Facebook itself was born as a binary choice of "Hot or Not"—now it's "Like" or "Unlike," as these binary choices and other forms of extreme polarizing content are inextricably embedded into the platform's genome. In fact, in what's been called an "extremification loop," all social media platforms act as self-reinforcing sorting mechanisms that are binary in nature, sending algorithmically fueled, increasingly intensified content to the user, designed to excite the primal lizard brain based on perceived preferences. Lean left, and the algorithm-fueled echo chamber feeds the user ever-increasing left-leaning content. Lean right, and the same thing happens in the opposite direction, thus widening and deepening the polarity chasm.
This programming prime directive of the social media organism has evolved into the ultimate confirmation bias system, amplifying and inflaming an individual's already existing beliefs in pursuit of greater user engagement or "stickiness." Because at the end of the day, that's how all social media platforms are monetized. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this binary extremification loop acts as a mental health toxin for many of its users.
Shortly after I wrote Glow Kids, I started seeing some of these toxic mental health effects firsthand; in my mental health clinics, I noticed more and more young clients who saw things in absolutes and were unable to cope with the daily stressors of life. Many seemed highly reactive, angry, lonely, empty, lacking a core identity, easily manipulated, confused, suffered from a poor self-image, were depressed, self-medicating, and generally had difficulty thriving.
The common denominator was that almost all saw things in black or white. Indeed, I was seeing more and more young adult patients being referred who were struggling with more problematic personality disorders—a type of mental disorder featuring a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning, and behaving. And beyond my clinics' clients, in our society at large, I saw a significant increase in polarization, at a level that I had never seen before.
It seemed to reflect what Marshall McLuhan had famously said in the 1960s: "The medium is the message"; now, the medium (digital, binary, social media) is not only the message, it also shapes the brains of people receiving the message into limited and binary dichotomous thinking that lacks the breadth and complexity of what's known as spectrum thinking. And, unfortunately, this black-and-white dichotomous thinking also happens to be the diagnostic hallmark of borderline personality disorder, or BPD.
Where will this lead? It's unclear, but the prognosis for anyone—or any society—struggling with BPD without any intervention is extremely poor. COVID only made things worse. Like kerosene on an already raging fire, all the quarantines, social distancing, and virtual life led to a doubling of screen time and a tripling of depression, along with record spikes in overdoses and suicides.
My father was right—this was not the way that human beings were meant to live.
This high-tech, screen-staring modern lifestyle and its pronounced lack of physical movement isn't just toxic for our mental health but also directly leads to our record rates of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes—all the telltale signs of an unhealthy and sedentary society in distress. Sure, we may have some snazzy electronics and oh-so-smart devices, but, to paraphrase Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, "We're dying here!"
Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. We're shot.
The sad reality is that most of us are too digitally sedated or distracted—dare I say addicted?—to notice our mental and physical deterioration. To paraphrase Pink Floyd, we're all too comfortably numb to know—or to care—and we're not even in the metaverse yet!
Who's curating and controlling this modern nightmare? Forget the bankers, the politicians, and the industrialists; the real power in the twenty-first century rests with a handful of tech billionaires. It was indeed the meek—with slide rules—who inherited the earth, tech geeks who would grow up to become megalomaniacs with names like Bezos, Gates, and Zuckerberg. This New Technocracy spawned from Big Tech not only rule the world but also data mine our lives and control what we see, how we think, how we vote, how we live—and even how we die.
Is their agenda simply greed or something more? As I researched this book, I discovered clues about what may be motivating the Big Tech oligarchs. Beyond the pedestrian hunger for greed and power, I discovered that they may have another more interesting motivation—one befitting the most powerful people who have ever lived on the face of the earth and who have developed grandiose God complexes...More about that later in the book.
Regardless of motivation, we've learned the Big Tech playbook from high-level defectors like Google's Tristan Harris and Facebook's Chamath Palihapitiya (among many others): create algorithmically fueled, habit-forming platforms and gadgets to maintain engagement and drive profit. Use the most lizard brain-activating content (political outrage, violent games) to maximize this engagement and create habituation. Then, as Harvard's Shoshana Zuboff explains, data mine and create a monetized "surveillance economy." Rinse and repeat.