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Online Hostility or The Rise of the Techno-Dani

New Facebook smear button! – Todd Barnard /flickr creative commons

Don Masters, CEA Agent: I’m a CEA agent.

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: [rises from desk, walks over to read ID card] You ARE a CEA agent. And you really did kill someone!

Don Masters, CEA Agent: Ahhummm.

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: Fascinating, Don… I suppose it’s the conditioning of motion pictures, or television, or maybe it’s just it’s the times we live in, but… killing is serious business, yet this little card makes it somehow less shocking… acceptable in a way! You mean to say you can actually legally kill someone?

Don Masters, CEA Agent: Yeah, and it bothers me sometimes that I don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t you think that’s psychotic behavior?

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: No I don’t! It explains your utter lack of hostility. You can vent your aggressive feelings by actually killing people! It’s a sensational solution to the hostility problem.

Don Masters, CEA Agent: Doctor, are you trying to tell me it’s all right to kill people?

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: It’s simply a moral question. Morality is a social invention, and in this case society has decided it’s not only acceptable for certain people to kill other people… it’s even commendable. Don! I’ve got to write a paper for the Institute on this!

Don Masters, CEA Agent: I don’t think the CEA would like that. – The President’s Analyst

Ever wonder why in this age of the Internet, cell phones and iPads – devices and systems that were supposed to bring humanity and the world closer together – that quite the opposite has occurred ?  That instead of  enabling peace and harmony, we seem to be marching even further apart.  My mother was fond of observing that humanity has always progressed further scientifically and technologically than we have ethically and morally.

One needs only to study history to see that this seems to be the case. Thanks to a series of articles in Psychology Today we may see why this is the case.  A Billion Angry Brains by Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., and Sai Gaddam, Ph.D. delves into this phenomena.  In the first part they give examples of how technology was adapted by primitive peoples to this end.

In the mid-1500s, Europeans colonized the fertile coastlines of New Guinea and for the next four centuries they presumed the rugged jungle highlands of the interior were uninhabited. But in 1938, an American zoologist flew his plane over a previously unexplored region known as the Baliem Valley. To his astonishment, lights twinkled in the darkness below: the cooking fires of the Dani.

The Dani were a Stone Age people, the last humans still living in the same conditions as when wooly rhinoceroses and Volkswagen-sized beavers roamed the Earth. The Dani had never invented the wheel, plow, or lever. Their weaponry consisted of stone-tipped spears.

After a tense period of mutual suspicion and wonder—and a struggle to learn each other’s strange tongue—the scientist offered the Dani a transcendent gift: a ride in his airplane. These men who never guessed the world was round would now fly high above it, expanding their awareness of the universe and their place in it.

The two tattooed and loin clothed men who volunteered showed no concern at the prospect of leaving terra firma. In fact, they seemed downright eager. But when they arrived to board the plane they each carried a large and heavy stone. Baffled, the scientist asked to the purpose of this strange cargo. Perhaps they wanted to remain in contact with Mother Earth as they slipped her surly bonds?

“We want you to fly over the village to the south,” explained the Dani men. “Our enemies. We are going to drop these stones on their heads.”

The airplane didn’t transform the nature of human hostility, it transformed the power of hostility. Even when our species attains revolutionary new technology, we are far more likely to adapt it to our existing habits than use it to expand our perceptions and behaviors. The brain of Stone Age man gazed upon a flying machine and instead of seeing a means to forever change his world he saw a way to strengthen a familiar method of attack.

Similarly, when European missionaries first encountered the Yanomamo people in the Amazon rainforest, these indigenous horticulturalists were living in a state of perpetual violence. If a Yanomamo man felt insulted by another man he might express his rage using ten-foot clubs, wooden spears, or curare-tipped arrows. The primary constraint upon such violence was the fact that one’s opponent (and his vindictive family) possessed similar physical strength and weaponry. Into this retaliatory culture of sticks and stones the missionaries thrust a radical new technology: the shotgun.

The first indigenes to obtain shotguns were not more mature, intelligent, or moral than their brethren. They were simply lucky enough to reside near a missionary camp. These Yanomamo returned to their villages and promptly settled old scores. More than one hated chief had his head blown off. Lethal rage, always present and acceptable within Yanomamo society, was no longer counterbalanced by the threat of symmetric retaliation. The homicide rate—already far higher than the rate in modern urban ghettoes—quickly doubled. The shotgun revolutionized the power of rage.

They then argue that the Internet and similar technologies have become to us what the shotgun was to  Yanomamo. Enabling us today to take virtual blasts at our perceived enemies.

In the Second part they list Four Types of Online Hostility breaking down each type.

Bullies, trolls, hackers, and self-righteous crusaders have entrenched themselves as a permanent feature in the modern online landscape. These digital gargoyles spew a daily dose of hostility: partisan rants, catty insults, ALL CAPS flame wars, sanctimonious boycotts, blistering twitter feuds, Anonymous raids, and endless waves of outraged petitions all clamoring to get rid of something.

The Internet is so charged with casual nastiness that it can sometimes seem like a free-for-all straight from Lord of the Flies. But did it really have to be this way? Why exactly is there so much cruelty online? Does the Internet simply uncork our inhibitions like drugs or alcohol? Perhaps. But as computational neuroscientists, the more Dr. Sai Gaddam and I began to look into the data, the more we realized that a deeper explanation could be concealed within the design of our social brain.

. . . . . .

Drawing from the fields of Big Data, neuroscience, animal studies, game theory, and anthropology, the central discovery of our investigation is that online hostility can be accounted for by four distinct emotional systems hardwired in our brain, three of which we share with other animals—and one of which is found in humans alone. They are contempt, spite, raiding, and outrage.

  • The testosterone-fueled contempt system (what biologists call intermale aggression) drives individuals to diss and duel online and produces trolls.
  • The oxytocin-modulated spite system drives individuals to target opponents’ social networks.
  • The male raiding system drives groups of raiders to team up to attack enemy installations and gives rise to hacker groups.
  • But the most prevalent and influential form of online hostility is outrage, a uniquely human emotional system in the most evolved part of our social brain that drives us to collectively punish transgressors and gives rise to crusaders. Social media turbo-charges our outrage circuits and generates ever-increasing numbers of online petitions and lynch mobs.

Why do ordinary people become so vicious online? Are certain triggers responsible for most of human hostility? Are certain kinds of people more prone to acting out? How do men and women respond differently to provocation—and which gender is more dangerous online? And perhaps most pressingly, how can we use our hard-won knowledge of the brain to reduce online cruelty and make our new virtual habitat a more harmonious place?

The whole series consists of 15 parts and I for one am very interested in what conclusions they had come up with and look forward to the other parts of this series. We like to blame the medium but we are the ones using it for good or ill. We see it here and on other sites, flame wars over inconsequential things. Are just prone to hostility ? One has to wonder…..

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