All of Us

Five Characters in Search of an Exit

by Mike Critelli

Over the past several weeks, when sharing what I’ve learned about the expanding and compelling body of research on the harmful effects of social media, I encountered bewilderment, denial, and highly confident—but misguided—responses from many well-educated people. 

We are in the midst of multiple societal crises that manifest themselves in an explosive growth of mental illness, substance abuse, alienation from work, political and cultural division, and increased violence. But most of us are unable to step back and diagnose the potential root causes of these crises.

There is an insightful episode of The Twilight Zone, one of the most powerful TV shows of all time, that comes to mind. In fact, this series, which aired between 1959 and 1964, was arguably among the best entertainment to diagnose deeply-rooted societal pathologies from its time, and ours. The episode, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,”  first aired in December, 1961.

From the opening narrative:

Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an army major—a collection of question marks. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation; just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the shadows. 

The five characters, identified only by their occupations, find themselves trapped in a clear cylindrical enclosure. While trying futilely to escape, they ruminate with one another about the challenges of their lives.

At one point, the major manages to climb to the top of the cylinder and fall outside onto snow-covered ground. But the rest remain trapped. They also periodically hear a loud bell, but cannot determine its source.

At the end, the camera pans out and we see that the five characters are actually five dolls in a glass container. The doll dressed as a major is picked up by a little girl, whose mother, a Salvation Army volunteer, directs her to deposit it back into the cylinder. The loud bell turns out to be what her mother is using to alert passersby to the need for holiday contributions.

This story resonates with me because, in many respects, we are trapped inside societal cylinders that keep us from stepping back and understanding how we got here. We are addicted to social media, texting, emailing and other forms of interaction that actually separate us from one another. And through algorithms and analytics designed to increase user engagement, social media are getting continually better at separating us and introducing destructive alternate realities into many people’s lives. 

What Do We Need To Do?

  • All of us, but particularly leaders of organizations, need to find vantage points from outside the cylinder. We need to see what social media sites and their consequences—intentional or unintentional—are doing to rewire our brains and social relationships. We need data on what is happening made available to us, preferably on an ongoing, continuous basis.

  • We need to become less isolated. Getting people even partially away from remote work, remote school, streaming, e-commerce and isolated lives is more important than ever. In the pre-Covid world, I learned from a study done by ProHealth Physicians, a primary care practice on whose Board I served, that isolated living is a major predictor of poor health. 

  • We need to get back to more in-person work. The workplace can and should be a locus for diagnosing and treating our social media diseases.

How Can We Help Bring Employees Back To Work?

  • Make work more meaningful through the articulation and practice of higher spiritual, moral and societal values. Employees have to believe they are contributing to an organization whose mission inspires them and makes them proud.

  • Make that meaningful work financially rewarding and economically rational.

  • Make all employees feel valued with a sense of belonging — essential components of a well-grounded D, E & I strategy.

Marc Benioff of Salesforce has done a far better job than most CEOs in keeping his workforce motivated and engaged. He has built a corporate culture based on the Hawaiian word “ohana,” which literally translates to “family.” But “ohana” also has a far broader meaning including the values of shared responsibility, leaving no one behind, and not harming or shaming anyone who is part of the “family.” The tone of his public communications in the last several years has been unifying, uplifting, and psychologically therapeutic. 

How Can We Help To Exit The Social Cylinder?

At the MakeUsWell Network, we want to guide with words and actions that can counteract the destructive effects of the social media world and also make in-person work more meaningful, energizing, rewarding, and fun. 

Today, many highly useful survey tools and other data sources exist. They fail, however, to take into account the unreal social media world that resembles an isolating cylinder outside of work and, all too often, outside of potentially nurturing family, community, and workplace relationships.

Our goal is to develop the tools that can make insights from the best available data usable by every organization’s leaders and employees.