New technology breeds exaggeration. Some see the advent of the Internet, for example, as a panacea for society's ills (Similar to Gopnik’s Never-Betters). Others, moving to the opposite side of the spectrum, focus on the corrosive effects of technology, certain of the imminent breakdown of society, or the individual (Gopnik’s Better-Nevers). A third group points out that people reacted in this manner to such simple everyday devices as the phone and the telegram. Today, no one would decry the corrosive effects of phone calls, or worry that the phone deteriorates culture and community, so why worry over the Internet? (Gopnik’s Ever Was group would make this point to sterilize the whole conversation. This group doesn’t necessarily take a stand on the issue, but simply point out that we’ve been here before.) For some reason, I find it helpful to visualize these three groups. The last group, I see as bunch of older people akin to the writer of Kohelet, who have seen enough to know that nothing really changes, in their mind. I picture the second group as bunch of literary writers, obsessed with feelings and big ideas, always attuned to something seriously wrong in the fabric of our being, desperately searching for the basic cause of our ills, while the first group I envision as business-minded people, more focused on what we can accomplish than on the state of the world’s soul. These, of course, are caricatures, but maybe you will find them helpful to contextualize the claims.
The Ever-Was argument appears too easy, too dismissive. To me, It’s less an argument than a tactic of disengagement. While true, people denounced the telephone, and other staples of our lives in the past, that doesn’t mean that either the internet isn’t distinctive, or even if this trend happens throughout history, that new technology does not cause significant change, both for the good and bad, that demands analysis.
I find it easiest to dismiss the Never Betters. Not because their claims lack veracity, but because their claims do not demand anything of us. If they are right, and in some regards certain scientific findings back some of their assertions, then great, let’s continue our feast on the delights of technology. In response to this group, all we can do is substantiate their claims through analysis and research, but it does not pose a challenge, this group does not demand change. In fact, ironically, this group advocates sticking with the status quo or pushing technology to its logical end, but it does not challenge my way of being in any substantive manner.
However, the Better Nevers pose more of a threat to our way of life. If correct in their assessment, then the truth should move us to make changes in our life. To cut back on our dependency on technology, to take a break from the incessant checking of our blackberries, to go off the grid and be alone with our thoughts, our friends, and our family, to engage in more face to face conversation that lasts longer than 140 characters per reply, to realize that a facebook obsession can turn into a viewpoint that thinks in terms of the simplistic categories of facebook – of “friends”, of pokes, of likes and dislikes, of the need for pictures (Pictures in general, remove us from the immediacy of the moment, but this slavish need to take pictures so as to post them on facebook inverts the purpose of experience). For this group, we need to fight, actively, to stave off the harmful effects of heightened communicative abilities. We need self-awareness in the way it affects us, and we need to act on this awareness. Their claims, then, demand the most thought.
The basic claim of the Better Nevers is that the medium affects the message, or in other words, how we communicate affects the types and quality of possible communication. The classic delineation of this theory uses a hierarchical model for the types of communication, with real intimacy and connection as the ultimate goal. On top of the communication pyramid stands face-to-face conversation for many reasons. Not only does the possibility of physical touch, whether sexual or not, add to the connection of a relationship, but facial and bodily cues are an essential part of communication, which other forms obviously lack. On the lower end, lies anonymous chatting because no stakes exist. You need not show yourself, your face, your deformities, or perceived ugly parts of your body, you need not worry about the repercussions of your actions both because of the anonymity, but also because we are likely to do worse things to people we cannot see, or put a name to, in essence to dehumanized people. Their point then, that regardless of any benefits internet chat might provide, whether ease or convenience, or an ability to talk to a larger quantity of friends, is that a relationship that leans heavily on that medium will ultimately result in a more superficial relationship, one that requires less risk, less vulnerability, and consequently, less real growth and intimacy.
In a similar vein, though through a slightly different route, Franzen attempts to show that technology and its proponents are never free of goals and values, or philosophical assumptions. This serves as the foundational assumption of this group. Every technological advance, and its marketing, drags along with it certain philosophical assumptions that we don’t realize slips into our psyche, our viewpoints, and our modes of functioning. For Franzen, the new, shiny, sexy, sleek technology reinforces our narcissism, maybe it even furthers it. It furthers our sense of gratification, of the need for one-sided pleasure as our key pursuit, as it atrophies our love muscles, our ability to truly love. In a sense, new technology, like the Ipad is pornographic, or masturbatory in its purpose to entertain without challenging, to give without demanding, and to cater to ever whim possible with every new model created. Is not simply that we spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet, or on our blackberries, or iphones, or ipad, but the content of that experience, in Franzen’s thinking, leads towards narcissism.
