The amoeba and the squirrel

[An essay written for the Internet Review, a one-off maybe-to-become-annual publication documenting (and celebrating?) Internet trends]

Every human has two minds: one like an amoeba and one like a squirrel. The amoeba mind is reactive, emotional, intuitive. It decides immediately, without planning or consideration. It is Freud’s “id”, or the System One of behavioral economics: the amoeba is your unconscious. Your squirrel mind plans, trades off immediate pleasures for future gain, is capable of abstract reasoning and cooperation – the superego.

Being an amoeba is often more fun – maybe even more authentic – but the squirrel makes things happen in the long run.

Society also has amoeba and squirrel modes. The amoeba is the local interaction: follow your senses and do what’s in your direct interest, consequences be damned. Squirrel mode requires bigger institutions, and trust: in other people’s knowledge, a shared logical picture of the world, forgoing today’s profit for society’s long-term benefit.

Until now, newspapers, TV and political parties have been democracy’s squirrels, fact-checking and interpreting for the rest of us. In 2016, social media – the ultimate amoeba forum – became pervasive enough to challenge squirrel norms. Society’s truth is no longer mediated by squirrels. Amoebas transmit and amplify emotional messages; the amoeba mind gains an unfiltered political life of its own. Amoebas have no plan, but together they have power.

Facebook is America’s collective unconscious; a swarm of amoeba minds, riven by the conflicts and irrationalities of instinctive urges. Until we teach ourselves to think about consequences again, humanity will have the self-control of a 4-year-old. Twitter, a bridge from amoeba to squirrel, might show a way. But as 2016 ends the squirrel still seems to be in hibernation.

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