Exploiting Our Conditioning

image by Mike Licht on flickr, CC BY 2.0

Several people have been urging me of late to look at switching to alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that supposedly are less “evil” — less fertile ground for hate-mongering, racism and other -isms, mis- and disinformation, censorship by platform owners, and propaganda.

But if they’re so awful, I reply, why not just stop using them? Well, because they’re needed I’m told. By whom, I ask, and for what purpose? For essential communication, discussion and exchange of ideas, they tell me.

I find that hard to accept. Like most new technologies, these dumbed-down excuses for “social media” have, since day one, caused vastly more problems than they’ve solved, or even tried to solve. Tell me one useful thing that they have accomplished, and I’ll reply with ten things that they have made worse.

In fact, when I get emails from people worried about Twitter and Facebook, they sound very much to me like the anxious words of people addicted to unhealthy and destructive things, worried about their continued source of supply, instead of acknowledging their dependence and seeking ways to break it.

The core of their addictiveness is their appeal to our craving for attention, appreciation, acknowledgement, recognition, and reassurance. Our disintegrated, fragmented society has created a scarcity of these commodities because this fragmentation serves to keep us off balance, obedient, and in our place. Without this separation, this disconnection, this dependency, eight billion humans would never put up with the ghastly limits on our freedom and the horrific, overcrowded, unnatural conditions under which so many live their entire lives.

There is nothing wrong per se with becoming physically or psychologically dependent on something. Nature addicts us to water, to food, to love and sex, in the interests of survival and perpetuation of the species.

The problem is that we pretend there is a line between these natural ‘healthy’ dependencies, and acquired dependencies on or needs for unnatural substances, relationships, and behaviours. And that somehow we have the ‘free will’ to distinguish them and to prevent ourselves (if we are strong and smart and of ‘good character’) from becoming dependent on the latter.

This is total nonsense. We can — any of us — be conditioned to crave things that sicken and kill us, and to kill, hate and engage in other antisocial and destructive behaviours. There is almost no limit to what our conditioning can lead us to do.

In fact, the entire purpose of capitalism is to exploit humans’ conditioning for profit. It no longer has anything to do with its original stated purpose, which was the efficient raising of investment funds (capital) to enable costly long-term projects that otherwise would not be possible.

Go into the grocery store and total up how much of the merchandise is unhealthy to consume. Just the candy, cookies, other sugar-packed foods, sugar-water beverages, and chips and other salt-soaked snacks alone take up a large percentage of the aisles. And if food regulators were honest enough to also acknowledge just how awful meat, eggs and dairy, saturated fats and oils, and chemical-laden processed foods are for us, we’d quickly realize that almost everything in the grocery store is bad for our health.

But our bodies are addicted to these products. Research suggests we form these addictions from a very early age and that for most of us, these addictions dictate what we consume for the rest of our lives. The industrial food industry relies heavily on advertising, lobbying and misinformation to perpetuate these illness-creating addictions, all in the interest of profit.

That doesn’t make them evil — their executives are as addicted as the rest of us, and as much in denial of the fact that poor nutrition is the cause of most of the world’s diseases and deaths. This is just how the system works: Our bodies are easily conditioned to crave substances, especially if (like salt, sugar and fats) they are relatively scarce in the natural world and hence our bodies are genetically conditioned to like them even before cultural and social conditioning kicks in. The food industry merely exploits this conditioning, leveraging it with advertising and misinformation, to generate enormous profits from foods that are actually killing us, after which the medical/pharmaceutical industries step in to generate huge profits by treating our mostly-unnecessary diseases.

Capitalism likewise exploits our capacity for conditioning in every other industry. In the war industry, they exploit our fear and our propensity to hate what other people we know and trust hate, through the media, to get us to support wars. Other industries exploit our vanity, our fears of not having enough, or of being ridiculed, to condition us, through advertising, to buy crap we don’t need, most of which ends up in landfill or in the oceans or atmosphere as waste.

The entertainment industry, including “social media” (which, like the “news media” are more and more preoccupied with entertaining their audience, which is cheap and easy to do, than with informing it, which is expensive and hard to do) have long worked to condition us to crave ever-increasing amounts of novel “data”. So much so that we can no longer afford to buy it all, and no longer have the time to manage it, so it is just “streamed” to us to guzzle without limit. Talk to people (young males, especially) about how addictive video games are if you don’t believe it’s this serious.

