Virtually Reality

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The human organism is an evolved homeostatic system roughly adapted to a particular set of environmental characteristics. While humans are remarkably flexible and capable of both individual and group learning, we are nonetheless sitting on a mammalian, primate, homo-substrate that is relatively hard-wired in its response to its environment.

Supernormal stimuli (also called hypernormal stimuli) are inputs that hijack an animal’s instincts beyond their evolutionary purpose. Evolution is remarkably willing to make do with “just enough” and as a consequence, our evolved systems are vulnerable to stimuli that overwhelm our evolutionary heuristics. In an important way, at a biological level, we really can’t tell what is good for us.

The deliberate use of supernormal stimuli is a kind of black magic because it gets in behind your conscious sensemaker to lead you into all sorts of bad (self-destructive, fitness diminishing) behaviors. And as “seeking sweetness” is a part of our evolved hardware layer, it is the sort of thing that is very hard for individuals to overcome.

We humans have become masters of supernormal stimuli. Our ability to give ourselves what we want has far outstripped our ability to sense what we really need. And in the accelerating win/lose game-theoretic arms race that has characterized late 20th-century and early 21st-century society, the use and abuse of supernormal stimuli has become an almost requisite tool in the product marketing toolkit.

In every possible market niche, we see an arms race for attention and choice making (voting, purchasing, public opinion). And in each case, a ruthless (and reckless) use of increasingly sophisticated understandings of human physio-emotional and psycho-cognitive systems (and their supernormal vulnerabilities) is part of any viable competitive strategy. Anyone who fails to take advantage of supernormal stimuli is selected against, and the general drift of the entire market is towards increasing disruption of our evolved homeostatic systems.

It is important to note that, at a social level (i.e. using “collective intelligence”), we have shown some capacity to develop defenses to these supernormal vulnerabilities (e.g., the emergence of social movements regulating sugar, nicotine, etc.). However, these social defenses tend to move relatively slowly and to be unevenly distributed. Moreover, the general rule that decentralized market-based mechanisms outcompete top-down regulatory mechanisms seems to be in play here.

Social media is the gamification of supernormal stimuli to hijack both “attention allocation” (what we pay attention to) and “social relationship.” Notifications (particularly bings and buzzes on our phone), likes, hearts, simple and explicit “friending,” even just the extraordinary pace and vastness of the news feed itself — all of these are supernormal stimuli that play havoc with our homeostatic systems (e.g., neurotransmitter feedback loops) and the adaptive capacities that rely on them (e.g., forming and maintaining real relationships, thinking about reality).

Supernormal stimuli in social media is particularly risky because in social media it's directly undermining our capacity for individual and collective intelligence. In this context, hijacking of evolved functions disrupts our private and social capacity to act based on objective reality or to respond to the problem itself (i.e. fighting back). Not good.


The biggest risk associated with social media is that its weaponized supernormal stimuli serve to change the conditions under which we form and maintain human relationships. Superficially, social media looks like a wonderful tool for reuniting long lost friends and keeping in touch with a much expanded friend group than would otherwise be possible. Fundamentally, hijacked social media is leading to a meaningful reduction in the number and type of “strong-community” connections and a substantial shift of time and attention towards “weak-affinity” connections.

In a natural environment, the primary selection criteria for relationship formation is physical proximity. Simply put, you can only form relationships with people who are within relatively easy travel distance. Therefore this is who you form relationships with. Notably, while local communities will naturally tend to form shared sensibilities, the simple fact of diversity of experience and perspective will lead to significant heterogeneity of both ideas and values within any physical community. Even siblings in a family will naturally develop substantially heterogenous sensibilities and experiences.

In this natural environment, the exigencies of community require that all participants develop adequate personal and interpersonal skillfulness to navigate this heterogeneity: regardless of how much you might disagree with your uncle, if both of you are required to maintain the success of the hunt, you will learn how to get along.

When you combine high skillfulness at getting along with a lot of time in relationship with heterogeneous perspectives, you get the kinds of “strong” links out of which we can fabricate real community.

By contrast, social media enables an entirely new kind of human relationship: the “weak affinity” bond. In the social media space, it is trivial to (a) find people who very closely share your own perspectives and preferences and to (b) avoid people who do not (up to and including simply “blocking” them from your perception with the click of a mouse).

These kinds of bonds are the “cotton candy” of relationships. On the one hand, they are easy and pleasant. On the other hand, they build little of enduring value. In the context of “attention exploiting media” where there is a premium placed on getting as many eyeballs as possible — this new potential for weak affinity becomes an operational mandate. A social platform that lacks the ability to filter or block unpleasant participants will quickly be outcompeted by one that has that capacity. This suits corporate branding and makes large groups more easily managed as consumer demographics. More concerning, the same paradigm suits authoritarian governments and ambitious populists.

As adaptive creatures (particularly developmentally during childhood and adolescence), we cannot help but respond and adapt to the signals of our physical and social environment. Weak affinity environments reward and punish behaviors very differently from strong community environments. Thus, as we spend more and more time in virtual social spaces and (by necessity) less and less time in physical social spaces, we observe the continual movement of virtual social space towards asymptotically superficial echo chambers and the participants in these echo chambers trained for skills like emotional fragility, virtue signaling, conformity policing, and / or neo-sociopathy. These are not the ingredients of an enduring society.