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The Science of Social Media is a False Dilemma

Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.

And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.

The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.

We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.


It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.

The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.

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It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.

Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.

The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.

Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.

What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.

Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)

Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.

War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.

It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.

Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)

Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.

To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.

But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?

None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.

At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.

Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.

In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.

The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.

It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.

Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”

The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.

Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.

If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.

In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.

If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”

“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.

Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.

In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.

As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.

The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.

The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.

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You may contact the author at gary@gmoreau.com
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Everything in Moderation

Author Gary Moreau

If there is one lesson I learned from the Chinese during my time living among them, it is the universal reality of duality. The Chinese refer to it as yin and yang, represented by the black and white symbol known the world over.

Two is a recurring theme throughout all of life. It takes two to make a pair. It takes two to make a baby. It takes two to tango. We have two hands, two feet, and two eyes. We experience highs and lows. We are happy and sad. We become ill and get better again. We record our commerce with double-entry accounting. There is sunshine and there is shadow. The workweek has a beginning and an end. We live and we die.

The universal symbol of yin and yang.

In the Chinese world view, yin and yang define the universe and everything in it. They are opposing but complementary forces. One cannot exist without the other.

Ideally, yin and yang exist in balance. If a person has too much of either they will live in a state of great imbalance and the quality of life will suffer. To achieve the understanding that leads to peace and serenity balance must be restored.

Singularity is impossible to achieve. It is foreign to this universe. The path down each extreme of yin and yang is never ending. It is infinite, leading only to greater and greater disillusionment and angst.

I was reminded of this dualistic reality recently, in the simplest example, as my wife and I went on our daily walk. As we walked through an older neighborhood with relatively high housing density, but plentiful and well-maintained sidewalks, I casually observed how few people we encountered on our daily excursion compared to our experience on the crowded sidewalks of China.

Much of that, of course, is simply a function of population. In a country of 1.4 billion people, with cities that house in excess of 20 million residents, the lack of personal space is a given. Every public space is inevitably crowded.

Some of the foot traffic is explained, however, by the Chinese obsession with health and fitness. Elderly Chinese, in particular, spend a good part of their day outdoors, weather and air quality permitting.

The Chinese government promotes fitness on a grand scale and has installed simple exercise equipment, often geared to the elderly, in public spaces large and small. No need for a large public park. Most installations occupy considerably less than half the area of a typical middle-income suburban housing lot in the US.

There are no elliptical machines or treadmills, and while the exercises don’t normally lead to excessive sweating, they promote skeletal movement and cardiac fitness. No fancy electronics to keep track of your heart rate or record your exertion. Just simple mechanical machines and, often, a couple of cement ping pong tables thrown in for good measure. (You have to bring your own paddle and ball.)

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The scarcity of such simple government investments in such tangible tools to help fight obesity and improve general health is ironic, to say the least, given the amount of political attention given to rising health care costs and the financial strain they are exerting on government entitlement programs. Certainly such investments would show a better rate of return than public service advertising, which typically does more to line the pockets of creative agencies and media moguls than it does to improve the well being of the target audience (whoever that is, in many cases).

I have to believe that part of the reason for the absence of such obviously beneficial investments is the threat of being sued should someone be injured or develop a medical condition that can even be remotely linked with any particular exercise. Accident has been written out of the lexicon of American life and living. There are no accidents any more. There are only stronger or weaker cases for obtaining a financial windfall.

We like to blame the lawyers for this reality, but that is not entirely fair. Insurance companies looking to limit their losses and maximize their bottom line play a role. Social media plays a role as well. Once a video taken on the smart phone of a partially informed bystander goes viral, only the size of the settlement remains in doubt.

Our democratic politics have come to follow a similar pattern. Virtually everyone in America, it would seem, other than the consultants, is unhappy with the current political environment. Virtually no one appears to be winning, least of all the American people.

How can that be? Our political system is supposed to be the envy of the world. At one time, in fact, it was.