We are addicted to these “media”, thanks to our conditioning, no less than we are to foods that make us sick and kill us. And the stigma and guilt and shame of admitting to the “weakness” of such addiction causes us to deny its unhealthy effect on us, and to resist attempts to regulate it in our collective interest.

The “answer” is obvious — stop eating and drinking junk, stop buying crap we don’t need, and stop using antisocial media. But this “answer” is also impossible. Billions of addicted people cannot just stop. The utter failure of “12-step” programs and CBT and other “reprogramming” methods, despite decades of hype, attests to the impossibility of us being able to change our conditioning voluntarily. Of course a few people will break their unhealthy addictions, but those few were already conditioned to be ready psychologically to do so, and were genetically conditioned to be able to break free of addictions relatively easily. For them to denigrate those not so fortunate is just cruel.

For the rest of us, our conditioning is going to continue to power our addictions, no matter what. No amount of shaming, incarceration, physical and psychological pain and “reprogramming” is going to break the chain.

So when bright people tell me they’re thinking of switching from Twitter or Facebook to some other less egregious lookalike animal, I just shake my head. They remind me of the other junkies who assert they “could quit anytime”. I feel bad for them, whether they’re in denial, or just desperate. “Oh my God a monkey can move a man”, as James Taylor put it.

And I’m no different. I’m conditioned like everyone else, and the arguments in this post are just the result of that conditioning. I have my dependencies, and the fact mine are probably less damaging than most people’s is just my good fortune.

So I don’t tell people they should quit, or switch, social media (or change their diet, or shake their dependencies). Sometimes I ask questions, because it’s when people have asked me questions about my behaviours and beliefs at just the right time, that my conditioning has shifted, I think mostly in useful and healthy ways.

I have often heard, from the more dim-witted philosophers, that if everyone acknowledged that there is no such thing as free will, we would all kill ourselves. For me, giving up the belief in free will, and accepting that this body is just acting out its conditioning and that ‘I’ have nothing to do with it (other than trying to make sense of it, and having judgements about it, afterwards) has been enormously liberating, and even joyful.

I no longer post anything on “social media”, though after 20 years’ blogging and 3300 posts with 10,000 pages of writing and images, I am clearly addicted to this blog. At my age I occasionally wonder whether, on my deathbed, I will regret not having spent more, or less, time “online”, or blogging, or doing anything else. I don’t think I will. But maybe that’s just my conditioning talking. It’s not like I had any choice.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Exploiting Our Conditioning

  1. Peter says:

    Another wonderful post to start my week with-thank you!

  2. subsidiarity says:

    I don’t get why people blame things on capitalism without saying what they mean by capitalism. Or perhaps your more fequent reader know.

    Would the article have lost anything substantive in not blaming capitalism. Or if you had blamed a more specific actionable part of capitalism.

    You and your 10k closest friends are cut off from civilization and you get to start society anew. How do you organize your stuff? If you wanted to recreate the problems of capitalism how would you do that?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    I’m not ‘blaming’ anyone or anything. Everything we do is conditioned, including the development and acceptance of economic systems like capitalism. We seem inclined to develop systems and then allow them to grow until they become massive and dysfunctional. It’s understandable — if something seems to be helpful at a small scale, we want to replicate and grow it. All systems, it seems, grow and endure until they no longer serve the function they evolved to serve, and then they collapse. This time around, that collapse is going to be global, and there is doubt as to whether our species, or most species, will survive it.

    Capitalist enterprise is not the only or inevitable or best economic model, as David Graeber’s books have argued so well. When/if the survivors of collapse start again, they will probably try a variety of models of social organization and collaboration. Without massive cheap energy to power them, they are unlikely to grow to anywhere near today’s scale, and so may remain flexible enough to tweak continually to serve the people using them. Next time around, the primary problem we face isn’t like to be the massive inequity, unsustainability and waste of a chosen economic system, but rather humans’ tragic propensity to hate and kill each other. Given the frenzied anti-Russia and anti-Chinese war-mongering we’re seeing today, it’s still quite likely that we’re going to blow ourselves to bits before ecological and economic collapse is complete.

  4. Subsidiarity says:


Comments are closed.