CS Lewis, JP Sartre, and Nelson Algren all had a similar idea about the nature of evil. How boring and banal it is, and how normal it all seems at the time.
Then the question is, if that’s true, where does this ‘evilness’ come from?
Like most things, it’s mainly the product of learned behavior.
As humans, we are imitation machines. Our subconscious minds constantly take in signals from the environment and integrate them to guide our actions. And the most influential part of any environment is the people in it.
In the pre-digital days, we were exposed to a fairly rigid sample of the human population. The people in our neighborhood. At the grocery store. In our office. On the train. On the bus. We lived in brick-and-mortar echo chambers, where signals were fewer, and their meanings were clearer.
But social media has clumped us all into one big digital environment. The number of signals we receive has increased exponentially, and their coherence has almost disappeared. Therein lies the danger. And the opportunity.
Today, more people see more information about other people than ever before, and too much of it normalizes antisocial behavior. Videos go viral of kids fighting in classrooms, of reckless driving on highways, of adults arguing in grocery stores.
What’s new is not necessarily the behavior but the ability of this behavior to spread through greater online observation.
What a culture sees, is what a culture becomes. The more a person sees something, especially another person’s actions, the more they gravitate toward it. That’s why who we get hitched to and who we spend the most time with are so important.
Increased access to this news also sends the message that “this is how society is.” And it’s really not. There’s an obvious selection bias, but virality doesn’t care about proper sampling.
While we know access to information keeps us safe, holds people accountable, and makes our societies better and more equitable, the opposite can also be true. Normalizing bad behavior can lead to more of it.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here, we can choose to spread the good stories and starve bad ones of the attention that keeps them alive. This is especially impactful for those with large followings and media leverage.
The stories we spread, shape the future we’ll live in. We can start to think of every like and every share as a vote for the type of society we want. Currently, too many people are voting for negative stories. There’s no reason we can’t vote for positive stories instead. Positive or negative, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves become who we are.
Like this egg, we can put the forces of viral spread to good use.
Happy Women’s History Month!
Muriel Cooper (1924-1990) was a design visionary who spent the majority of her career at MIT. She saw the potential of technology in design and transformed the way we think about design.
Her greatest insight was that design isn’t just about making things look pretty, it’s about solving actual problems and improving people’s lives.