What if Shakespeare or Isaac Newton Had Social Media?
In his first article, Sonny Sehra, a member of the writers group, poses an interesting thought experiment and explores the effects social media may have had on historically renowned minds, had it been around, and how we may then apply their ways of life to our own.
I have a thought experiment: if the technologies that define our era today, particularly social media, were around in the past... would Shakespeare still have written the plays he wrote and would Mozart still have composed the music he did? I dwell upon this question of mine quite frequently. If you think about it critically, a boatload of the greatest pieces of art and inventions were byproducts of boredom. The invention of calculus was the byproduct of Sir Isaac Newton being struck in the head with an apple while sitting under a tree. I wonder, had social media been around then, whether Newton would have still invented calculus or if he would even be sitting outdoors under that tree in the first damn place. For centuries, boredom prompted our ancestors of the past to seek innovative ways to distract themselves from this state. They invented games, sports, developed ideas, wrote literature, manifestos, treatises, poetry, songs, learnt instruments and taught themselves crafts. They eventually created mediums such as cinema, the telegraph, and television. Now, we still do all of these wonderful activities today and they comprise what defines the human condition. In fact, modern technology has even enhanced creativity! We have an encyclopedia of knowledge by our fingertips and an average Joe can potentially be a famous superstar overnight merely by uploading a video of themselves singing a tune online. The benefits are endless.
However, one of the downsides of this is the state of laziness we have collectively succumbed to as a generation. I know for an undeniable fact that you are guilty of involuntarily being distracted by it as well. You have an assignment due or an upcoming test but pull out your device instead. You end up checking one app and then spend hours, which pass without you knowing, consuming various technologies. You barely bat an eye at your assignment or the test rubric! Our brains were not evolved to be this constantly overstimulated and our willpower has drastically declined as a result, zombifying us, inclining us to be confined to our beds instead of sitting under a tree where an apple could fall onto our skulls and inspire us to invent calculus. Boredom is a necessary state of human existence and we now have an entire menu of temporary dopamine highs that can numb it, which is why we unconsciously scroll for hours or have thousands of different tabs open reading thousands of different things simultaneously.
I posed that thought experiment because I wonder whether greats among the likes of Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Dickens would still have created what they are renowned for creating if they were users of social media. Would they encounter similar distractions? Would Newton be sitting inside, scrolling through Tik Tok videos, instead of under that tree? Would Shakespeare be writing tweets instead of Macbeth? Before bedtime, our nighttime leisure activities predominantly and usually consist of glaring at a screen of sorts (be it binge-watching the plethora of content offered by modern streaming services such as Netflix, watching one Youtube video after the other, constantly scrolling through our social media feeds, texting our friends, or simply watching television). We often likewise tend to indulge in a late night snack and we deprive ourselves of sleep at the expense of one more episode. Similarly, in the morning, we immediately reach for our phones. Before brushing or bidding a good morning to the family members of your household or even using the bathroom, the first thing we do is exactly what we did preceding our bedtimes: endlessly scroll. Our habits are unhealthy — mine included — and our vices many. Our endless exposure to dopamine, from all these different sources, overstimulates our brains.
The repercussions of our proneness to instant gratification is the deterioration of our souls. Put simply: the phenomenon of binge-watching was impossible prior to the invention of streaming services and you had to wait weekly for a new episode while they built up excitement with teasing commercials. We, quite literally, have an endless stream of content and information available to us. We can watch entire shows without waiting for weeks and we can listen to whatever music we want, whenever we want, however we want. The value of delayed gratification is slowly being replaced with toxic hedonism. We all need a detox, a brief moment of detachment, even if the detox lasts for five minutes a day...even a nature walk counts.
The most famous German writer of all time, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832), once wrote: "One ought, everyday at the least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." We should heed his advice. Social media algorithms are intrinsically designed to capitalize off our attention and millions of dollars are spent by these technology elites to keep you engaged on their devices, to keep you mindlessly scrolling while time passes, to click one video after the other. They should be used more consciously and utilized effectively. The human brain requires solitude and we abuse its function by depriving it of that necessity. Solitude means our brains require a certain period of time detached from external stimulation (headphones blaring music in your ear, your eyes glaring at the television screen, scrolling through your social medias, even reading a book or doing your homework): in other words, it needs a designated period of time not acquiring and processing information—information in that sense includes registering lyrics of a song and the fictional characters of our beloved shows. This is precisely why scientific studies are concluding that running or simple nature walks drastically alter the state of our wellbeing for the better. "It is not clear exactly why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect. Yet, in a study from five years ago, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for ninety minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination...defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions," writes Harvard University.
According to another study by Microsoft (which surveyed the brains of two thousand participants), our attention spans have decreased from twelve seconds to eight in the timespan of five years—which is less than a goldfish. Science has concluded that goldfishes have superior attention spans to humans and attributes it to our excessive consumption of technology. My philosophy is simple: alcohol is not intrinsically bad but alcoholism is. Moderation is a virtue and it goes beyond booze. Now more than ever, especially with the proliferation of online school and work, regular periods of solitude are required for the sake of your health. "Our brains were not meant to function at this high level that we insist on all the time," says Degges-White, a psychology professor at the University of Northern Illinois.
Perhaps Thoreau, monks, and minimalists have it right. Meditation and yoga may not be your cup of tea whatsoever but temporarily tuning out of the world is a necessity on par with food or water. I see it constantly with the elderly: my grandma, eighty-eight years old, designates a certain hour daily to sitting lonesomely on the porch outside and merely glares at her surroundings. Even in public parks, the spectacle of the elderly walking by themselves or sitting deep in thought on benches is commonplace. Maybe solitude is likewise the key to longevity. Ending your night by watching Netflix and beginning your day by immediately scrolling through your phone is a misuse of the brain. My suggestion is spend the last thirty minutes of your night avoiding external stimulation and start your mornings in the same manner (I personally begin my mornings with a jog). As the author Cal Newport pointed out, President Lincoln may never have made the decisions he did during the American Civil War had he not taken refuge in the comfort and solitude of his little cabin to dwell in thought upon those decisions, where he was devoid of external stimulation.
Von, Goethe Johann Wolfgan, and Thomas Carlyle. Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: a Novel. 1874.
Publishing, Harvard Health. “Sour Mood Getting You down? Get Back to Nature.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature.
Dampier, Cindy. This Is Your Brain on Solitude - Near Northwest, digitaledition.chicagotribune.com/tribune/article_popover.aspx?guid=dfa4a4cf-b0cf-4c73-97a0-3c3503231f3f.
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Penguin Business, 2020.
Gausby, Alyson. “Atention Spans - Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada.” Microsoft, 2015. https://dl.motamem.org/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf. PDF download.