If we're fortunate enough to preserve the working elements of this civilization, and eliminate the elements that are driving its collapse, I think one of the important underserved aspects of mental health treatment and understanding will be our faculty of attention.

There are aspects of our physiology and psychology that are pro-social, because humans are social organisms. We cannot survive for long as solitary individuals, and we do not prosper or progress except in groups.

What our evolution never anticipated, and what our technology has created, is a social environment that includes interactions, either direct or indirect, with hundreds or thousands of people. For "celebrities" and politicians, multiply that by a couple orders of magnitude.

I don't see that technological aspect diminishing, or going away entirely, absent an overall collapse of civilization. We're going to have to learn how to live with it in a way that is compatible with good mental health.

I used to write about this back in Groundhog Day, and I called it "social hygiene," an analog to "personal hygiene." Just as we learned to wash our hands after using the toilet, to brush our teeth and bathe, to wear clean clothes and so on, to preserve our physical health, we'll have to learn new practices with regard to networked social interactions to preserve our mental health.

And in the larger public sphere, just as we have regulations governing economic activity to promote and protect public health, we'll need a regulatory environment that does the same for mental health. This won't be easy because "muh freedoms!" seem to be at odds with public health in many ways, and people seeking power exploit attention with misinformation and lies to gain it.

I was uncomfortable with Facebook for a long time. To be sure, there were elements that I enjoyed a great deal, which is what kept me coming back. But there were always aspects I didn't care for. What tipped the balance was when I ran for public office and experienced the kind of negative attention one can receive from random strangers.

And it became clear to me that the platform itself promoted and facilitated the growth and display of hostility and aggression. Social media platforms are emphatically not "safe spaces." And anyone who hasn't experienced that aspect is simply fortunate to have never been a target worthy of "attention."

One of the things I did before I stepped away from most political activity was to share what I learned about running for office in a handbook for locals interested in running a campaign. (Don't ask me why the Florida Democratic Party doesn't already have one. We're not an "organized" political party.)

To be a candidate requires some social media presence. I advised that a candidate should never read their own social media accounts. A volunteer should read the posts or replies and provide any relevant feedback to the candidate. This volunteer would be what was sometimes called a "shit screen" back when I was midshipman.

There are a couple of important reasons why a public official should avoid social media. The first is that it's an energy sump. It just saps your enthusiasm. Second, it also drains your empathy for human beings. You understand at an abstract level that "not everyone is like this," but you also understand, intuitively, that yes, sometimes everyone is like this.

And why would you want to serve anyone like this?

There are rewards, chiefly dopamine, for the experience of receiving attention on social media. People liking your photos, laughing at your jokes, validating your opinions; and if you confine yourself to a small group, or an "echo chamber," you can experience those.

But, one slip, and you could be the victim of a virtual mob.

Silos aggregate attention for the purposes of extracting data and selling eyeballs. To be profitable, the must aggregate in huge numbers, which is also what makes them so dangerous.

Even small social networks, like adolescent girls with the mobile phones in junior high, can be dangerous places, especially given the vulnerability of adolescents.

I wrote about "social hygiene" about a decade ago. I should check. But I haven't seen any progress and, if anything, it's only gotten worse.

It's just one more dimension of our advanced technological civilization keeping nearly 8 billion people alive on this planet that isn't working for us. It is playing a role in bringing about its collapse. Whether we can address it, or the other ones (unregulated capitalism, fossil fuel energy, gross inequality) sufficiently to prevent collapse is a question to which I expect I may live to see the answer.

Originally posted at Nice Marmot 07:16 Friday, 20 January 2023