The Online ‘Society’

By: Harlan Thoroughgood


“The main requirement for a society is to be social,” he begins, “but the reality is that being social is about more than just text on a screen. It comes down to brain chemistry altered by physical interactions, including body-language, touch, sense of smell, intonation and various sounds… All the things the online communities seek to emulate. However, eventually, they all eventually – sorry, repeating myself there – but, they all end up doing the same thing a lot of other people do naturally, and it is one of the things that people who go online started out avoiding: actually going out with friends in the real world.

“Our virtual worlds are, well, virtually useless at conveying the human experience in any kind of accurate form. Television lacks a whole variety of senses that make up the human experience. Literature describes them, but many people have a hard time visualising what they read, let alone feeling the senses, hearing the sounds. That kind of synaesthesia seems to be beyond most, probably because schools encourage visualisation and little else. Photography suffers the same problem, and it is interesting that few people ever try and bring the smells, or feelings, for example, that they encountered in one place back with them as a form of memento to share with others.

“In fact, this main social aspect – sharing – has become a key problem point with our society in recent times. Just as we’ve begun to spread out online, we have become somehow less social; similarly, as our group of friends has expanded, our capacity to share with them has been reduced, too. You need only to look at social networking sites, where the majority of people believe they are sharing their experiences with people. But, let me ask you this, isn’t a picture, or a status update, or a Tweet, just another way of showing off? A selfish way of saying, “I did this,” in order to come across as somehow better than those on your friend’s list. You didn’t take all these friends you’ve greedily added as a status-symbol with you on your travels, you just wave it in their faces that you did something and they didn’t.

“In addition, the same principles are warping who we are as people. We have become NPCs in a grand social computer game, our reactions and behaviours categorized and filed, and sold to the highest bidder. The human engine, finally mapped out in a way that game theorists have been trying – and failing – to do for decades. But when we didn’t fit the principles of game theory, instead of changing the theory, they decided, instead, to begin changing us to fit their models.

“Just look at capitalism, or Neo-liberalism, or whatever chosen handle it goes by these days. It used to be all about the value of something being proportional to the amount of effort put into acquiring the capital to purchase and therefore own it. Then, we could show off our possession in selfish social interaction, or share them in inclusive social interaction. Put another way, we could keep up with Jones’s next door, or we could let our friend test drive the new car we bought to see how it handles.

“Now, we are moving to a new way of operating: you purchase something you can enjoy on your own, but which comes with an endless consumer burden of updates, upgrades, applications, and etc., but which you also will never actually own so as to allow major corporations to control innovation – or completely stifle it – or increase their revenue through litigation. In this model, your new phone/palm-top computer device, that film you will have to pay to watch every time on your video-on-demand service, the home you rent… You won’t own any of it. It ends up being transitory, and pointless. The value of that possession becomes reduced and hollow.

“Instead, you end up in a race to the bottom, where everyone scrambles to find the latest bit of software, or unshared-experience, to wave in the faces of their friends. Or, alternatively, you get renegades, who, simply because they long for the time in their childhood when most media was accessible, and capable of being shared, and who create their own means of sharing experience with others, that are slowly legislated against on the basis that the rights holders are being cheated out of money, even as those rights holders warp our reality into one of selfish, solitary consumerism.”


Ernest Morrison has been running a variety of workshops for a number of years. They are run by himself and a few friends he has acquired, and many of them use old experiments on human interactions to measure how effective certain parts of our society are at working with each other, socialising, and maintaining their own mental health.

Recently, he has seen a rise in the number of people demonstrating anti-social behaviour. This isn’t the type of anti-social behaviour you read about in the newspapers. Instead, this anti-social behaviour is the type that masquerades as professionalism, motivated-business-sense, online social-networking, and online-trolling whilst hiding behind the belief that speech should be free (and that, therefore, insulting people should be protected by law).

