A Millennial Quest for Meaning

How Ubiquitous Social Media Use Thwarts Personal Growth

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An individual views a concert through an iPhone screen.

Metaphors & Theory

I n 1884, Edwin Abbot published a book called Flatland. The title refers to the 2-dimensional realm in which it takes place, inhabited by geometric figures. One day, the protagonist, a square, is visited by a sphere, who hails from the 3-D world of Spaceland. The square can only see the part of the sphere visible in his plain — a circle — and is shocked by the sphere’s ability to disappear and reappear at will, by entering and exiting the third dimension. The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the square, but he cannot comprehend it. The square cannot conceive of what it means to have thickness in addition to length and height, or to go “up,” where up means something other than north.

Frustrated, the sphere rips the square out of Flatland into the third dimension. He can at once see the insides of all of the houses and their inhabitants. The square is initially seized by horror and cannot speak.

When he does find voice, he shrieks: “Either this is madness or it is Hell!” The sphere replies: “It is neither. It is knowledge; it is Three Dimensions; open your eyes again and try to look steadily.”

Upon looking again, the square sees the world in a new light. He is overcome with a profound sense of wonder, joy, and awe that eclipses his initial fright and terror. The square becomes the sphere’s disciple, and eagerly returns to Flatland to spread the notion of the third dimension to his fellow Flatlanders, to no avail.

Similar stories appear in religious epics and tales of enlightenment from throughout history.

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A drawing depicting Plato’s Cave.

This feeling — experienced upon the square’s entrance to Spaceland, Arjuna’s attainment of a third eye, and the cave-dweller’s adjustment to a world illuminated by sunlight — is found universally across human cultures and time.

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Figure 9.1 in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” showing the 3 dimensions of social space.
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A crowd experiences collective effervescence at a music festival.
  • 2) The vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures.

The Z Dimension & Nature

One source of awe is perception of the vastness and grandeur of nature. In the presence of a vast natural landscape, like the starry sky at night, a deep canyon, or a grand, mountainous overlook, the two preconditions for awe are often present: one 1) perceives something vast and 2) lacks the mental structures to completely accommodate it. It’s hard to conceive of how small of a speck you are when gazing at the stars of our galaxy overhead, let alone in the patchwork of galaxies that our universe comprises. At moments like these, if you really focus on it, if you let the experience wash over you, you’re often imbued with a sense of wonder, of admiration, of oneness or belonging.

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A starry sky illuminating rock formations in Utah.

“Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” (Nature, 1836)

As a modern writer put it:

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A collection of potentially awe-inducing experiences in nature.
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Canyonlands National Park at sunrise.
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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review.
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Maslow’s revised Hierarchy of Needs.

Social Media & Concerts

Recall Durkheim’s notion of the Z dimension, reached through sacred “rituals”: group experiences that allow the individual to be uplifted by the collective energy of the group and feel united with a larger whole. The hallmark of social media sites is their capacity to individualize experiences. Part of their appeal is that they enable individuals to showcase their personal take on an event, object, person, etc. With near-constant use, this feature locks users into what Durkheim would call the “profane,” the world of trivial, personal, egocentric concerns — as opposed to the transcendent, meaningful, valuable realm of the “sacred.”

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A concertgoer videotapes a show via iPhone.
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Members of a crowd document an event on their mobile devices.

Instead of a potentially sacred experience — feeling elevated beyond yourself, thinking of yourself as small and your personal concerns as insignificant in the big picture — you are kept grounded in your profane world of trivial concerns.

(Which video should I post? What should the caption — and caption color, and size — and filter and geofilter be? And then intermittent checks, every few seconds or minutes, to see whether that co-worker or crush or ex or old friend has glimpsed it.)

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A visualization of viewing the list of viewers of a Snapchat story.
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A visualization of customizing a Snapchat.
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Audience members raise lighters in the air at a concert.
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A diagram depicting a venue using Yondr. The gray home button on this iPhone-like diagram is the unlocking station.

