What Have We Done?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on December 3 2020.


Where are we? Why are we?  What are we doing here and why are we doing it? What on earth have we done!

Fighting with Phantoms

A reader wrote to the Guardian’s agony aunt Mariella Frostrup: “Everyone seems to be frazzled and ready to fight. I feel it myself. I have three teenage daughters and all they seem to do is sit on their phones and flounce around the house dropping dirty underwear as they go. If I ask them to get off their phones, they treat me like I’m violating their human rights. They also complain about being exhausted all the time when all they have to do is attend school and maintain their social lives.”

Mariella responded: “The internet helps by offering a multitude of ways to be antagonistic and aggressive without having to leave the kitchen table… All of us seething, surfing and fabricating into the small hours, conjuring fantasy worlds as we edit our existence. I’m not taking any moral high ground. I can only boast occasional glimmers of self-awareness, as I scroll enviously though strangers’ holiday snaps while my husband gently snores”.

I have found many people to fight with on social media. There is a certain je ne sais quoi when the adrenaline starts pumping but it is not a good way to live, to be fighting with strangers with funny names on the ether. Take a look at the comments threads on Colombo Telegraph and get a vision of what hell might be like. Phantasms with no real names or genders or working parts or life histories biting one’s ankles into eternity.

Frazzled by Fantasy

It is even worse when real-life friends get caught up in the trollism and become fictional characters of the blogosphere.

One can even have a look at what the real-life neighbours are posting on Facebook and see the delusions they are embracing. Some people have long lists of “friends” but when one looks closely at them one wonders how these elderly men got to know these gorgeous young women in Latin America or Thailand.  I once played an interesting game -reporting fake Facebook accounts. Attractive ‘young women’ in provocative poses which fall short of nudity (FB does not like nudity). They have bizarre names (Tina Tix Tracey, Michala Motyl, Jessy Trejo) and improbable CVs. Many of them have persuaded sad old gits to ‘friend’ them and the sad old gits tell the ‘girls’ how beautiful they are. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Social media has taken the concept of an imaginary girl friend to another level.

In reality, the accounts are probably set up by pockmarked hairy ugly men with halitosis and armpit odour who are looking for ways to mine data from said old gits so they can rob them. I am a sad old git, but I don’t fall for this when they contact me. I report them.  Sometimes, FB responds to my reports by saying that I have identified a fake account and they have removed it. 

FB suggestions 

FB kept suggesting that I make a friend of ‘Owen Lynda Skye’.  I am afraid that I cannot reveal in a family newspaper what carnal delights ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ offered me. It was rather gynaecological. ‘Her’ English was not perfect, but it was easy enough to get the crude gist. I reported this several times and was told the account had been removed but it kept cropping up. It was obviously a fake account designed to get foolish old men like mygoodself excited enough to give away their personal details so that a scammer can take advantage. 


When I reported ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ again, I got a lengthy standard response which did not address the issues but came to this conclusion: “We’ve looked over the profile you reported, and it doesn’t go against any of our specific Community Standards”. I looked at the community standards and read this: “We want to make sure the content people are seeing on Facebook is authentic. We believe that authenticity creates a better environment for sharing, and that’s why we don’t want people using Facebook to misrepresent who they are or what they’re doing”.

They do not explain why they object to innocent pictures of naked women but are OK with obvious pornography.

No Going Back

Social media can be very helpful. In times of lockdown people are able to keep in touch with friends and family. I left the country of my birth in 1998, but I am able to keep in touch with people I have known from the age of five. 

The downside is that the perceptions, the very synapses of a generation have been disrupted. Can we ever go back? Perhaps Joe Biden can reverse the deleterious effects of the orangeutan who has been laying waste to the orangery of the White House for four years. Can anything reverse the inexorable rise of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon?

Have the brains of humans been irreparably altered for the worst by these new giants? 

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman was an American author and media theorist who eschewed technology, including personal computers. Postman is best known for twenty books about technology and education, including Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argued that by expressing ideas through visual imagery, television reduces politics, news, history, and other serious topics to entertainment. He worried that culture would decline if the people became an audience and their public business a “vaudeville act.” I have not watched TV on a regular basis since 1997.

I watch it occasionally on visits to the UK and am appalled by its banality and condescension.   Postman argued that television was destroying the “serious and rational public conversation” that was sustained for centuries by the printing press. Postman wrote: “When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.” Since Postman — who died in 2003 — wrote those words, technology has rendered the world altogether different. How quickly it became unimaginable to think of being without a smartphone. Postman wrote technology’s “capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does to us and for us”. 

When I sit in a restaurant and see a total absence of eye-contact, when I sit in a family home and see every single person tapping away on a smartphone I despair. Will we ever be able to return from this loss of affect?