Fly on the Wall—Social Media Solipsism and the Paradox of Learning with Computers

Fly on the Wall—Social Media Solipsism and the Paradox of Learning with Computers

Here in 2022 at AU, where computers and the internet are irrevocably crucial to our learning, we might not even realize that our current educational experience is part of a historical industrial revolution of our minds where attention to the chalkboard and teacher were replaced, physically, by attention to a computer as programmed arbiter of data.  For those of us young enough to have never known the world before computers, we might consider what interacting with others was like in those archaic days of yore.

Dingier than a back alley from an old film noir movie, the computer lab of my primary school years was, by any other name, a broom closet.  A Hobbit-esque door led into a room that snaked along the outside of a hallway wall; its long and perpendicular nature gave it a labyrinth feel, like being inside of some vestigial limb where decades of janitors had seized some momentary respite from the clamors of children and perhaps the ghosts of their own youthful miseries.  Whatever the room was, it wasn’t an ordinary classroom.  Neither was our preparation exercises.  In the Third Grade we had been given sheets of paper on which were photocopied examples of a computer keyboard so that we could practice intricate, mindless, maneuvers with our tiny fingers over imaginary keys.  Deft or ham-fisted, we shortly embarked down to the transformed broom closet now emblazoned in our minds with a glowing new moniker: computer lab.  The excitement was palpable, energy akin to the background hum of a monolithic machine.

It felt like a field trip adventure, for sure.  Even the teachers were twittering excitedly.  Screens beckoned with a friendly blue, the newest ones were situated near the door and the eagerest among us Grade 3 beavers pounced into the hard wooden chairs in a frenzy.  Further back in the recesses of the erstwhile lab were older models, 1983 versus 1987, and some had gone out of order such that all they did was blink lines from screens smudged with fingerprints.  Keyboards inoperable, a student like myself would find himself sitting back with a view of the rest of the class who had suddenly been struck into dulcet silence by the blue glow.  No teacher could have induced such rapture from her young audience.  Indeed, the old phrase eyes up here that instructors used to command our attention vis a vis appropriate optic language no longer applied.

Teachers told us which keystrokes to make so that we could familiarize ourselves with the word processors but now there was no doubt who was in charge.  For an hour a week the computers ran the show.  Sometimes when one would be on the blink, per se, the teacher would spend most of the time attempting to cajole a single pupil’s device back into action.  Those like myself who had drawn the unlucky straw of having a totally inoperable machine were asked to squish in next to others and observe the blue screen attentively while not actually participating.

Wherever the magic happened, it all seemed distant and dull to me.  What was this magical hold that computers had over our hitherto boisterous young minds?  And now, 35 years later, I note that social media often carries a similar rapt sense of participation with invisible others through the eerie blue light of a mediating blue lens.  It’s as though being alone in a room with one’s phone, rather than alone in the traditional sense, has come to signify a sense of deeply embedded, inter-netted, participatory action.

So Now, Solipsism and the Eternal Well of Self at a Screen

Solipsism, a philosophy that stems back to Rene Descartes and others who asked how they could know if there was more than themselves in the universe (followed by hasty and almost suspicious assertions that of course, you’re not alone in your consciousness!), seems implicated in the way the internet provides mental access to physically absent others.

Catfishing aside, even when we are sure that our interlocutor is a real person (say because they are sitting on the same couch as us even though we are mediating ourselves  through that blue oracle portal, we can never be sure that the performance of an Other is authentic in the way that it would be if we were looking each other in the IRL eye.  IRL, in real life, implies that there is indeed a reality out there.

But that is what solipsism questions; the raw real truth of an external world with other than ourselves in it.  Crucially, the possibility that we are all facets of the same cosmic eye also enters the picture.  Here is a summation of solipsism as the ultimate practice of being locked in isolation with your phone along with the ostensive participation of as many other imaginary and/or real friends as our minds allow.  I leave it to you to consider whether social media encourages a solipsist view, where self is king and ego implies that we are each of us unique and solitary in a universe of fakers and posers.

Meanwhile, what we might term the therapy industrial complex (the TIC), and so many memes online combine to suggest that the self is the greatest project ever embarked upon.  As kids at keyboards in the computer lab it sure felt like the computers were personalized tools rather than institutional busywork.  Finally, learning was about us!

Solipsism, too, implies that the best knowledge is the knowledge that is about oneself.  Yet, as morals go, “it is doubtful whether self-seeking, understood without any restriction, can be viewed as a coherent moral principle at all.  For wherever one person’s self-seeking conflicts with another’s, the principle would enjoin both, and by implication countermand itself.” (Rollins 488)

In other words: if we take knowing ourselves and flourishing personally too seriously, we are bound to conflict with others who are equally self-based (self-abased?).  Certainly, as Descartes noted, “existential claims can never truly, and perhaps never with full intelligibility, claim more than the existence of the experiencing self and its states”, but it’s when experiences jive and are shared and appreciated, even as memories, that life and learning become most exciting.  If every aha moment is followed by radical doubt about whether the other(s) is faking their response, or simply trying to impress someone, then spontaneous love and learning become difficult.

Computers, by focusing our eyes away from each other and onto a series of screens, certainly divide us in a social sense.  Maybe the fact that computer technology, unlike every other form of pedagogical coaxing our teachers could muster, worked so instantly to silence our young selves into rapt submission is itself a sign that the computers appeal to our ego in a subliminal way.

After all, each screen appears as our own private world.  Yet it doesn’t smell or smile like us, nor does it radiate our unique intuitive whimsy.  It’s the experience of oneself in interaction with others, even with other aspects of ourselves, that makes us who we are.  And the more human our experiences are, the more naturally are they shared with others.  Reality becomes more real by being discussed and pondered.  This is why, whether it’s talking about our coursework with family and friends or participating in available online forums, or journaling about our thoughts and growth as we proceed through our coursework, an AU education is augmented when we express our learning in the real world of ideas in which we participate.

Rollins, C.D.  ‘Solipsism’.  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Volumes 7 and 8, Index.  Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.  & The Free Press.