Yondr — whose motto is “be here now” — states its purpose as: “to show people how powerful a moment can be when we aren’t focused on documenting or broadcasting it.”

A sacred experience is about perceiving something so deeply and profoundly that it resonates with you in a way different from how anything has ever resonated with you before. The degree to which an event resonates with or influences a person is admittedly subjective, but one concrete way to measure it (for non-amnesiacs) is through memory. An experience profoundly influential and resonant to a person — a peak experience, perhaps — is typically one that they remember clearly, that they recall constantly, that they consider crucial to their enlightenment and growth.

After documenting a concert on a cell phone, the human brain:

  • 1) Forms fewer, and less clear, detailed, lasting memories of the event
  • 2) Recalls memories of the event with less accuracy and clarity

Social Media & Elevation

Another aforementioned road to the Z dimension is elevation: feeling “uplifted” by an act of selflessness or virtue, and wanting to perform similarly.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we’ve become good at multitasking, but, on a neurological level, this is a myth: the human brain can’t multitask.

What the human brain can do is rapidly switch focus between a series of different tasks. But doing so has cognitive consequences. Neuroscience research shows that transitioning between tasks repeatedly decreases mental performance and productivity, increasing the time it takes to complete tasks, the amount of mistakes made in the tasks, and the time it takes to refocus on each subsequent task.

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An exaggerated visualization of “multitasking.”
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A cartoon depicting social media addiction.

Social Media & Awe-Inducing Experiences

Let’s examine another potential road to the Z dimension: the awe induced by perceiving something vast, too vast to be accommodated by a person’s current mental structures. It’s hard to have a deep, profound, awe-inspiring experience punctuated by intermittent social media-refreshing (as we know from our discussion of multi-tasking).

Louis C.K’s speech about cell phones on Conan.
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Fog drifts through a grand, mystical canyon.
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A visualization of Instagram push notifications.
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A visualization depicting how smartphone use can separate — rather than unite — people.
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Sunrise over a canyon.
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A bonfire beside a lake on a starry night.

“I want you all the appreciate the absoluteness of this darkness and silence. There might not be another time in your lives with darkness this total. There’s usually some little trace of light somewhere. Try to notice all the little sounds we make beneath everything, of tiny motions, of our breathing.”

We attempt this, and, at some point, every time, some kid turns his light on — complains, maybe even cries — because darkness this absolute frightens him. It’s the square thinking the third dimension is Hell. The blinding sunlight that initially burns the cave prisoner’s eyes. The darkness is so absolute, it transcends the capacity of this camper’s mental structures for processing daytime, eyes-open darkness. And that’s alien, that’s scary, that’s uncomfortable — but that’s when you grow. Inevitably, every week, there’s also a camper who insists we keep our headlamps off after the dark, silent moment is over, because the sheer darkness of a cave is so beautiful and profound. Sometimes, there’s even a camper who says that the total cave darkness was the highlight of the week, at our Thursday night campfire reflections.

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Darkness gradually filling a cave.

An attempt at utter silence and darkness — eliminating the constant buzz of sounds and flashing of lights that fill our worlds — is essentially what meditation is.

Have you ever tried sitting awake, eyes closed, thinking about nothing, or about one unchanging color or image, for minutes at a time? Listening to sounds you usually don’t notice under the hubbub of daily existence — like your breathing? Sending each tiny thought or idea or worry away as it comes, trying to embrace the sheer tranquility and vastness of nothingness? (If you haven’t, this would be a good exercise to try now, for the sake of understanding this.)

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A visualization of mobile Instagram newsfeed scrolling.
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A visualization of a stream of Facebook notifications.

The bottom line is: Z dimension growth, in its many forms, isn’t impossible for active smartphone users to achieve in this smartphone-dominated era, but it does take a deliberate sort of consciousness, of vigilance, of discipline, to be open to it in a technology-infused world.

I hope this essay has helped to provide you with a notion of that. I believe in our recovery. And it starts now.

Aspiring human.

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