The medium we use to communicate with other humans influences what the information and emotions we communicate. When we use a telephone our facial expressions are absent, when we use text chat vocal tones are removed, when we talk in a large group we censor what we might otherwise say if talking only to a close friend. The circumstances and technology connect us in different ways – it socially modulates our communication.
When we choose a specific form of communication, the social modulation will encourage a certain subset of things to be communicated. It will also encourage us to link us to a particular set of people. For example, internet communications allows us to interact with people around the world, meaning that cultures that resulted from relatively local, small, static, social groups (eg. traditional village culture) fade, break down, or are mixed into something new. We can be connected with groups of people with very narrow, niche set of interests – very specialised, specific and exaggerated subcultures can form, along with the language, concepts and quirks that come with them.
In other words, our choice of communication has major social consequences, including influencing what sorts of cultures are able to form. A little time spent considering how a medium modulates our communication is time well spent.
For example, putting aside how we normatively feel about it, consider how many modern communication technologies allow a much larger web of social connections:
- When people are in VERY large groups, they tend to worry less about reputational repurcusions, and many socially enforced ethical rules break down.
- When many social links are available, individual links are less likely to be strong, and people’s experience of others may be more intermitent, less intimate, less familiar. Negotiation of mutual commitment is less important to social success, and inversely people may experience a decreased ability to connect with others in a “deep” way.
- When an individual has the ability to choose or alter their social connections, they are more likely to discontinue an abusive or one-sided relationship. Abusive behaviours may be reduced as perpetrators are forced to “play nice” in order to maintain their social connections.
Sometimes we do not only use technology to modulate our communication, we might use it to simulate or imitate our interactions with other humans. We can be quite creative and sophisticated in the ways we do this. For example, consider the mental effect of reading a book and the feeling of almost hearing the words in our head as we read. Instead of physically talking to a person, the symbols on the page activate the language centres of our brain that were evovled for verbal communication between humans. When we interact with a piece of technology that stimulates the social aspects of our brain, without directly interacting with another human, we are using a social replacement. To be clear, this is not a normative judgement in any way – social replacement can be good or bad – the concept is merely a description of human behaivour.
The distinction between social modulation and social replacement is not always clear. It is generally a matter of degree rather than type. For example, a book is still, in a sense, communication from the author who wrote it. Even a computer program like a game is a kind of communication with its creator. However, it is not a historically normal human social interaction. Social modulation becomes social replacement because the mechanics of the social interaction become external and removed from the communicator.
Social replacement is often associated with some combination of the following:
- The timeframe/delay/latency of interaction is increased
- The communication becomes one-way rather than two-way
- The speaker to audience ratio becomes larger
- The perception of a speaker becomes more difficult or less accurate
BENEFITS OF SOCIAL REPLACEMENT
Let us move now to considering some of the beneficial consequences of social replacement:
- Social replacement enables new social structures – for example one’s that distribute the most useful or enjoyable information to many people. People can selectively access the perceived “best” of a category of social content, and in turn produce their own refined versions of it.
- Social replacement enables access to useful or enjoyable social content for isolated people, or people surrounded by a hostile, immoral or disfunctional social environment.
- Social replacement can be planned and therefore refined to a greater extend than spontaneous human communications. For example humanity’s great works of fiction are social replacements.
- Social replacements can function as a training environment, to provide safe experimentation or new perspectives on technical, social or personal issues. For example, fiction can warn of dangers from an unusual source, or provide a vision of something new, confronting but wonderful.
HARMFUL ASPECTS OF SOCIAL REPLACEMENT
Let us also consider negative consequences that can come from social replacement:
Distortion of value perception
- Social interaction is one of the perceptual queues that we use to identify fellow humans, towards whom we direct our moral values and ethical consideration. When we stimulate the social aspects of our brains via inanimate objects, the mechanism evolved to bond us to our fellow human misfires and we are deceived into valuing a non-human object because part of us innacurately perceives it as human.
- As we established earlier, morality is dependent on accurate beliefs. During our evolution history there was limited social replacements available and so our social perception is easily fooled by these replacements, which may lead to difficulties in moral cognition.
- Mimicry occurs when social replacement occurs but the participant is not aware of it.
- This is particularly dangerous when our social replacements may be consciously designed or created by a person with a particular bias or agenda. They may be themselves misfiring due to their own immersion in or addiction to social replacements, or they may be an immoral human trying to influence others for a malicious reason or simply for their own gain.
- For example, images of cuteness, attractiveness and sexuality are often used to sell products. The images manipulate human instinct by deceptively imitating a potential mate.
- To the extent constructs designed to perform marketing or political functions are inserted into society as comprehensive social replacements, human freedom is destroyed.
Detachment from cultural anchor points
- Cultural norms are a dynamic phenomenon that changes each generation as new people digest previous social norms and reconcile them with unique personal experiences. Each generation the social environment is dependent on and yet change in relation to the last one.
- However, throughout the generations, certain constants of human life act as a force to ‘anchor’ social norms, particularly anchoring it to basic human needs. Cultures will change wildly, but because human invetably run into certain consequences for their actions in social groups, there are common tendancies that exist around some human behaivoural norms (eg. most cultures oppose murder).
- With social replacements the force that anchors human behaviour is not present. It is possible for the norms to ‘drift’ so that they may disconnect actions from their usual consequences, and may facilitate novel attitudes that may in normal social interaction may be very harmful to one’s self or other humans. For example airbrushing images of attractive models may result in a warped perception of what constitutes a healthy human shape.
- Indivudals exposed to excessive social replacements may attempt to project the culture norms derived from the social replacement onto the human social environment, with negative results. For example, a person with anorexia caused by the above distortion may in fact pressure other people to comply with their distorted reality, insisting that other normal people are ‘fat’.
Avoidance of human socialisation
- Where social replacements become optimised around pleasure and short-term thinking, and filter out awkwardness, difficulty, risk, then normal social environments can become unappealing or too confronting.
- This may result in avoidance behaivour where social replacements are used as a kind of drug to hide from the unpleasantness of the world. Rather than awakening and solving our problems, we retreat further, and become cut off from other people.
- As such avoidance behaivour increases in a society, less and less effort is invested in improving or preventing the deteriation of society, morality or even basic human bonds, because people will instead invest effort in the world inhabited by their social replacements.
A BALANCED APPROACH
Given that we wish our social activities to be in harmony with the life-ethic, certain normative views concerning social replacement follow:
- It is probably optimal, from the point of view of a follower of the life ethic, to be an enthusiastic but highly selective users of social replacements
- It is better to improve one social circumstance, and by connection society, rather than hide in social replacements.
- Social replacements are safer when we properly understand what we are interacting with – a highly modulated communication that is essentially a replacement for a human!
- Social replacements should never crowd out proper human interaction
- We should try to establish the agenda of whoever created the social replacement, and refuse to engage (especially emotionally) with any social replacement that appears to be linked with a harmful agenda.
- We should view as unethical any attempts to create deceptively human-like social replacements.
- We should maintain a distinction between human socialisation and social replacements in our discussion with others.
- It is great to be an enthusiastic producer of social replacements, by injecting our creations with a value of life and humanity.
Social modulation and social replacements aren’t inherently harmful. Yet we must be selective in our use of them or else one day we will wake up alone and find that we too have been replaced.