The simple answer is that social media and technology have empowered the dark side of political duality in the same way it has empowered the dark side of legal accountability. Democracy is a noble institution. It demands, however, that the people exercising democracy are fully informed and knowledgeable.

They aren’t. And it has nothing to do with which political party you align with. It has nothing to do with your personal values.

Accountability is its own duality. While democracy provides us the ability to vote the bastards out of office, it provides those same bastards with a strong incentive to keep us misinformed, a product of both misinformation and the lack of any information at all.

Technology and social media are dualities themselves, as a result. We have access to a virtually unlimited amount of information but the length of a day has not changed. As a result, consciously or not, we are forced to develop priorities. Which story am I going to read? Which link will I click? Will I, in fact, rely exclusively on a news source that serves to reinforce my existing and inevitably biased opinions? Will I only listen to those who share my world view?

That is the duality of choice. Choice enables accountability. Accountability, however, comes in many shades. The difference is in the world view of the beholder. And that world view is defined by our interpretation of the reality around us. And therein sits the sticky wicket.

My mother used to say, “Everything in moderation.” She understood duality. Not many people do any more.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@glassmakerinchina.com

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Understanding the World

Gary Moreau
Gary Moreau

It was hard not to chuckle when I read that the National Geographic Society and the Council on Foreign Relations had released the results of a new global knowledge survey. There has been little evidence of such knowledge anywhere since the US plunged into one of the dirtiest and least literate presidential races in recent memory.

The survey gauged the global knowledge of 18-26 year old adults who currently attend or recently attended a US school of higher education. Yet only 30% of those surveyed answered 2/3 or more of the questions correctly. And only 1% got 91% or more of them correct.

Some of the questions were admittedly a bit tricky. China, for example, is not the US’s largest trading partner, as most respondents believed. Nor is Mexico, despite all of the political rhetoric about NAFTA’s impact on the US economy. The US’s largest trading partner is Canada, a fact that only 10% of the respondents got correctly, although the US does import more from China than any other single country.

Less than one third of the respondents knew that more than half of the population of Indonesia identify as Muslims, while an equal amount incorrectly believed that the majority of the citizens of India do. (Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world.)

Perhaps most concerning, however, given the US pivot to Asia, the destabilizing impact of North Korea’s relentless efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the potential for military flare ups over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, only 28% of respondents knew that the US is bound by treaty to protect Japan in the event of attack. And only 34% knew that the US has a similar obligation to South Korea, a country that North Korea has threatened to use its budding nuclear arsenal against on numerous occasions. Military flare-ups in Southeast Asia, in other words, could easily lead to the loss of US lives.

Why the disconnect? How can issues that are this important to a shrinking, interconnected geo-political world be so misunderstood?

Some of the blame, of course, can probably be laid at the doorstep of social media, which many people now rely on as a primary source of ‘news.’ These are not topics that people are tweeting about, or issues that are generating likes on Facebook.

Even our traditional hard news outlets devote much of their news coverage to pop culture and celebrity. In their defense, of course, this is what people want to hear. And, as a result, what advertisers are willing to pay for.

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Nonetheless, the lack of international news included in US news broadcasts stunned me when I returned to the US four months ago. I believe the Chinese, despite frequent Western political accusations to the contrary, are exposed to far more international news than their American counterparts when adjusting for access to media.

And, of course, geo-politics and global literacy just don’t lend themselves to the ten-second sound bite or the high impact graphic. It’s just not the stuff of chat rooms or viral video. Who wants to learn more about the population of Indonesia when you can watch cute cat videos instead?

How can we have a meaningful debate about global trade when two-thirds of respondents believe that the Chinese economy is bigger than the economy of the US? (China’s is the world’s second largest economy. It remains dwarfed by the US.)

Perhaps, however, it is the disintegration of the family dinner that deserves the most blame for our lack of global knowledge. Much of what I learned about geo-politics as a young person was acquired at the family dinner table. My brother and I came of age during the height of the Vietnam Conflict, so the family dinner conversation tended to be quite lively and informative. There was a lot at stake.

