As a cultural anthropologist and astute observer of the contemporary social scene, I can attest that we are all victims of our society—the insidious and relentless advertisements and television commercials that tell us what to buy, how to look and dress; that tell us we will finally be happy if only we bought this or that product, and news soundbytes and talk shows that tell us what to think and how to vote. By spreading disinformation, our smartphones have become Weapons of Mass Deception. Thousands of times a day, we are bombarded by illusions that do not have our best interest at heart.
As long ago as 1968, Thomas Merton—friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh—understood the dangers of the world we live in today when he said, “The wrong idea of personal fulfillment is promoted by commercialism. Advertisements try to sell things which none of us would buy in our right mind; so they keep us in our wrong mind. There is a kind of self-fulfillment that fulfils nothing but your illusory self. What truly matters is not how to get the most out of life, but how to recollect yourself so that you can fully give yourself.”
They say the average American sees as many as 5,000 advertisements per day. That’s 1.8 million per year! I would say that holds true in much of the developed world nowadays. (Ever see a photo of downtown Tokyo or Times Square?) All those advertisements only serve to confuse you and to tell you who and what you should be. Don’t let anyone try to convince you to be someone else. It’s okay to be exactly who you are. The world needs your uniqueness.
You may not be old enough to remember, but it wasn’t too long ago that there was no such thing as the Internet or email or cell phones. I grew up before all that new technology. The Internet didn’t exist until I was in college. Back then, we checked our mailbox once a day to see if we got any messages (letters). But nowadays, people are obsessed with how many messages they get. They neurotically check their email or social media messages dozens of times a day, some more than 150 times a day. That’s 54,000 times a year! Is it so important that “friends” you have never met tell you or show you what they ate for lunch or the artfully crafted cup of coffee they had at a coffee house? Can you live without the funny joke or funny picture someone shared on the Internet?
It has been reported that social media designers purposely created “likes” and “follows” to addict you to their product or service in the same way that cigarette manufacturers purposely added nicotine to addict users. They use psychology to devise ways to make you unwittingly browse longer on a webpage. As proof that cell phones and social media are addictive, it was reported in 2019 that P. Diddy, the popular American rapper and songwriter, checked himself into an addiction center because of his obsession with his smart phone. He purportedly checked his phone over 600 times a day. That’s every 1.5 minutes during the waking day. That’s 18,000 times a month and over 200,000 times a year!
Recent reports state that insurance companies use your social media presence to “spy” on you to determine whether or not they should sell life, health, or automobile insurance to you and at what rate. (You might want to reconsider posting pictures of yourself playing beer-pong at a party.) Employers, colleges, and even the federal government all spy on your social media accounts to make decisions about you.
I used to teach a popular university literature course in a packed auditorium. As I circulated around the cavernous hall looking over students’ shoulders, I noticed that half of them were checking social media instead of paying attention to class. And that was ten years ago!
Andy Warhol once said that every person gets fifteen minutes of fame in their life. Nowadays, because of the Internet and social media, people want their fifteen minutes of fame every single day. “I have hundreds of friends!” they gleefully exclaim while swallowing an antidepressant pill prescribed for depression caused by loneliness. It turns out that the loneliest group of people is also the group that is the most “plugged in,” people who are high school and college age.
It amazes me how many people say, “I don’t have time in my busy life for this or that,” but they find hours and hours each day to read and post on social media, to aimlessly browse the Internet, or to binge-watch mind-numbing television. Just put down your smartphone. Turn it off. Unplug. Walk away.
How liberating it was to turn off my Facebook and Twitter accounts and to start living again. I even found myself checking my email less and less each day. What’s that warm, bright light shining in the sky? The sun, you say.
John Smelcer is the author of over 50 books. He is the inaugural writer-in-residence for the Charter for Compassion, where he teaches the global online course “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” Some of the text from this blog is excerpted from his forthcoming book, A New Day. Learn more at www.johnsmelcer.com