Monday, June 6, 2011

Where do we go from here?

Though I clearly tend towards a xanaxed version of the Better Nevers, I think it is important to give credence to the Never Betters, and to attempt to glimpse what a different style of engagement with the internet and its attending technologies would look like. Sadly, for the first part, I cannot speak confidently about clouds, or the technium, or virtual reality, the singularity, or really any of the cutting edge technological advances, but that's not to say that there aren't many intelligent thinkers who do see the Internet and the proliferation of new technology as the next step in evolution (whatever that means).See - What Technology Wants: Kevin Kelly's Theory of Evolution for Technology ( What's more interesting is Jaron Lanier. Lanier, an insider to the internet community (the real Al gore of the internet), seeks to not only diagnose the problems, but attempts to provide answers to the pitfalls of these advances.  

First, Lanier, from his Manifesto You are Not a Gadget on the problems in social media:
"Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of person-hood. MySpace preserved some of that flavour, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other forms"

Disregarding Lanier’s exaggerated comparison to religious or governmental abuse of power, Lanier’s point echoes many of the complaints we’ve already heard. However, Lanier then provides a set of loose guidelines in an attempt to make our interaction with the internet more creative and more expressive of our complex identities. Though he lists six, they all essentially fall under the same conceptual rubric of breaking out of the confining chains of thoughtless, derivative, conformist usage, and bursting forward with creativity even within the confines of the “locked in” software. If you find yourself using the internet as a form of escapism, or to hide, then fight that urge and err on the side of transparency, individuality and creativity. Realize you are always more than your likes on Facebook, your posts on twitter, or the unfiltered, often anonymous thoughts you throw out into the abyss of the internet:

• “Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
• If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
• Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
• Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
• Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
• If you are Twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine”.

In many ways, I find Lanier more helpful than the Better Nevers. For many of the more literary critiques, they simply point out problems and hint at the answer of avoidance. Avoid obsession with your sexy new toys, confront death as you turn off your devices, and reconnect to the mystery within yourself through layered, multi-dimensional expression. The problem with these suggestions is similar to the problem of those early critics who simply told us to turn off the TV and start living. They miss the point. TV, and now the internet, is an unavoidable, and an often welcome fact of life.

            Yet, while I respect Lanier’s vision, Lanier's list, in some ways, sounds like an attempt to help the caged bird sing instead of fly away. In fact it sounds downright puerile. A personal website? First off, who makes websites, I mean I love websites, but I don't make them, I mean I did in high school but it mostly consisted of Vince Carter, caught on camera dunking over lesser beings. How's that for individuality?
One gets the feeling that Lanier lacks some self awareness as to the extent of his dorkiness, or the extent of his disconnect from the average person (an aspect of dorkiness). I applaud his suggestion about twitter, but can you imagine a tweet that says - I lost my job. I can feel the darkness closing in, but I take solace in the loving warmth of my family and friends. In some ways we can, but I suspect we would mostly laugh at this person, or feel embarrassed and sad. Emote elsewhere, please. Something doesn't fit or sound right because Lanier seems to miss an essential ambivalent aspect of the new social media.

Social media, in many ways, demands, or creates an environment that fosters superficiality, or at least, the need to hide true feelings. Rightfully so. And yet, even though as Americans we obsess over our right to privacy, given the opportunity we do not flinch at letting the world know we ate lindenberry pancakes for breakfast. Apparently, our desire for the veneer of fame, of stardom, or for simple acknowledgment of our existence trumps our desire for privacy.  Now, all of us live in the public and private realm, and each plays an important role in personality, but social media blurs the borders. If 1,000 people follow you on twitter, or if 2,368 of your friends read your hourly facebook posts then this creates a new, potentially problematic tension between your public and private self. Sometimes, we find the facebook, or twitter oversharers - felt depressed today. When will life get better? Ok, valid feeling, but most people would only say that to their close friends and no one lives under the pretense of 2,368 close friends. We begin to lose our private selves, the ones we slowly cultivate, and slowly share with our close friends, the parts of selves that through sequential disclosure creates intimacy. So much of intimacy, so much of how we gauge closeness of a relationships depends on our level of comfort in sharing with that person, but when you begin to erase that line, you redefine your potential for true intimacy. We forget that unlike joy, true intimacy lessens as we spread it around. Consequently, unless we exercise more discretion with who we friend on Facebook, then the path of emoting seems misguided. If you choose the other route, where your social network identity entails only your public persona then you fall into the limited borders of likes and dislikes, of clever one-upmanship of tweets etc. Hence the celebritization (made up, I know) of our society. Social media capitalizes on our obsession with celebrity and takes the next step after reality tv, in that everyone can attain celebrity status over their own tiny kingdom. (I see the irony of a blogger making these points, but as much as possible, I attempt to stay in the arena of public persona. We often mistake a writers word for their private feelings...) 