And maybe that’s the key. Perhaps we simply need to convince people that there is a lot at stake. Or that learning can, in fact, be both empowering and fun.

If we can’t convince people of the gravity of the issues, I fear, history may inevitably make the case on our behalf. It always does.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com


The Real Self

Note:  The above traditional Chinese art was created by my daughter, Leah.  She was nine years-old at the time.


An article recently appeared in China Daily, by Li Yang, entitled, “The real self as opposed to false pride.” It immediately caught my eye both because the topic is philosophical, which is my cup of tea, and because I can’t imagine a US newspaper running anything remotely comparable. After all, it doesn’t have to do with weight loss, fashion, celebrities, or the cutest cat pictures ever taken.

The last paragraph reads: “In such a scenario, self-consciousness can help a person to differentiate between his/her ego and alter ego, which unlike the field of psychology is created by businesses in the social sphere today. And turning to real art can help awaken one’s ego (in the sense of self as opposed to pride), and find his/her own true Secret Garden.”

As you might guess from this quotation, the vehicle for Li’s insightful expression of opinion is the success of the Secret Garden, an adult coloring book, although that is admittedly an oversimplification, created by a very talented Scottish-born artist and illustrator, Johanna Basford.

It is, in end, an article about traditional versus modern culture and the author’s concern that China’s development is pulling it away from its traditional artistic roots, which were both a paragon to the world and a psychological anchor to Chinese culture for both artist and observer alike.

It’s a story that applies to every culture on earth but is particularly relevant here in China both because of China’s rich cultural history in the arts and the speed at which the youth of China have embraced modern technology and the negative unintended consequences that accompany the enabling advances of technology.

Secret Garden is a hugely popular book and it’s easy to see why. Ms. Basford clearly is a very imaginative and talented artist and with a little effort nearly anyone can create a visual masterpiece that you will want to share with friends or even hang on your wall.

There is plenty of room for creativity, of course, in that the user is free to use colors of his or her choice and the quality of the finished product, despite the exact sameness of the starting framework, will vary widely by individual and experience.

Such a medium, however, Ms. Li worries, leads to a sense of false pride and is contributing to a lack of interest in learning traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, both of which require a lifetime of dedication to truly master.

The “real self”, by implication, is a cornerstone of Chinese culture. And with this I agree. A culture built on relationships and obligation is a culture built on behaviors, not talk and ideals. I often note that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a behavior is worth ten thousand pictures. Behavior is the most sincere expression of values and beliefs. Few among us can convincingly behave in ways which are insincere, and even those few cannot keep it up forever. In behavior, the real self ultimately emerges.

I share Ms. Li’s concern. As much as I have found much benefit in modern technology I believe it comes with a lot of baggage that may undermine our cultural and social development in the end. Social media, in particular, is, in fact, destroying social development and enabling the worst narcissistic potential within all of us. Because, in the end there is nothing social whatsoever about Tweets and nothing about sharing what you had for lunch on Facebook that develops social intimacy or leads to meaningful dialogue.

Defenders will argue, I’m sure, that it is far better to create art, even if it is not entirely your own, than it is to simply sit on the couch and watch television. And I would agree with that.

But I doubt that is what is really happening. My guess is that people are ‘coloring’ while they watch tv and communicate with friends on their laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

And that, in the end, is my biggest concern about both culture and development. I don’t believe in multi-tasking. It is, I believe, a source of false pride and sense of accomplishment. In my experience, multi-taskers complete tasks but do not truly advance much of anything. It’s the difference between activity and accomplishment.

Tu Youyou, the Chinese pharmacologist who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in developing an herbal cure for fighting malaria, I suspect, was not a multi-tasker. She spent decades focused on a single task but ultimately advanced medicine and saved millions of lives.

As a blogger I constantly receive solicitations from people selling content to other bloggers on the basis that the more you update your content the more preference you will receive from search engines, which are the primary method by which bloggers find new readers.

