Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Philosopher Edith Stein was once asked by a friend to explain why she converted from Judaism to Catholicism, a question to which she replied, secretum meum mihi—“my secret is mine.” Many other saints and spiritual writers, like St. Augustine and Thomas Merton, have mapped and shared their journeys toward God and conversion gladly, but Stein chose to remain true to her vocation as a philosopher, and explore her faith in that particular way. Out of her own free will, she kept this sacred act and all that was contained within her relationship with God close to her heart.

As I recalled this detail about Stein’s tragic life (she perished in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942), I couldn’t help but think about the human need to share or to conceal the events of life. In many ways, we have become members of a throwaway society in which we no longer value our own privacy and personal thoughts. 

Even before the advent of social media, the structure of which is based entirely on the principle of moving the private sphere into the public sphere, we experienced a shift in culture. Talk shows, like “Sally Jessy Raphael” and, later, “Oprah” encouraged the public sharing of private emotions and tribulations. The stated intent (at least in Oprah Winfrey’s case) was to help others in the same or similar struggles, but it quickly devolved into a capitalistic manipulation, in which forgiveness and gratitude were not only diluted with various gnostic, New Age philosophies, but were also trademarked. 

Now, social media allows people to open up about private parts (no pun intended) of their lives on a scale that was previously unimaginable. If observed closely, a pattern of an individual’s behavior can be recognized—routines, jobs, child-rearing, happy and sad events, and of course, politics. All of the things that belong in the sphere that involves family or employment suddenly became occasions for sharing. 

Human beings are designed to want to share good news, and there is nothing wrong with this. This is part of our psychology. But what happens when a platform (like Facebook) we are using to satisfy this innocent need to share is collecting our data and selling it to third party users? Who are the real clients of Facebook? Moreover, what are we doing to our emotional and interior selves every time we post a sentence or two that reflects a depressive state?

 About a year ago, I decided to take a close look at my Facebook account, which I have been using since 2009. As I scrolled down to the very first post from 2009, I realized that there was a long task ahead of me. I wanted to clean up the entire account and deletion commenced. It took me a few days to delete thousands of posts. Most of the posts entailed my blog entries and articles on art, literature, philosophy, and film. None of the posts were overly private but, at the same time, some revealed the ups and downs of my emotions. Sometimes, I shared whatever popped into my head—an observation, a desire, and comments upon comments on sometimes rather banal matters. (I should note that I have started many real friendships on Facebook but in order for them to flourish, they had to leave the Facebook structure and grow in real, embodied life. I still use Facebook today, but for the sole purpose of disseminating my articles).

 In the midst of thoughts that perhaps should have been kept only for a diary, I also noticed another pattern—a deep frustration with Facebook itself. I didn’t like the platform because what I mostly witnessed was anger, bad politics, and endless conversations that had nothing to do with dialogue and everything to do with one-upmanship. People, I found, will find anything to argue about and everything to disagree with, including another user’s subjective, emotional state. 

 For many, their usage of social media has changed the way reality is perceived and acted upon. Brains begin to rewire themselves in order to conform to the anti-metaphysical structure of social media, and let the manipulative form of communication—the only true meaning of which is the monetary gain of its creators at the expense of others—create a way of being. But, thanks to the science of neuroplasticity, we also know that this process can be reversed. We can replace bad habits with good habits, especially in terms of addiction.

 If we are conforming to the fundamentally anti-human structure of Facebook or other social media platforms, then we are in essence announcing that our souls can be digitized and altered. As Jaron Lanier writes in his 2018 book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, “Social media hates your soul.” 

We have to start thinking about this problem differently, and acknowledge the imposing and manipulative presence of certain technologies. Every time we use it, we have to ask, have we accepted “a new spiritual framework”? Is it taking away our free will?

 The entire act of social media usage can seem, in Lanier’s words, “a funeral for free will.” We begin to give ourselves away, bit by bit, as we turn our being into a commodified version of an informational machine, and as Lanier notes, “give over much of your power of choice to a faraway company and its clients. They take on a statistical portion of your burden of free will, so that it is no longer in your purview. They start to decide who you will know, what you’re interested in, what you should do.”

 This seems highly dystopian, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, the Silicon Valley authoritarians don’t necessarily have a monopoly on your free will. Lanier makes a crucial distinction to explain: Social media “intrinsically enacts a structural, rather than an ontological, change in the nature of free will.” To be sure, the machine—which is constantly optimizing itself for capitalistic purposes—is trying to crash into the metaphysical framework of the human being. But it has created a Catch-22 for itself because the machine is inherently an anti-metaphysical entity. Human beings remain what they have always been.

So, the machine perpetuates a lie that human interaction cannot exist within it. This is an illusion, and we should not accept living within a framework that is not true. Many of the factors that are currently impacting life are grounded in one thing only: the denial of individual sovereignty. Big Tech is a huge player and a culprit in this effort at the annihilation of free will. They are trying to create a society that will increasingly rely on isolation, which is the very antithesis of life. We have to ask, and more importantly, we can ask: Whose life are we living? Our own or an illusory version created by Big Tech?

About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

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