Occasionally you come across something on the Web that forces you to stare unflinchingly into the dark heart of humanity. Well, OK, on the Web that happens more than occasionally and not simply when you are frequenting 4Chan. Sometimes, however, the experience isn’t simply repellent and/or tedious but actually illustrates something profound about the evolution of human nature and its vexed relationship with digital technologies.
Recently, my friend Laurie posted an article about the impending Facebook changes from CNN’s Tech blog. Peter Cashmore’s “You’ll Freak WhenYou See the New Facebook” highlights Facebook’s impending overhaul of its profile pages in order to introduce its new “Facebook Timeline.” Some of you may in fact have had your profile switched already. Cashmore acknowledges that most users will probably hate the change initially but then they will think it is the greatest thing since Al Gore invented the Internet:
Rather than just displaying your most recent activities, your profile will become a scrapbook documenting your entire life, all the way back to your birth. Facebook will become a record of your existence: All your memories, your victories and your defeats, your loves, your losses and everything in between.
Like so many technogiddies, Cashmore has clearly been unable to restrain himself from dribbling onto the keyboard and posting the spittle-typing that resulted (it is the tech-bloggers equivalent of drunk-texting). The obvious question here seems to be why you would want a social network to document your entire life, but of course Cashmore, like Zuckerberg and team, isn’t really concerned about something that obvious. We can do this, and so we will: that is all you need to know.
What really interested me, however, was what Cashmore said next:
You’ll add a big, new “Cover photo” to your page and waste a few hours preening your Timeline, choosing to feature your happiest memories, hide the inconsequential ones, and lingering awhile on the most bittersweet of moments. And you’ll realize, as I did, that Facebook knows you better than you know yourself.
There it is. The deeply cherished dream of technology-fetishists everywhere. For some reason, some people, a lot of people in fact, want–no, need–our machines not just to do what we want them to do, but to know us intimately. In fact, I expect it is even more extreme than that. We want our machines to love us. This is what people mean, I suspect, when they talk about how much they “love” their Kindle or “love” their iPad. This device seems to know us. And to know us is to love us.
All of which begs the question: why?
Why is it that the first response of Facebook and Apple fanbois and fanfemmes to a statement like “Facebook knows you better than yourself” isn’t to think “What a sad and pathetic life that man must lead” but instead to think: “Ooooooh. I want!” (Why am I beating up on Apple here? Because this has been Apple’s marketing strategy for years now. Remember the iMac? That ridiculous, horribly impractical machine that nevertheless launched the college student Mac-buying revolution? Apple virtually invented the technology category of “cuddleware.”)
To tell you the truth, I find it a little odd to be on this side of the technological fence. I’ve always been opposed to the overly-Romantic view of “real life” that some critics have offered in order to oppose what they see as the undermining of Western Culture by the forces of technology. You know the arguments. That e-books will never catch on because they will never be as much fun and enlightening as reading your gilt-edged leather tome of bound vellum in a warm bath (from people who find reading Sports Illustrated a bit of a slog). That kids need to stop playing videogames and go outside and play (from people who have purchased a McMansion that has a yard only just big enough for the dog to take a scrunched up crap). That talking with real people face-to-face is so much more satisfying than talking with them via IM or e-mail (from people who have clearly never had to endure all the “great weather we are having” conversations that make up 90% of our daily interactions with others). I have always gleefully pissed on such people from a great height because uttering such statements indicates the kind of hypocritical cluelessness that comes from having lived X number of years on this planet and taking absolutely nothing in concerning the nature of your surroundings. I also found such arguments annoyingly essentialist in that they were based on a set of assumptions (rarely stated) about supposedly universal human values that transcended space, time, and culture.
Yet, as I get older, I find myself becoming, almost despite myself, more of a humanist. Which is to say, championing those values and behaviors that I take to be fundamental components not so much of the human race as it actually is, but what it could be if we listened to the better angels of our nature
and just stopped electing Republicans to public office. (Sorry, the dog got hold of the keyboard there). Call it a quasi-essentialism if you want. Initially I was a little puzzled by my new found zeal for a species that has in many very obvious ways so little to recommend it.
It probably has a lot to do with feeling that there’s a need for balance when it comes to those aspects of life we truly care about
and to stop electing Democrats to public office (down boy!). Claims about how great human nature is and how bad technology is are clearly unbalanced. Ditto the reverse. Recently, however, my new found humanistic zeal has had a lot to do with the fact that we are currently saddled with a lot of technology that is incredibly stupid and deeply unworthy of our potential. Unfortunately, we are living at a time when it is possible for something to be incredibly stupid but also hugely influential, and, more importantly, popular to the point that everyone is convinced that they just can’t live without this stupidity and there is no other way of going about this particular thing thanto be jaw-droppingly stupid about it.
