by Andy Crouch
The reward structure of video games—the simulated authority and vulnerability of virtual reality—is increasingly colonizing our interactions with the most serious matters of the real world as well. Like technologically mediated entertainment, the technology of social media is becoming more “gamified” by the year as developers learn how to tap into the deep human hunger for simulations of authority and vulnerability. In social media, you can engage in nearly friction-free experiences of activism, expressing enthusiasm, solidarity, or outrage (all powerful sensations of authority) for your chosen cause with the click of a few buttons.
The technology of social media is becoming more “gamified” by the year as developers learn how to tap into the deep human hunger for simulations of authority and vulnerability.
Like all media, social media are largely what we make of them—escapist or transforming depending on what we expect from them and how we use them. In far-flung places in the world, an emerging generation has used media like Twitter to coordinate impressive examples of meaningful action combined with extraordinary risk—the 2014 protests in Hong Kong and the outcry in the United States about police practices and race being recent examples.
But these two uses of social media have two key features in common. First, they were largely used by people living deep in suffering—exposed to meaningful risk without being granted meaningful capacity for action by their societies. Second, they led to embodied, in-the-flesh experiences of action in community. When media are tools that help those who have lacked the capacity for action take action, and bring them together to bear risk together rather than be paralyzed in suffering, they can lead to real change.
But when the residents of comfortable affluence use media to simulate engagement, to give ourselves a sense of making a personal investment when in fact our activity risks nothing and forms nothing new in our characters, then “virtual activism” is in fact a way of doubling down on withdrawing, holding on to one’s invulnerability and incapacity while creating a sensation of involvement. Only when technology serves a genuine, embodied, risky move toward flourishing is it something other than an opiate for the mass elite—the drug that leaves us mired in our apathy and our neighbors in their need.
Read an interview with the author about his new book, Strong and Weak.