Algorithms, particularly social media algorithms, have been on a lot of our minds lately. But what even are they? Well one definition I found says that algorithms are: a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. So basically they are like an ever evolving blueprint guiding the computer’s actions. This isn’t much different from the way that our brains work, at least from my limited understanding of both.
I was thinking over how strange and ironic it is that we as a society have been struggling so much with technology and social apps. Even though we don’t want to argue, fight, compare, etc. These apps feed us the type of content that will get us to react in that way. This morning the parallel between that struggle, often leading to mental illness, and the struggle to cope with mental illness itself really became apparent to me.
Sometimes it’s almost as if the universe presents us with clever metaphors to force us to confront the things we try to avoid. Humanity has been running from itself, especially in the last few decades. We’ve submerged ourselves in these digital landscapes as a distraction from our thoughts and worries and fears. The internet, in a way, is the ultimate form of disassociation. Yet, there is still so much we can learn about ourselves through this unlikely medium.
It’s ironic that the very place we’ve gone to escape ourselves has become a mirror of the worst within us. These algorithms online tailor what we see, they filter the world through a lens of violence, outrage, and disgust. As I explained before it’s because we are naturally inclined to react to these things more forcefully than things that inspire joy, happiness, comfort, or love. Even while pointing that out in my post about personal responsibility, it didn’t occur to me just how much these algorithms are actually amplifying the algorithms within our own brains.
This public discussion about social media and Facebook are actually a fascinating parallel to the discussion of neuroplasticity. Unfortunately, no one has the power to change the algorithm in our heads except us, so in this instance, while not our fault, it is up to us to make a change. While that autopilot algorithm does do a lot of the work behind the scenes of our consciousness, we are able to take back the wheel and steer ourselves in a new direction.
Let’s get back to what I mean when I say this is a metaphor though. Think about the internet, for the most part, we all understand that what comes up in our feed every day isn’t all that exists on the web. Yet, somehow the things we take notice of in our everyday lives, start to seem like all there is to notice. We become cynical, or at least I did.
I can still remember arguing with someone when I was in high school. I was insisting that life was mostly negative or neutral events with light sprinkles of happy ones in between. How sad it is to look back at my young self who truly believed such a terrible thing. At the time, that was true though, at least for me. Because that’s what I was looking for, so of course, that’s all I found.
We are always subconsciously looking for evidence to support our beliefs, even when those beliefs aren’t something we are happy about. It starts with a belief, just like our apps start with an interest. Our “feeds” in life then fall into place around that central idea. That isn’t all there is to see, but it is all that we’ll see.
That inner world of ours, our perceptions of life and those around us, seem so real. It’s hard to conceptualize that there may be so much more that we are not aware of, that our view is skewed by the limited scope of what we are taking in. The world around us is continuously colored and altered by our mood, our knowledge base, our preconceptions, our biases, our past experiences, and so much more. These are the “filters” that we use on the universe. But the small amount that we are able to take in, that is not an accurate reflection of existence. Just as our Facebook or Instagram feed is not an accurate representation of the content available online.
So don’t get too trapped in your own perceptions of this life. While we may not be able to make a new account or scrub our hard drive so we can start again from scratch, we can make an effort right now to challenge our preconceived notions. We can practice compiling new evidence to support beliefs that we choose to hold. We can make our mantra each day that the world is good, that there is beauty and happiness all around us. I promise you, no matter how dark the world may seem to you now, practice believing that there is light and you will find it.