Nicotine, The Algorithm, cocaine.
For me, this is a descending list of substances in terms of addictive qualities, with the first two arguably tied with one another. Not that I've ever tried drugs before, but speaking for a friend.....
Before we dive too deep into the point of this post - discussing my recent over-a-month-long abstinence from IG, and my subsequent reentrance into that horrid digital landscape - let's load a metaphor up in our minds. But wait, I want to pick the right metaphor! As I load the metaphor up in your mind, I want to make sure it doesn't have any strings tied to it that would bring in too many unwanted ideals along with the helpful ones.
Social connotation can completely change how an object, product, person, or idea is perceived.
To some, it might be a fun, catchy, or even thoughtful song. To internet culture, it's a meme that's been so overplayed both ironically and un-ironically that it's hard to tell what side of the irony scale someone is even on when they share it with you.
WARNING: I'm about to share "Rick Astley - Never Gonna Give You UP (Official Music Video)"!
"Alas, just as this classic song has been reinterpreted for subsequent generations to mean something completely different than the sum of its parts—having a meaning in contrast to its creator's intent and the original listeners' experience—the same seems to have happened to one of my favorite films of all time."
To avoid unwanted connotation or assumptions, I'm not going to use The Matrix to describe the phenomenon of which I'd like us all to focus today.
I guess you could say we are going to "dodge that bullet" this time.
Instead, let's see how the same metaphor - one of an illusory reality, the pain of enlightenment, and the challenge of freedom - gets played out in a much older story, an allegory by the Greek philosopher Plato:
From wikipidea lol:
Imprisonment in the cave
Plato begins by having Socrates ask Glaucon to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from childhood, but not from birth. These prisoners are chained so that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them and not to look around at the cave, each other, or themselves (514a–b). Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway with a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects or puppets "of men and other living things" (514b).
The people walk behind the wall so their bodies do not cast shadows for the prisoners to see, but the objects they carry do ("just as puppet showmen have screens in front of them at which they work their puppets") (514a). The prisoners cannot see any of what is happening behind them; they are only able to see the shadows cast upon the cave wall in front of them. The sounds of the people talking echo off the walls; the prisoners believe these sounds come from the shadows (514c).
Socrates suggests that the shadows are reality for the prisoners because they have never seen anything else; they do not realize that what they see are shadows of objects in front of a fire, much less that these objects are inspired by real things outside the cave which they do not see (514b–515a).
I ain't even finna go into all the details about the theories of consciousness being fundamental, research behind collective illusions, or any of my own personal religious beliefs (at least not yet). I'll just transition into telling my own experience of taking about a month or so off instagram, coming back online, and having to relearn how to ride a bike that's designed to ride me (pause).
In the f u t u r e, I may write about the "why" behind my Instagram (and YouTube algorithm) abstinence, but for now I just want to focus on the effects I experienced because of my time away, and the perplexing head change I experienced upon returning.
A couple of big things I noticed about my time off The Algorithm were:
how much easier it was to be present in any given moment, regardless of if it was "interesting" (or "worth-sharing") or not
how much easier it was to keep more aspects of life in the RAM of my mind - let's say I'm at work, and all of a sudden a creative idea pops into my head. Under ideal circumstances, I'd be able to finish whatever I'm focused on in the moment, then take some time to at least jot down the idea, or possibly even flesh it out a bit. In the past, there's a good chance that a notification, a thoughtless reach for my phone, or an attempt to escape an uncomfortable or boring moment would have meant that I would have wound up on The Algorithm shortly after (or, sadly, even during) the moments of focus. This unintentional time on The Algorithm probably would have kicked the idea out of my head such that it never got a chance to grow roots and eventually manifest. Bye bye cool creative thought! At least I got to see that video that I won't remember in a month.
To summarize, I was more clear-headed, focused, and content than I had been cognizant of in a long time.