This type of behaviour is permeating every level of society, and can be seen as the main cause of unjustified entitlement and depression.

Morrison often uses an experiment using a safe with a smaller safe inside, and a prize in the second safe. Ten people are given the codes to the outer safe, and another ten are given the code to second safe, and then they are split into pairs. The pair are then told that inside the safe is £100 – and that they can choose to split the winnings any way they like, based on who did the most work during the experiment.

Unbeknownst to the pairs, the person who has the code to the outer safe has scored lower on a screening test before starting the experiment. The test measures whether or not the person would be more, or less, likely to feel entitled to getting something because of their own perceived social status.

Morrison has stated that in an ideal society, both participants would share their winnings equally, having been given a code for nothing, and therefore having actually done the exact same amount of working as the other person in achieving their goal. The results of the experiment showed this for many years, as there were a variety of reasons making individuals value being perceived as essentially altruistic and co-operative.

Then the results of the experiment began to change, around ten years ago. When Morrison first noticed it, it was with individuals not from a specific socio-economic background, but whose parents had spoiled them as children, young-adults and teenagers. Many of these individuals were found to be from a lower-economic class because the parents used material purchases to show their affection because they had to work so much, whilst the parents of individuals from a higher-economic bracket were able to spend time with their family and show their affection in other ways.

But the consequences of this began to warp the world around us. It made us believe that an entire underclass was lazy and wanted hand-outs, when the systems of our society had trained them to feel entitled. Meanwhile, the rich naturally felt entitled because their economic-clout allowed them freedoms not afforded to those less well off.

Along with this entitlement came the advent of social media.

Social media claimed to give everyone a voice, though in reality it tended to give a voice to whoever could come up with the most pithy statements. It resulted in human interaction becoming increasingly like walking on quicksand – those who were quick and didn’t think very much survived with little trouble, whilst those who wanted to take their time were left behind. From text-us-your-views to post-comment, people were competing in verbal sparring matches. TLDR became the cry of a generation wanting simple explanations to complex problems.

Meanwhile, more and more people began to use social media as a primary means of communication. Neighbours would email rather than walk two doors down the road; friends would play questing games online despite being only a few miles apart; people would stay in and watch video-on-demand rather than succumb to escalating cinema prices. Slowly, many people stopped talking face-to-face, and we began to live our lives in little boxes with little communication save the news feed on our social networking site.

And that is when the isolation and depression started to seep in.

What Morrison found was an increasing trend. Those who scored high on the test would take the bait that was set out for them. They would get the first person to open their safe, and would then renegotiate their share of the winnings. Their rationalisation was, increasingly, that as they had the code to open the only locked safe, they were more entitled to the money inside.

These people were the children of entitlement, raised by market-forces and ‘Pokemon’ and parents who had to work too many jobs in their diseased quest for more money, who believed that their own value was directly connected to how much they could get out of people. They represented the selfishness that characterises the rise in the Neo-liberal belief that people are individuals only out for what they can get, and that society can function perfectly if we all only become greedy enough.

However, it conveniently ignored the increasingly isolated individuals, often far more ponderous and intellectual, who were becoming depressed and downtrodden. The reason for this was that the children of entitlement were taking over, dominating the media, and feeding us a stream of stories designed to promote the greed is good ideology that seems to surface every so often under another label. The isolated would try and reason with this new ideology, but would often find themselves in a much more dangerous position than they realised: they were using rational means to counter an irrational opponent, turned sick by a need to value their worth by having more than other people.

In this situation, the rational person would often come off far, far worse than the irrational person, because they would either become infuriated, and seem irrational themselves, or they would revert to the common lament of intellectual outsider, and openly wonder, “What is the point?” The dynamic would then change, with the isolated desperate for social interaction which reinforces their self-worth, and therefore deciding to end this social interaction by leaving and forfeiting the money they never had, or agreeing to renegotiate. Meanwhile, the child of entitlement would often try and bleed them for all they were worth, and therefore increase their own feeling of self-worth. The intellectual outsider seeking emotional self-worth, whilst the child of entitlement seeks material self-worth.

