions of the social system are often too ingrained into our habits and far too compelling to set aside easily. In addition, they also possess genuinely useful attributes. Just as our electronic devices can be helpful, providing us with much needed information, large-scale entertainment activities—another feature of prosperous societies—can be, at once, enriching and disarming. For a moment, let us move from consideration of electronic mediations to the realm of community entertainment, the many diversions that unfold before us, activities somewhat (although not entirely) divorced from phones and tablets.
On any given weekend, food trucks, art festivals, and farmers markets grace the streets of many cities, providing a genuine climate of community, offering cultural enrichment and organic produce, all for the best purposes. These are tangible benefits of a prosperous age, enjoyments ironically facilitated by phones and tablets. However, there are certain problems to consider, as well. Even in the midst of these salubrious effects, we must ask if such enjoyments are, in the end, distractions intended to direct our attention away from world affairs, a modern version of bread and circuses. Now, add to the weekend of farmers markets and art festivals a game of Pokémon, and you have contributed a degree of frivolity to the scene; we are now several degrees away from engaging the times for what they truly are, rife with economic instability, characterized by discrimination—still—and very much in need of educational (and campaign finance) reform, more than a few urgent situations looming on the horizon. However, as long as we have gourmet food, craft beer, cultural festivals, sporting events, online shopping, movies, and social media, unrest and economic instability will remain easy to overlook—at least for the time being. Historically, an age of ease and frivolity can quickly give way to the inconvenient pains of reality. Now, considering this complex network of benefits and problems, how can we begin to reverse our current momentum? A simple yet powerful solution may, at least in part, help us to refocus our attention and divert energy into more productive directions. Yes, it is time to disengage the system of instant gratification to embrace a more lasting fulfillment.
Although much easier said than done, we can begin to convert our innate need for quick gratification into a vision of long-term fulfillment, a turn from momentary pleasure to a better hope for the future. True, lasting solutions to complex problems involve action on a number of levels. However, since we have already been told that social media creators exploit our emotional addictions, why not simply turn and go the other way and manage our own behavior according to free will? We have the advantage of an outright admission of guilt from our technocrats. With this in mind, a move towards self-determination is the logical continuation of things, a simple yet difficult change to embrace. Taking things slowly, at the outset, we can concentrate on crossing streets safely, forgo the anesthesia of entertainment, and think carefully about how to shape society for the future, knowing well that an age of ease and frivolity often hides impending disaster. The solution, individual management of social systems, is in our hands, so long as we take hold of change. This I would argue is a way to cultivate lasting fulfillment; we must learn to manage the systems that manage us by making slow, incremental changes in our own habits.
Fromm, Erich . On Being Human. New York City: Continuum, 1994.
Allison M. Palmer is a park ranger and writer living in California. Her work has appeared in The Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Bangalore Review, and The Wine Journal of the American Wine Society.