Coming back to The Algorithm after a month or so of being off of it was absolutely overwhelming. To be specific, I wasn't even engaging directly with The Algorithm; I didn't scroll through any posts, and I didn't look at any stories other than one. Just being in IG's digital building was insane. I didn't even have to jump on the roller coaster to start having my stomach turning.
(A quick interjection - I want you to think of the word care as you read the following. Ok, back to the post).
In order to ensure that my reentry was successful and healthy, I set myself a pretty strict intention for coming back. I also had my wife physically present with me as accountability to ensure I didn't get lost in the sauce. My main intentions:
respond to DMs
update my profile pic & bio
archive all my recent posts
I'm wanting to begin fresh in a couple of ways, plus I'll be honest I'm kinda into cryptic marketing, so I figured wiping everything and starting with a clean slate would be fitting.
So first things first, I jumped into the DMs. As I did, I became immediately overwhelmed with the amount of info being blasted at me: tiny pictures representing people I mostly know, many of whom having different pics than the last time I was on IG. My brain started processing this and trying to associate the tiny pics, along with the usernames, to the social context of the relationship I have with that person. Seeing 10+ unread threads, with their bold and "bright" text jumping out at me from the black background, felt like coming back to school after being sick for a week. So much to catch up on, so much I'd missed, so much I've lost a pulse on.
(Remember - care.)
Clicking into a DM thread also become overwhelming immediately. It was actually less intense to see text, as it was easily scannable and I was able to quickly identify the context and connotation of the message, and from there pretty easily discern my level of response. Was this just something I needed to "like"? Were they asking me a question? Did it require follow-up? Was it something that had time-sensitive urgency, but has since passed (such as an event invitation from a couple weeks ago)?
The real overwhelming part was clicking into a DM thread and seeing an IG Reel. Trying to pick out the exact thing the sender wanted me to notice about, while also trying to deduce the viral nature of the clip (something my brain does when in a feed - something along the lines of asking "how meme-able" is this, and how dank is this in meme terms), as well as picking apart the various nuances of the content (parts that aren't the reason why the sender sent it to me, but other details I may find interested or relatable beyond the main topic), while also wondering how much attention I'd have to pay to it, while also noticing the joke structure of build up and delivery and punch line (if it's fair to think of it like that).... all of this was a heavy mental task, and it all happened within about a second. Because I've been very intentionally chewing on anything in front of me in the recent weeks, it wasn't automatic for me to just quickly grab the "main idea" from the clip that the sender wanted me to see, do the little nose exhale laugh thing (if it's even that funny), and then move on. Lately I've been very present. Lately I've tried to give my life a lot of care. Lately I've been taking things a little more slowly. The rushed nature of IG was making it feel like I had to speed run it, but my recent mindset wanted to take my time and savor every bit, as though I was enjoying a well-cooked meal, or appreciating someone's work that had taken a lot of time and intentionality. But, like many things in The Feed, most of the stuff people sent me was just sugar, or at best some frozen chicken nuggets. It was hard feeling centered, grounded, focused, and intentional as I walked into a mental mall of digital consumerism, frivolous fluff, amusement, and absurdity.
There's a lot of places to go from here in regards to breaking down the meaning of my recent experience. In future blog posts, I'd love to explore the fact that IG & Tik Tok aren't the first "bad guys" in terms of feeding people sensational but otherwise useless information. The telegram, newspapers, radio, magazines, and TV are all the grandpas and great grandpas of this dehumanizing family lineage. While this phenomenon may not be new, it's still worth mentioning that the scale and effect have grown exponentially (The Feed doesn't end, for instance). But alas, these will explored in the future.
I'd also love to talk about the nature of our society increasingly separating information from meaning. This is also a phenomenon that has been explored in the past, as this same thread has been active for a while.
Perhaps, at some point, we can even dive into the nature of meaning itself.
But for now, I'll leave you with the same warning I'm giving myself:
Is The Algorithm designed to help us care about the information we intake (and the people from whom we get that information - friends, family, peers, influencers, etc.), or does it instead have something else baked into it, whether intentional and by design. or by consequence?