Digital Lives of 2.0 People, Not Locked In But Extended Out

Reviewing the movie The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto in this month’s New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith warns readers of the perils of social network sites like Facebook where “life is turned into a database.”  According to Smith, Facebook “locks us” into a system designed by a college nerd to resemble “a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make ‘choices’ (which means, finally, purchases).”  Smith writes:

“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced.  Everything shrinks.  Individual character.  Friendships.  Language. Sensibility.  In a way, it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.  It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

Smith worries about her students and other “2.0 kids.”  She contrasts “1.0 people” who use social media tools to connect with others in an outward-facing way with “2.0 kids” who employ them to turn inward and towards the trivial.  2.0 people, Smith fears, are embedded in the software, avatars who don’t realize that “what makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.”  She wonders: “what if 2.0 people feel their socially networked selves genuinely represent them to completion?”  In Smith’s view, Mark Zuckerberg tamed “the wild west of the Internet” to “fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul,” risking the extinction of the “private person who is a mystery to the world and–which is more important — to herself.”

Smith’s review recalls Neil Postman’s critique of television culture and Benjamin Barber’s warnings about contemporary consumerism.  While television helped us amuse ourselves to death and pervasive pop culture produces shoppers, not thinkers, social network sites turn youth culture into over-sharing, unthinking, eager-to-please avatars who “watch the reality-TV show Bride Wars because their friends are.”  Yet this can’t be the whole story.  Whether 41 or 21, social network participants live in the real world, integrating their online activities seamlessly into their daily lives.  Far more goes on in social network sites like Facebook than sharing information to “make others like you” as Smith suggests.  On Facebook and other popular social media sites, people join groups of every stripe.  They work, as Miriam Cherry’s terrific new article Virtual Work addresses.  They build  reputations in ways that can enhance offline careers.  They join study groups.  In many respects, social media sites provide platforms for genuine participation far more than just Government 2.0 engagement.  Far from deadening the everyday citizen, social media platforms can resemble Alexis de Toqueville’s town meeting, John Dewey’s schools, and Cynthia Estlund’s workplace.  Of course, citizenship participation online is different–it is not the face-to-face interaction envisioned by Toqueville, Dewey, and Estlund.  But even with the challenges brought by internet-mediated interactions, 2.0 kids are more than denuded avatars.

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4 Responses

  1. While I think Smith’s “argument” is rather blunt and hyperbolic, I also think it’s quite a stretch to imagine “social media platforms can resemble Alexis de Toqueville’s town meeting, John Dewey’s schools, and Cynthia Estlund’s workplace.” Face-to-face interaction brings with it a wholly different dimension of human intercourse and quality of relations than is available through these technological media. And I suspect the more individuals are socialized along the lines of the latter than the former (assuming, not implausibly I hope, that the sheer amount of time online makes embodied participation less likely), there will be a real dimunition in the frequency and quality of human interaction in spheres that represent a valuable liminal psychological and social space between the intimtate realm of the family and the public realm of conventional mass media and politics. Purely speculative on my part, but I imagine a corresponding decline in the performance of the social graces and forms of etiquette that are in some sense both the foundation and expression of ethical sensiibities, at least insofar as they represent the discipline of human passions and the proper display of emotions. Indeed, how does one learn to correctly incite the emotions of others, to understand their feelings, to “read” their characters, to appreciate and be affected by the “wisdom in [a] person’s heart,” without lifelong immersion in embodied forms of personal intercourse, from the most intimate to the most public realms of social life? How does one learn the fine arts of argumentation and rhetorical persuasion when wholly involved in and enamored of these new information and communication technologies? Are these truly “tools for conviviality?”

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    On the conviviality point: Illich believed the telephone was convivial — and that at a time when AT&T was still a monopoly — because the phone company couldn’t control how you express yourself with it. Of course, telephones are used to set up face-to-face meetings, whereas some of the other communications tools are used in lieu of meetings, etc.; but it doesn’t seem a slam-dunk that the new technologies aren’t convivial, in the terms Illich defined in 1973.

    But otherwise, and despite not necessarily being as adept as Patrick in knowing when I’ve crossed the line into a liminal space versus otherwise, I generally agree with his point. A couple of other aspects of this post bothered me, albeit that I speak as a 0.3 person (“social media” being for me email, what’s called in Japan shamēru (sending photos by email from your cellphone), and a passive acceptance of LinkedIn invitations from people whose names I recognize, which means not quite 30% of them).

