The New Opiate of the Masses

I spent the past few years learning how to pull the levers and rotate the knobs that use your data to extract clicks from you online. I started to understand how these systems work, and I started to realize I was also addicted to and hurt by different forms of digital media myself. To improve, I conducted research and made changes to my behavior over the course of two and a half years. Now that I am in control, I am trying to bring out the information that will help us better understand and improve our digital lives and general well being. If you feel pained by your digital life, please enter your email at the bottom and share this with friends who will benefit.

It is known that technology compels most engagement when it seems to address our emotional weaknesses. In the case of new digital media, we are compelled by its alleviation of our confusion from our underlying state of mental disarray, through the continuous intake of stimulation.

By purporting to provide instantaneously accessible information that satiates our inner pains, new digital media successfully capitalize on our emotional vulnerabilities and in doing so motivate our engagement. Because of the compelling nature of this opiate, it is difficult to resist engaging heavily with it, which erodes the ability to engage in solitude and increases our dependence on the opiate, because without the ability to engage in solitude we become incapable of dealing with the internal turmoil ourselves (allowing the mind to process the turmoil as you daydream in solitude).

It makes sense. Digital technology — social media, porn, online TV shows and movies, dating apps, clickbait, and video games — are seductive, offering cheap, free, immediate methods to escape the pains and difficulties of life, transporting us into the world of the new, the exciting, the arousing.

Social media, porn, and other forms of digital media are technologies to forget, to temporarily suppress pain. We keep our devices close at hand and rely on them to the point where we break down when we lose them. For some of us, digital media serve alternatives to alcohol and other drugs, the temporary dopamine spike from consuming social and sexual content temporarily suppressing underlying pain, but also giving us a “hangover” from mental overstimulation. (Dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical in the body, primarily affects movement control, emotions, and the pleasure and reward centers of the brain.) Although constant consumption of digital porn does not produce a physical hangover, it can erode our sensitivity to normal stimulation and deprive us of the opportunity to engage in reflection and solace. We need to remind ourselves that there are more constructive approaches for dealing with pain, and that pain can be an opportunity for growth.

The desire for psychological opiates didn’t begin with digital media. To modulate the stress of eighteenth-century industrialization and rapid material, cultural, and social change from urbanization, new diversions were created, such as zoos, public parks, and the domestication of animals as pets. Although our outlets for the psychic costs of climate change, geopolitical instability, relocation, and non-present thinking have taken the form of social networks and pornography, seeking to alleviate psychic pain is not new. Our outlets have just taken a new, digital form. But if these new digital outlets actually fulfilled us, we would most likely not be seeing the increasing rates of depression and suicide we have today. We would be happier — but we’re not.

In order to calm the mind, you need solitude. You need to be willing to look within and confront what is there. Too often we open the curtains of the inner self and see a storm, because we have neglected our internal selves and have rarely, if ever, engaged in solitude and reflection. We then seek solace in digital media, which rather than calm our inner turbulence only makes it more powerful and destructive. We constantly seek the contact of our devices to avoid contact with ourselves.

Solitude is difficult and burdensome because digital media are not providing the stimulation that shields us from negative mental states. But eventually solitude becomes easier to engage with and more rewarding, as over time, without external stimulus, one’s mind begins to identify and draw upon internal sources of meaning in order to transcend psychic pain and restore our inner self and self-confidence.

However, many of us are accustomed to such a high level of digital stimulation that turning off their devices or taking a break from them necessitates replacing them with other, nondigital stimuli — like working out, enjoying nature, or hanging out with a friend, because otherwise the sudden loss of artificial stimulation will be psychologically painful.

Rather than drugs, sex, and rock and roll, our generation’s “opiate of the masses”, our tool for banishing psychic pain rather than confronting it, is new digital media, and the streamlined, instantly accessible intake of novel information and stimulation that it affords.

But rather than separate from the self through the digital opiate of the masses, we should reconnect with it. That self-reliance creates an additional confidence and absence of psychic pain from separation from artificial stimulation, which benefits interactions with others. The ability to be comfortably alone means that you have an ability to produce internal stimulation that carries you through life.

And this internal stimulation, unlike artificial stimulation through our devices, comes from within, and thus can’t be taken away from you.

Benton Turner