Not wanting to dilute my objective of a personal blog, I have never made use of these services, although I admit that it’s a lot like work to force yourself to keep your content fresh if you do it all on your own. But that’s the point. As my father used to say, “That’s why they call it work.” It’s not meant to be easy. It’s meant to accomplish something.

I applaud Ms. Basford for her success and her talent. She is, without a doubt, a creative genius who thinks in fresh and innovative ways.

I ultimately come down on the side of Ms. Li, however. We’re all good at something. Perhaps if we focused on sharpening those skills and using them in new and innovative ways, we, too, can follow Ms. Basford in creating new mediums for personal expression that advance culture and society in positive ways.

The thing that impresses me the most, however, and gives me some hope that technology will not destroy what little we have of real community and culture is that a newspaper – a state organ in a socialist country run by a single Communist Party – would even run Ms. Li’s article.

In the US, I fear, real discussion is largely disappearing in favor of one-way pronouncements and filling in between the lines of what others have done. This, ultimately, is the greatest danger of introducing technology to a culture that is based solely on absolute values and truths.

Digital technology, I would argue, aligns perfectly with digital culture. And that is both a blessing and curse. While deductively digital Western cultures have demonstrated great ability in developing and adopting new technology, they have also demonstrated a weakness for its more narcissistic and false truths.

It is true that the Chinese have embraced social media to the same extent the West has. They use it for different reasons, however, and in different ways. For most Chinese, social media is their primary source of news. Traditional media, of course, is all owned by the state and closely controlled. (News is controlled in the West as well, but by different people.) Social media is also monitored, but once a post has started down the path of re-distribution it is beyond the reach of control.

More importantly, the inductive relationship nature of Chinese culture does not align with digital media at a personal level. While the Chinese embrace technology at a functional level, personal relationships that lead to obligation, the foundation of Chinese culture, are typically nurtured in the three-dimensional structure of family and physical social interface.

In this regard, China may have an edge over the West. Which is why, as I have recently noted, I no longer believe that the Chinese want to become Westerners. Truly personal relationships, on which Chinese culture is based, is the only true anecdote for the de-humanization of technology that leads to the narcissistic false pride of digital relationships and communities.


Copyright © 2015 Gary Moreauschools, etc 146

Note:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.

You may contact the author at glassmakerinchina@gmail.com

Social Media

There is little daydreaming in China. You are either sleeping, working, or on your smartphone or tablet, sometimes, in the case of the latter two, at the same time.

By its very name, social media is considered to be social in nature. It allows family and friends to stay in touch and build tighter bonds. It allows new communities to be formed around common interests. It binds a world that has become increasingly isolated and independent.

In theory, therefore, social media should be bringing China and America closer together at the most basic level – the individual. That doesn’t appear to be happening, however. In fact, I would argue, social media, form my observation, is pushing the two countries further and further apart.

It is true, of course, that most American social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) is not accessible in China because it is blocked by the government’s giant Internet firewall.

There are, nonetheless, Chinese counterparts to all of these forms of social media that are, in fact, more geared toward Chinese norms of communication and the Chinese worldview.

The Chinese publicly defend their restrictions on Internet independence. They don’t want to be invaded by foreign tech companies any more than they wanted to be invaded by foreign armies.

But I sincerely believe that there is more than one reason why the Chinese approach to regulation of the Internet is the right one – at least for China at this point in time.

The first is that the Internet is truth and content neutral. While small innovative companies are capable of making far-reaching positive impact on society at large with much faster speed, the reverse is also true. Lies can be spread at the speed of electrons. People who wish to harm us can leash its power to organize our destruction as easily and quickly as those who wish to enlighten and inform us.

Without the education necessary to challenge perceived authority, seemingly convincing rhetoric, and unsubstantiated claims, unleashing the Internet completely is akin to uncaging all of the lions at the zoo. Theoretically ‘right’ in a moral sense, perhaps, but pragmatically dangerous, potentially bordering on disaster.