In most cases, the pair would often agree, but the difference in the amount shared was growing wider with each passing year.

The following is an interview with Ernest Morrison.


Your research is very interesting, and your speech at the conclusion of the recent workshop was very illuminating. Can I ask, though, why you think social media is an evil when it can bring together like-minded people all over the globe? I’m thinking of those with niche interests which may have made them feel like freaks had they not had the opportunity to discuss their interests with others.

That is a very good point, but I don’t believe social media is evil. I believe its prominence is evil. Social media is a tool, and a tool is incapable of doing anything until people project their own beliefs onto it. Some tools become so synonymous with the evil that they do – guns for example – that we cannot imagine another use for them, and they then need to locked away. However, social media is not an evil, even though some politicians often look at how their opponents use it and declare it as such. But, again, that is them projecting onto a tool, when it is people they are really in opposition with.


You said that a sense of smell was important to human interacting and shared experience…

I know where you are going with this. I said that physical interaction, person-to-person, is important, and yes, to an extent sense of smell reinforces that. Like the first time you smell a lover, and whenever you smell that same smell you associate with them it triggers your memory. I didn’t mean that cinema could be improved by having everything smell like shit in historical epics.


You did, however, suggest that people should try to share experiences more. Aren’t there some limiting economic factors that may stop friends from sharing some experiences, though? Plus, what if someone wants some quiet time to themselves?

Actually, what I was suggesting was the function of how we present our experiences. These days we don’t tend to present our experiences as stories told to friends person-to-person, but via photographs on social-networking sights, or brief status updates, and when we meet up we kind of, mentally, think, “The pictures are there… they should look at them.” The older generation don’t do that, they interact and discuss. As for time to yourself, I’m all for it. Just not to the extent that we are remaining in isolation playing on computer games, or surfing online.


Do you think reality TV has played a big part in twisting our perception of reality?

Absolutely. When you start to believe that edited segments of people’s lives are somehow representative of the real world, you start to lose sight of what the human experience really is. A television show can condense a day at work down into a montage, and then the person is out spending their wages. We know that work takes a long time, but something about the way that is presented persuades us that work should be fun and quick, just like a montage. Then, at work, it makes it drag on far, far longer, and makes us feel more depressed. Then there are these text-in-your-views things, and they are just insane. Since when did you ask a fifteen year-old from Essex to give you advice on your thirty-five year-old husband cheating on you? There is a reason we don’t put Dave from Northampton in charge of our economy, thank you TV news.


Has it given us a sense that we are entitled to opinions about things we know nothing about?

It isn’t just that, it’s the passion with which people defend views that they know very little about. We did an experiment where we asked people about their views on the economy, and then tested them on certain facts and figures. Those who knew the least were amongst the least willing to consider another perspective when confronted with the facts, and became the most angry and stubborn. They claimed they were entitled to their opinion, and when we pointed out that their opinion was wrong, they made it clear they would rather try and convince us that our facts were wrong. It is like if someone has always believed the moon is made of cheese, and you show them a moon rock, they are going to cry conspiracy because their systems of belief – religious, political, whatever – are more important than knowing what is going on in reality. It’s anti-intellectualism, and it’s all about having answers without asking questions, rather than asking a question and finding the accurate answer.


You referenced models of people in game theory. What are they?

