PARIS -- Massive interconnectivity in our era has ironically resulted in self-isolation, self-delusion and aggression -- for individuals and nation-states alike. Did anyone predict that the perception of close proximity fostered by globalization and interconnectivity might lead to blowback?
Yes, in fact several scientists did.
In 1971, Charles Southwick wrote in the Ohio Journal of Science: "I think we could agree that the dramatic multimedia approach of our communications networks affects the sense of crowding and crisis that individuals and social groups perceive."
Southwick theorized that increased social contact and irritation leads to more aggressive and violent behavior, as well as "abnormal clusterings of individuals." In other words: self-isolation from all but a select few.
Experiments on rats by ethologist John Calhoun in the 1960s showed that some subjects drop out of social interaction altogether and go into a "spiral of deteriorating health" as a result of perceived overcrowding. Psychologist Jonathan Freedman later demonstrated that excessive social contacts and interaction (as opposed to physical overcrowding) were the primary cause of these deteriorations -- which is the precise phenomenon exacerbated nowadays by the Internet and social media.
Consider, for example, the guy who doesn't go out much, spends hour upon hour carefully crafting an image on Facebook or Twitter, gauging his success, popularity and self-worth on the number of "likes" from people with whom he has never had a real conversation. He's "clustering": deliberately limiting his world to a select few, despite having the world at his fingertips
This person would be devastated if anyone tapped him on the shoulder and burst his bubble of self-delusion by critiquing his lifestyle. He has created a world of his choosing to the exclusion of the onslaught of humanity that he considers omnipresent -- if only online. After all, his entire life is now online. He may even lash out violently if his worldviews are challenged -- the phenomenon of cruel Internet trolls fits perfectly with scientific theory on perceived social fatigue.
If this kind of lifestyle proves to be unsatisfying for our hypothetical bubble dweller, behavioral experiments suggest that he would simply further self-isolate -- perhaps even give up on society rather than realize what he's doing to himself and simply log off for his own benefit.
According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there are 9 million unemployed Americans of working age. That figure does not include the 2.2 million jobless Americans "marginally attached" to the labor force who want to work but hadn't looked for work in four weeks at the time of the survey. Among the "marginally attached" group are 682,000 working-age Americans who have given up the search because they don't believe there are any jobs available. It would be interesting to discover how many of these people have made a choice -- whether entirely conscious of it or not -- to self-isolate in this era of globalization.
What should really raise alarms is when we start seeing globalization lead to isolation and aggression from individual nations.
We're witnessing the world being split back up into Eastern (led by Russia and China) and Western (led by the USA and Europe) bipolarity -- and at a time when we've never been more interconnected. The worldwide information boom of recent years, with the vast global expansion of the Internet and social media, correlates with the re-emergence of the old Cold War bifurcation and aggression between the two spheres: verbal sparring, economic sanctions, cyberattacks, propaganda wars, etc.
This increased nation-state aggression at a time of unprecedented interconnectivity seems counterintuitive -- except to the science that has long envisioned this precise outcome.
One could also argue that the sense of proximity and competition sparked by globalization has led to insular self-delusion as a means of self-preservation. Many believe that domestic politics have never been more blindly and aggressively ideological, for example.
Consider one current example in the international sphere: U.S. President Barack Obama's recent remarks about leftist-led Greece falling even deeper into economic crisis suggest either a severe lack of self-awareness or a self-deprecating sense of humor. "You cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression," Obama said. "At some point there has to be a growth strategy in order for them to pay off their debts to eliminate some of their deficits."
This from the president who has increased the national debt by 70 percent since he took office. How many yes-men does it take to wrap oneself in that level of delusion? And how many other leaders are equally and increasingly isolated from inconvenient political realities?
For all the perceived benefits of an interconnected world, we have yet to realize the full repercussions. We're just beginning to see the downside of the lack of self-awareness that comes with greater use of the Internet and social media, and with our expanded engagement of the world through these relatively new channels.