Zadie Smith, echoing Jaron Lanier, author of You are Not a Gadget, make’s a similar point. For her, the problem arises not in interpersonal relationships but in that amorphous zone of intrapersonal relationships. Facebook, for example, changes the way we view ourselves. Computers cannot capture the full complexity of a human being. When we try create a biography of ourselves, a digital personality, we inevitability do a disservice to ourselves. We know this gap exists between who we are and our identity on the Internet, but Smith claim’s, that with the pervasiveness of Facebook, we can easily begin to forget:
"In Facebook, as it is with other online social networks, life is turned into a database, and this is a degradation. We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”? Lanier wants us to be attentive to the software into which we are “locked in.” Is it really fulfilling our needs? Or are we reducing the needs we feel in order to convince ourselves that the software isn’t limited. Jaron Lanier’s point is that Web 2.0 “lock-in” happens soon; is happening; has to some degree already happened. And what has been “locked in”? It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)"
In one sense, it’s hard to take these literary writers completely seriously for numerous reasons. First, their claims rest mostly on anecdotal evidence, usually not supported by research, and give off the hint of exaggerated worries if not catastrophic thinking. The end of identity! The end of real love! Chill out, you guys. Second, their worrying contradicts so many of everyday experiences. I don’t know many people who live on the Internet, and I still continue to feel the challenges of love, and of real relationships. I do not feel a tectonic change in my identity, or in my modes of expression. (Maybe you feel otherwise.) While I do agree that the medium affects the message, always, we do not communicate solely through the Internet, nor is the Internet limited by the uses we put it to as of today.
Not that we each don’t feel their points at all, because on some level, we do. For example, for all the good Facebook might accomplish, who among us has not felt the shower inducing creepiness of stalking an attractive person on Facebook. You don’t know them, you kind of do, but you don’t actually know them. But you now know they loved, looooved Petra, they look good in a bikini, at least in those two pictures, but not as good in a tank top, they spend a lot of time engaged in Yoga, they apparently like to drink and dance etc. (for the most part, our pictures on facebook tell the same stories…) Of course, the question of voyeurism is irrelevant, because on a definition level voyeurism must entail a lack of knowledge on the other party, while here people post pictures to Facebook, but the effect on the person, the dirtiness, on the expectations of a person, on how they feel is real and considerable. And who amongst us hasn’t realized that we cant possibly be that important to need to check our smart phones once a minute, sometimes more.
What we can take from these writers is the need for attunement to these issues, for awareness to the possibility of their truth. For each person the extent and type of effect will differ, but merely becoming aware of how this affects you is a step to greater awareness, and to a greater ability to choose. As is stands, most of us hopefully do not think about Facebook or their phone to the extent that these writers have. But that is the job of the writer: to focus on small details of life with intense concentration usually saved for the holier moments of life. We can reap the fruits of their labor. Maybe Facebook doesn’t limit the boundaries of our identity in totality, and maybe your obsession with your new Ipad doesn’t take away from your relationship to your significant other, but maybe it does in a myriad of small ways, or maybe you can begin to relate to technology in a different manner. In a manner that is more social, or in a manner that is more creative and active. Maybe technology does make demands of us, though not as explicitly as birds, or human beings. Perhaps technology demands that we use it responsibly, that we use as a stepping stone for connection as opposed to a digital society unto itself, maybe technology demands that we give back to what we take from.
I imagine that for the bulk of those 20-40 year olds, we feel most attuned to this issue. For those younger than us, questioning Facebook would be like questioning TV for our generation. It’s so obvious, so entrenched, so impossible to live without, that most of the next generation can barely remember a time without Facebook. They can try to imagine what it’s like, but they are imagining from inside a framework. (For them, I suppose these challenges are all the more poignant, but I cannot speak to their experience.) For many of us, we can contrast a time with and without Facebook, to us we can sense the strangeness of it all, and consequently, I think we are most free to choose how we interact with these new technologies.
I hope to elaborate on all of these points in the next post.
Thanks for reading.
If anyone is interested in some of articles that describe the psychological research on the effects of the Internet on well-being, send me an email.
Additionally, I find some interesting articles, poems, short stories through my Internet obsession that, though not relevant to the topic at hand, I think you will enjoy them.
This article describes the forefront of the continuing debate about the nature of consciousness - http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/09/mystery-consciousness-continues/
This article, written by Louis Menand, reviews two new books that attack the viability of our current model of college education - http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/06/06/110606crat_atlarge_menand
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5428036 - This is a very short story by Amy Hempel. She is a fabulous writer known for her minimalist, meticulous style. The story, at about two pages in length would appear to be a lightweight, but if read carefully, it will hit you hard.
Here are two poems by the author Jorge Luis Borges. I find the first one interesting, because for such a complex author, his poem of his basic desires sounds so simple and human, bordering on the clichéd, but the second poem, a more complex poem is just gorgeous.