The biggest challenge I see to social media, however, is the reinforcement it gives the American transmitter style of communication that I have talked about many times before. (The speaker bears responsibility for getting his point across.) What is a Tweet if not a transmission? It is a one-way communication between a Tweeter and a follower.

Ditto for posting what you had for lunch on Facebook. We aren’t being social in the least. We are transmitting in the very same way that Tokyo Rose did during WWII.

And while grandma and grandpa can now watch their grandchild take their first steps on YouTube, is that what YouTube is predominantly used for? Somehow I doubt it.

And this doesn’t even to begin to address the issue of truth and veracity. It reminds me of the early days of the computer. Whatever came out was almost always accepted as truth. Computers, after all, are technically incapable of errors in calculation. But then someone discovered that errors in calculation weren’t the problem to begin with and coined the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”

An old friend of mine was fond of quoting the saying, “Are you listening to respond or listening to understand?” Social media, without a doubt, is built on the former. It’s all about traffic, not thought. It’s all about transmitting and fame comes not from the quality of the transmissions but the number of people who are willing to accept them, whether out of true interest or their social acceptance.

In short, I believe social media is rapidly deteriorating our ability to listen. Like the difference between activity and results, we are transmitting more but learning less.

And to make matters ever worse, the corporate world is now taking over. Every major corporation in America has an entire division devoted to following and working social media on its behalf. There’s always been corporate advertising, of course, but in the past you had to turn on the television or radio or pick up a magazine. And the advertising was obvious.

The commercial presence in our lives is far more invasive and far less obvious today. We don’t, in fact, even know when it’s there. There is an army of social media ‘influencers’, as they’re commonly known, who will deliver your corporate message for a fee. Now, of course, they claim moral boundaries. But so did the doctors who endorsed cigarettes as good for your health or the doctors who support the mega-industry of health and diet supplements, many of which may be effective, but are as yet unproven.

And it is rapidly deteriorating our communities and the social networks that connect us together at the grass roots level. About the only thing most Americans share with their neighbors these days is the day of garbage collection.

Just look at the newscast of the capture of the latest serial killer, or a gunman who just killed innocent people in a shopping mall or movie theater. What is the first thing the network does? They interview the neighbors. And what do the neighbors inevitably say? “I had no idea. I didn’t know him that well but he seemed like such a nice, quiet man.”

Never would such an exchange have taken place in the neighborhood where I grew up, where we not only didn’t have social media but we actually shared the same phone line. There are pros and cons to both extremes, of course, but I, for one, would accept the extreme where my neighbors know my business than the one in which my neighbor is about to go on a shooting rampage at the local university.

Of course the Chinese are as wired in as the Americans. Get on the subway here and at least 90% of the people are on their smartphones or tablets. Out of curiosity, however, I recently began walking up and down the subway cars to surreptitiously discover what they were actually doing.

And what I’ve found, and I am the fist to admit it is a totally unscientific survey, is that most people are either playing games or watching streaming movies or music videos. Frankly, that was a big aha for me. That’s not at all what I expected.

But it makes sense. When you are receiver oriented, and the receiver is deciding what to listen to or not, face to face is a far more powerful form of communication than a 20-word Tweet from some famous person I will never meet in my lifetime.

And part of the reason for that, I believe, is that the Chinese versions of American social media are all built with Chinese characteristics. They are, in short, less transmitter oriented and more receiver oriented, as is the natural communication style of most Asian cultures.

In China they have WeChat, not unlike America’s Twitter, but it is built around communities, not Tweeters and followers. There are virtual communities, but they are two-way communities, in which members equally communicate, fostering both the transmission of knowledge and the development of the ability to listen.

It is, in short, a medium for recreating the collectivist village in an urbanizing environment. And that, to my way of thinking, is a very good use indeed of technology. THAT is truly social media.

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Receiver oriented communicators seem more incline to sit down and chat over a friendly game of cards than to post to the world how well they slept the night before.
Receiver oriented communicators seem more inclined to sit down and chat over a friendly game of cards than to post to the world how well they slept the night before.

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Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

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