By Sharon Broughton (October 31, 2019)

Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World, by Sarah Rose Cavanagh, PhD., Grand Central Publishing, September 3, 2019, 304 pp., $27.71

Have you witnessed the “invisible leash,” the channel of communication between a dog and his owner, manifested by mutual understanding and a deep and binding connection? 

In disaster, have you seen the best brought out in a community, as barriers between people break down through a collective outpouring of support and kindness? 

Is the ancient practice of mindfulness and meditation bringing you or someone you know relief from the pressing anxieties of their lives? 

Can social technology bring out the best in us, and make a difference for the world? Or do the online tools we have created doom us to lives of disconnection, dissonance and despair? 

If you’re wondering what all of these issues have in common, you’ll be drawn in by Hivemind, the fascinating and ultimately optimistic exploration by psychologist Sarah Cavanagh, who leads us on a journey through human development across the ages, helping us understand our collective selves through the lens of today’s ever-present individualized online reality. 

Cavanagh defines her concept of hivemind as “a collective consciousness in which we share consensus thoughts, emotions, and opinions; a phenomenon whereby a group of people function as if it with a single mind.”

She captures vivid examples of how we are synchronous beings, with the contents of our minds spreading easily from one to the other, whether in person or online. 

Fear, despair, love and hate have always been infectious, and they spread over new media with a speed we weren’t ready for. The ability for us to create and be influenced by like-minded, exclusive ‘hives’ online is unprecedented. But what happens when we limit our worlds to the point that we lose the ability to connect with others outside our experience?

This book is a combination wake-up call and sense-making offering, encouraging us to create a more connected, intentional way to live. Using research, story-telling, history, humour and a keen insight into human nature, she helps us see that today’s societal structure and intense focus on individualism (the ‘selfie culture’) may be betraying the need for connection and purpose that is deeply rooted in what it means to be human. 

And the need for connection and purpose is actually the larger issue, rather than the fact that people are spending too much time poring over their handheld devices, becoming more isolated from their lives. 

The lessons Cavanagh shares to summarize her findings are based on the question we should be asking. And that is not the ways in which technology has let us down but, rather, how can we shape our technologies (and our usage of them) to best serve our human purposes?

Here’s the hopeful part. 

Lesson 1: Use social media for connection. Enhance, don’t eclipse. Dial down the outrage, dial up the empathy, and create room for mistakes.

The premise is that the potential for social media to draw people together and foster creativity has gone largely unfulfilled but remains available to be tapped into. 

While many positive social movements were launched by the phenomenal reach only possible online (from GoFundMe outpourings of support that transcend city and country, to young people supporting each other to take action on gun control or climate change), many people are convinced that the effects of social media on adults and children alike is largely negative. 

And this is not surprising, especially if you’re a parent who has lost a child to suicide after relentless, vicious cyber-bullying or an individual whose life has been devastated by racist, misogynistic and destructive attacks in the Twitterverse.

But Cavanagh’s perspective is clear. “Rather than delete all of our profiles and bin our smartphones,” we need to encourage ourselves, parents and families to create boundaries and good role models to follow, just as we would for anything else. Emphasize positive relationships, quality time together, reasonable limits for activities, and responsible (digital) citizenship. 

Just as parents wouldn’t hand kids the key to a candy cupboard with unlimited access, handing a child a smartphone without restrictions is not a good idea. Setting up digital habits for all to follow has the dual benefit of time for reconnection and discovery ‘in real life’ of learning and experiences not possible in the virtual world.

The tools and lessons focus on how, by accessing these approaches, we are more able to encourage and harness social change for good. Lessons 2 through 6 offer hope mixed with caution, with a focus on intention. 

Embracing the power of the collective, tempered with innovation and dissent—making sure to respectfully share an opposing view or new idea—to broaden the thinking beyond the ‘hivemind’ tendencies is one example. Regulating emotions—avoiding fear, elevating hope, and choosing prosocial emotions like compassion, gratitude and pride— is another, as is listening to people’s stories—real or fictional—especially stories from people who are different from us in race, ethnicity, gender or political perspective. 

According to Cavanagh, all of this information from very disparate fields—happiness, depression, loneliness, philosophy, psychology—coalesces into something compellingly clear. That living for ourselves and by ourselves, leads to unhappiness.

The final lesson unfolds with a beautiful story of a friendship which would never have had the chance to blossom if we were limited to only meeting people within likeminded hives. “Build and support architectures of serendipity” is the encouragement to find ways to get out of our comfort zones, our chosen real and virtual silos (ideological, geographic, economic) or we risk not continuing to grow and change. 

And, so, it ends with this,

“Seek out a diverse range of people to interact with. Step outside your tribe to build relationships with people different from you. Even if you have to pick up your smartphone to do it.”

Sarah Rose Cavanagh
Photo by Theresa Bourassa

Having just attended the unique and inspiring global symposium, “Reimagining Community in the 21st Century,” which focused on creating ways to overcome social isolation and building social connectedness around the world, I’m convinced that Cavanagh’s work is an important contribution to this essential dialogue. So much so that I’ve decided to give my review copy of Hivemind to the conference founder. 

Dip into Hivemind, and you’ll emerge, at the very least, with ideas for better technology habits and, potentially, with a renewed energy for relationship, connection and making a difference in the world.

(Sharon Broughton, M.Ed., is the CEO of Prince’s Trust Canada.)

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