Some of Lanier's suggestions then, do not solve these problems, in fact, the exacerbate them especially considering our lack of discernment in who choose as our "friends" or followers in this new digital world. It would be one thing if we only chose our real friends for facebook friends, or if we could create levels, or rooms amongst our hundreds of friends, but as of yet we cannot, and it seems even worse to think that we should, but given these facts, I can't see how publicizing our inner selves to strangers fosters a stronger self. There's a strange quasi-paradox here. We want facebook to be more individualized, but the more individualized we would make the more our private, individualized persona would blend into our public persona.  Lanier misses this point. Instead of espousing methods of personalizing our digital expressions, I believe, we should hope to create art of our lives. This grappling between a public and private persona glides through the annals of time. Besides leaders and celebrities, artists have always acutely felt this problem. They write, paint, draw, film, potentially for millions, and cannot help but put their personal stamp on their works. Readers often conflate a work with the author, committing the "intentional fallacy". We should treat Facebook and twitter the same way a painter treats their canvas, as a medium to express themselves in a way that transcends their personality so that their work becomes universally compelling and not simply confessional or snarky. (Obviously, twitter and Facebook has simpler, more basic, convenient uses: contact with friends, mass invites, humorous quips etc. that are somewhat innocuous, but still part of the conversation.)

Besides missing some of these essential points, I want to tell Lanier that he mustn’t be afraid to dream larger, bigger. Besides revamping, if not remaking completely social media, let's try to infuse creativity into it in a way that doesn't remind you of a lame 9th grade project. Take Facebook albums as an example.
Facebook pictures deceive me every time. I cannot help getting sucked in. I see an album of people on the beach and they are happy, supernaturally so. They all jump in the air, as held by strings, suspended, smiling, as if at the end of a jubilant movie and they are, reaching towards the heaven, floating on their boundless love for their friends. They splash at each other, and then chase one another through the sand, leaving behind fleeting footprints, which they capture with digital memory. Pictures capture what we cannot hold: the illusion of continuous contentment, of true happiness. A slice we cut out of time, and then dip in formaldehyde to preserve that second of un-self conscious joy.

After looking at too many random albums, they become tedious and monotonous.
Like a universal grammar we all have inculcated proper photography etiquette. The range of acceptable stances and poses, faces, and hand positions we can choose from. Without speaking, we have all accepted some quiet contract to band together in a semicircle, mostly based on height, while smiling incommensurately to the experience at hand. Some new collective unconscious of what constitutes enjoyment and fun. Pictures of feet in the sand, splashing playfully etc etc etc.
I want to take pictures of boredom. Of the yawns, of the unhappiness from being on this trip, with the same people, again, of the moment of hesitation before the happy picture. The sound of resignation, the, “harrumph, fine”, we exhale before we smile with cheese. I want to jail the wince of insecurity about my backne and of your butt in that bathing suit, of her legs, and his hair, of the lame unrequited feelings of lust rationalized as love, of the mountain of boredom we (endlessly) fight, and of the shameless joy we experience at even the scent of alcohol. 

Post pictures of the spectrum of your emotions. If you really believe in your online identity then differentiate yourself, then represent the whole of your being. We chafe at this because deep down we know facebook is a chance to limit vulnerability and increase control over our identity management, but we must start somewhere. Show a picture of yourself crying, post a succession of pictures that when clicked on fast enough looks like a movie, something new, and something different.
Perhaps, use the medium of Facebook to write a short story that only comes to life with hyperlinks to other facebook friends, or pictures, who knows, but think big. Maybe create different personas, create a new world within Facebook to explore your identity.  (I realize that emoting on Facebook presents the same tension of emoting on Twitter, but perhaps we can use more discernment towards the friends we choose.)

I don't really have earth-shattering ideas, but I feel comforted that other, more tech savvy people do. To me, I can think of two people, though I know countless more exist, that use the sleek, sexy, shiny technology to revitalize art. The first, an artist for the New Yorker, weekly creates fascinating art through an iphone app. Jorge Colombo, though clearly more talented than the mass of us normals, paves a path for a more symbiotic use of our gadgets. Check out his videos.

The other person, Joel Golombeck, a good friend of mine whose considerable talent and vision casts new light on the artistic potential of interactive art, is in the midst of creating an app that will change the way we read books, and in my mind, this adds new depth to old, dusty stories. His videos and explanations speak for themselves. They provide hope in an otherwise derivative world of sexy technology. Check out his Master’s thesis presentation,,

I believe that part of the key, part of the future of social media, lies not in further blurring the line between your private and public life, but in using social media to express yourself artistically in the sense in that what you express transcends personal emotions and transforms into universal sentiments. One of the gauges of good art depends on this distinction between self-indulgence, and self exploration as a means towards globalization of your vision, your feelings, and that this can be used as a gauge for guiding our use of social media. .

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