There was once a belief that using mathematical logic you could predict human behaviour. But the mathematicians doing the equations screwed it up. They assumed, for example, that in a situation where one person has a diamond, and another person has a lot of money, the desired outcome would be to end up with both the money and the diamond. This was obviously flawed because in reality, that would be stealing, and people tend to frown on that. So, instead, I proposed that the logical thing to do in any situation is co-operate, so that a consensus can be reached. Even in our experiments were someone has ended up with all the money a consensus has been reached as one person has either consented, or withdrawn from the experiment after opening their safe. But their belief was that there was only material self-worth at work, rather than emotional self-worth. Plus, humans tend to be fairly unpredictable, anyway, and can behave in contradictory ways at the worst possible moments, sometimes for specific reasons, sometimes due to human errors. You cannot account for such random factors, because by being random, you never know what to expect. Once again, they were trying to use what they considered a rational approach, but it was irrational, as reality is chaotic, and we try and impose an irrational order on it, with some limited success. The rational approach was to leave the maths at home, set up the experiment, and then report what they found. Instead, they did the maths, blamed the humans when their experiments failed, and then tried to change the word to fit their equations, causing us all to become a little madder as a consequence.


You say that co-operation is central to human interaction, but don’t some people have to suffer so that others can succeed? Isn’t success defined by who you have beaten to achieve it?

It used to be said that it was the taking part that counted. But, I’ll humour your question for a second. Imagine tennis. Player one plays player two. Player one wins. What happened first? Did he beat his opponent, or did they co-operate by playing each other according to the rules of the game? We always start with co-operation. If we co-operate, even if we lose a game, we can be proud of the effort we put into competing. The problem we have now is we have skewed the rules to reward non-co-operation by making the punishments so flimsy. Footballers consistently cheat, refuse to co-operate, and are not punished appropriately. People play with little spirit of co-operation, and instead set themselves up as enemies of their opponents. It means that they then move from playing for emotional self-worth, where they do so to be involved and get enjoyment, to material self-worth, where they have a series of empty victories. This is then reflected in the real world. Success is defined in many ways, and a good loser used to be loved more than a bad winner. Sadly, more people value material self-worth, these days. At least, they do in sport.


Is me watching a film at home me pandering to my material self-worth?

It is if you are the first to watch it and you put up a message making that point.


What you said about purchasing solitary experiences that have nothing tangible for you to own troubled me. If I was to rent an apartment, would that be emotionally unfulfilling?

Wouldn’t you rather have your own house?


Point taken. But it does seem, at the end, as though you are condoning criminal behaviour, by suggesting that piracy is the only logical reaction to an industry that charges you every time you want to watch a film. Do you support piracy?

Piracy is justified when copyright never runs out, because those who are in charge of the law have shown a disregard for innovation. An author should be entitled to profit from his work for a time, but when most people do a day’s work, they get paid for a day’s work. They don’t then say, “I worked last Thursday, so I should deserve to be paid for the next sixty years.” In addition, many copyright holders didn’t even produce the work they are profiting from, someone else did, and often that person won’t have got one dollar in royalties. You just need to compare comic books and fashion, where comic books are stagnating because they have been printing Superman and Batman for decades, to a dwindling audience who have seen it all before, whilst fashion has no real copyright and has to constantly innovate to stay alive. Writers should expect, say, a few years of protection… Maybe twenty? But if you are relying on one book you wrote twenty years ago, or a film made twenty years ago, we should really be asking, “What have you done for us lately?”

As for piracy in the form it is now, it is fascinating to watch the innovation and commitment of these individuals involved with it, and to study their beliefs. The idea that information wants to be free is an infectious meme that goes all the way back to the early press, and is one that runs against the big-business-state we see running our lives at the moment. Once again, you see the two competing facets of my work in it – on the one hand, you have the pirates, trying to share things they have experienced with people all over the world, taking a sense of emotional self-worth from that, and bringing emotional self-worth to those that then go on to share those experiences – films, music, television, open-source software, information – with others; meanwhile, you have an oppressive business state that wants to control releases and information, to sell them to you individually, and force you to consume them to reinforce your material self-worth, using adverts that tell you how special you’ll be if you buy this car, or wear these trainers. Then, when people react by stealing or looting, to increase their material self-worth, they’re shocked. It’s laughable.

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