The internet is a fairly recent phenomenon. My parents grew up in a time where you had to go to the library in order to find the information you were looking for and then hope that they had a book that could help you further. That has all changed now. This is a huge revolution for human beings, but it also brings with it some negative side effects. The internet is great to learn new things and find information. It is not that good if you want to live your social life on it.
Many of us now post daily on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. These sites are very helpful to stay in touch with long lost friends or those who live far away. But it also makes us long for recognition and acknowledgment in the form of a like. When someone likes your post, photo or what else, that means that person thinks that photo is cool or agrees with your post (or at least found it worthy to give their attention to it). This shows how many people think what you have done is good. They give you their recognition and their acknowledgment. But these things can be addicting.
The 19th century philosopher Georg Hegel writes about acknowledgment in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. There he claims that there are two types of people: the master and the slave. Before we can be self-conscious, we have to realize that there are other people like me that are self-conscious, and I have to acknowledge the self-conscious which in turn makes them realize my self-conscious. When there is mutual acknowledgment, then we live a self-conscious life. But there is no way to realize this except through conflict with the other subject. This conflict is pretty extreme according to Hegel as it goes until death. The battle for self-consciousness endures until either one of them dies, or one of them realizes that life is better than death and allows himself to be subjugated by the other. The victor is the master as he allows the other to exist. The conquered is the slave since he lives by virtue of the master. But the master still needs the slave in order to be self-conscious so he will not kill him. This internal conflict is characteristic to Hegel’s dialectics.
Now a master doesn’t necessarily have to be one person. It can be a group of people or a different entity altogether. A master can be, say, unknown people giving likes on your photo’s. Metaphorically the master is that thing for which you die. The ideal. The thing that gives you acknowledgment. On social media, the like button is our master. And it is the like button that gives us acknowledgment.
The amount of likes or follows can never be enough as the number is potentially infinite. It doesn’t give the acknowledgment we need to become self-conscious creatures. Instead, it gives us anxiety and despair whenever we don’t get enough likes. Not only do social media sites capitalize on this anxiety and make it addictive, we do so also. We like the attention we are getting because we believe it gives us the acknowledgment, we desire in order to become self-conscious creatures. When we become self-conscious, we also become freer in a sense and it is this freedom that we desire, according to Hegel.
Using the master-slave dialectic we can analyze the bad effects desiring the recognition of the other bring to us. This constant striving towards acknowledgment actually impedes on our ability to be free, since the master will never be satisfied. This master resides not on the internet but within us. It is our ideal which talks to us as a judge. That ideal is our master, since we are a slave to its will. This ideal is the thing we are dying for, that which we give our life for to achieve. That is what I believe to be the real take away of the master-slave dialectic. The master is the ideal we strive towards, but it is only when we believe our ideal to be something else than it actually is, that we live in an imbalanced dialectic. This impedes our ability to rise above that conflict. Only when our ideal and our actions align can there be mutual recognition within ourselves.
To put this into practice regarding the internet and social media sites. When we do the things for the likes and not for the content, is when our ideals and actions aren’t aligned, and we are then in a discrepant master-slave dialectic. When we realize that what we do is for the thing itself and not for an Other, then we can achieve the Hegelian Aufhebung and become self-conscious creatures.
This might all sound a little abstract and that’s because it is. I have only read some parts of Hegel and he is famously very difficult to understand. Yet, he is a central figure to grasp in order to understand continental philosophy as that movement is basically just addition on Hegel’s dialectics. I tried to put it in a modern coat in order to make it more understandable. I probably didn’t achieve that. But hey, that’s the Hegelian dialectic in process.