That is why you’ll never catch me using Twitter and you’ll never see me stop pointing out how stupid it is. My Ph.D. is in English. I am a writer who teaches writing. I love language. Of course I am going to hate anything that reduces the richness of human communication to soundbites (and that is being generous: much of Twitter consists of re-circulated tweets or circulating links; functionally, this is like pointing urgently at something, it is communication reduced to the status of mere gesture). What I find hard to understand, however, is how other people who profess (in several senses) to love language and who even have Ph.Ds in the subject and who even teach that subject can claim to love Twitter. (You know who you are and you should probably return your degree to the institution that clearly made such a tragic mistake in granting it to you in the first place!). And if that–to use Zadie Smith’s comparison–marks me as a Web 1.0 person in a Web 2.0 world then I am OK with that. If the future of Web 2.0 looks like Twitter and compulsory socializing, then Web 2.0 can suck it.
However, Cashmore’s slobbery homage to a Facebook that really knows him provides a clue as to why otherwise smart people can be taken in by a technology that is as nourishing as fast food (and built upon exactly the same premise: that consumption needs to be fast, efficient, and all pervasive; the Twitter-induced consequence analogous to the fast-food-induced obesity epidemic is a corresponding linguistic flabbiness). People just want to be loved, and it is becoming increasingly clear that for many people the highest form of love they can imagine is wild and borderline abusive monkey-sex at the hands (paws) of their preferred piece of technological gimcrackery.
There’s a cartoon circulating on Facebook that many of you have probably seen. It is designed to mock the concerns of anyone who dares to complain about the direction in which Facebook is heading. It shows a cartoon face staring urgently into a computer screen with the caption: “I’m appalled that the free service I am in no way obligated to use keeps making changes that mildly inconvenience me.” Funny enough, I guess, as far as it goes, but it also speaks to just how dense people are not simply about this new wave of changes that Facebook is rolling out but about much of our technology. As I argued in my previous post (and which Cashmore’s piece confirms) what is coming down the pike are hardly minor changes. But even if that were true it is the blithe assurance of that “I am in no way obligated” that gives me pause. In an absolute sense of course this is true. We all could quit FB at any time. Theoretically.
Except most of us, I suspect, can’t. That nifty little cartoon is oblivious to the fact that information technologies are now so thoroughly interwoven with our lives that we aren’t just dependent on those technologies, we are co-dependent. And yes, I mean that in the bad therapy-speak kind of way. Facebook can’t make any money unless we publicize every last aspect of our social lives; we, in turn, no longer seem to know how to have much of a social life without it involving social media in some way. It is obvious, therefore, why we love these technologies so much and need them to know us, to love us back, why we are so desperate for their approval, their regard. It is because this kind of love has a name.
It is called the Stockholm syndrome.
This is the tendency, observed in everyone from hostages and torture victims to concentration camp internees, to become passionately attached to the same people who are starving you, beating you, and attaching electrodes to your genitals. It is because you are completely at the mercy of your captors. They define the rules under which you exist, and the conditions under which you will live or die. Their every whim becomes vitally important to your wellbeing; you obsess about them, scan their every move and facial expression for the slightest hint of their disposition and desires, straining to find any clue that will enable you to live one more day. They become your world. Your everything. You love them.
Much of our relationship with the various technologies making up our lives is similarly abusive but we nevertheless plaster on our best shit-eating grin and claim that we just wuv our wittle iPad. In some distant corner of our brain we know that using Microsoft Word everyday is often an endless pattern of little annoyances, sometimes a source of major frustration, and occasionally productive of soul-crushing despair at the clunky inadequacy of it as a writing platform. But we love it. Oh yes we do, because there is no choice really, is there? The same is true of Facebook. Indeed, while Word is simply the inevitable result of trying to design a one-size fits all product by committee, Facebook has actively engaged in abusive practices with regard to privacy, full disclosure of commercial interests, mining of our personal data, etc. But we wuv Facebook, because it likes us! It really likes us!
New social media technologies are trying to define for us what being social means. Some of those parameters are enabling us to see potential inherent in the social that we didn’t see before, such as. . .well, give me a minute, I’ll think of something. There are, however, two important points to remember. First, that the social is being redefined in such a way that it will hopefully make some people a lot of money. Second, that the social has never been simply about a “timeline” of your life, or a scrapbook, or the ability to like someone or not. All those are very narrow, fragmentary pieces of real society. The social is, ultimately, simply potential. That is why so many humans have fought and died to enable various groups to have access to the social collective in the first place: out of the belief that access to the social both enhances the potential for individuals and for the collective. Any time you accept a narrowly rule-bound system based on someone else’s version of the social you diminish not just your own potential but the collective potential.
It makes me more than a little nostalgic for the old days. Remember when we were just beginning to understand the exponential increases in computing power that lay in our future, and the Web was in its infancy? A lot of people were flirting with the idea of virtual reality (the kind where we would all wear full body suits and clumsy head gear but would, still, somehow, manage to find the whole experience enjoyable). It is a law of nature that as soon as a new technology is developed the first thing that people try to use it for is to create porn. (It took exactly two days, 13 hours and 25 minutes after the first ever photograph was taken for someone to take a photo of two people having sex). In the case of virtual reality, the idea was that we would be able to wear full-body suits with strategically placed electrodes and stimulation devices over all our erogenous zones and engage in virtual sex with a human partner at some distant location. This activity had one of the more charming names ever to grace a technological concept: teledildonics.
Back in the good old days, you see, we were still thinking that we would be using technology to enable us to have sex with other humans. Now, however, we just want to be fucked by our machines. And we frequently are.