    1. “integrating their online activities seamlessly into their daily lives” — Danielle mentions this as if it’s a Good Thing, but is it, necessarily? Here in Japan, where cell phones and services on them are far advanced compared to the US, I see plenty of couples out on dates where one or both people are staring into their own LCD screens. And while the sound of “excuse me” (“sumimasen”) on the street and in the subway was like the constant patter of a soft rain when I first started coming here 15 years ago, a generation trained on the Internet and earbuds has dried that up. Perhaps someday what currently-middle-aged people like me consider rudeness will be accepted as a norm, but should we be so relativist as to believe that nothing has been lost in the meantime? I don’t mean to suggest, either, that politness is the only aspect of social life to suffer.

    2. I didn’t find Miriam Cherry’s article at all encouraging on this topic. She seems to think that “virtual work” is great because it promotes efficiency. May I suggest that, baruch HaShem, this is not a universally shared value? (And that, probably far more than any of the virtual stuff we’re discussing here, it has been corrosive of the quality of life in America?) I suppose I’m doing virtual work when I type in those twisted alphanumerics to assert my humanity on certain websites. (My understanding is that I’m helping to clear up someone’s OCR glitches — or is that just an urban myth?) I certainly don’t feel any solidarity with my fellow workers as a result. Nor would any of them bring me back local liqueur from a trip to Yerevan; nor loan me $10 for lunch because I’d forgotten my wallet; nor carry their first grandchild around the company lunchroom like he was a scroll on Simchas Torah; nor, as I mentioned in connection with another post a couple of days ago, buy me and everyone else on the floor a pastrami sandwich just because they were so excited about a new deli they’d discovered. Yet real-life colleagues and bosses have done all of the above and much more. As for Prof. Cherry’s tale of a company that pays Mexican workers to slay dragons in a virtual game in order to obtain virtual “objects,” which are then resold at a profit to First World gamers (@11-12) — is that supposed to be heartwarming?

    3. A couple of writers, albeit pre-Twitter/Facebook and unfortunately not yet published in English, suggest some other causes for concern. Nicole Aubert distinguishes three ideas relevant to how we relate to IT innovations. Instantaneity refers to how the Internet, cellphones and other devices give us instant access to huge flows of information too big for us to digest. Immediateness refers to the fact that we can now get results without having to wait for them. Then there’s urgency, the feeling that we have to act immediately. She points out that we often feel that a situation is urgent, when actually it isn’t — and that the source of this false sense of urgency often is precisely the instantaneity and the immediateness that IT provides, such as when you feel the need to respond to an email, chat or tweet. (Of course, in growth-oriented capitalism, a corporate “sense of urgency” is often regarded as a Good Thing.) Philippe Breton identifies “interactivity” as a problem, something very similar to Aubert’s “urgency”. But he does so in the specific context of acquiring what he calls “democratic competence”: democracy requires forming considered opinions, and doing that requires reflection and listening. Interactivity threatens democracy because it robs us of the time and habit of forming considered opinions. For a generation (perhaps the first of many) never to acquire this habit is not a cause for rejoicing. Especially because online media have another pertinent feature, their tendency to amplify what would otherwise have been mild and transient perturbations. Case in point: the recent buzz in some of the current social media “online townhalls” in China and Japan favors declaring war on the other country.

  3. Interesting stuff A.J.

    I put the phrase “tools for conviviality” in quotes (and did not specifically mention Illich) to signal that I did not mean to use it precisely in Illich’s sense: I like the expression because we might imagine sundry tools that do in fact facilitate or enhance conviviality, even if they’re not the specific tools he had in mind or if our definition of conviviality does not exactly match his. And it’s a step toward providing—or just one example of—non-market criteria that we might employ to assess (ex ante and ex post) the value of a particular technology.

    By the way, I read in a Wiki article (hence I have no idea if it’s reliable or not) that the inventors of the computer were inspired by Illich’s book!

  4. As always, Patrick and A.J., thank you for your thoughtful responses and (without knowing) help on a project of mine. Helen Norton and I are writing a piece entitled “Online Intermediaries and Hate Speech: Fostering Digital Citizenship in the Information Age” (forthcoming Boston University Law Review 2011). There, we consider the important role that online intermediaries play in bringing together diverse groups. Offline zones of participation like the associations, school, work, and town hall have online components mediated by private entities such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and the like. Citizens interact in online spaces, often supplementing their real space interactions. Student activists gather after class and online in Facebook groups; workers meet in the lounge and in online social networks; etc. These sorts of fora make discourse possible. Now, the store, marketplace, barber shop, school board, and town meeting are joined by Facebook, MySpace, and other similar mediating institutions.

    Yet, as Patrick and A.J. so astutely note, while digital environments garner more of our interactions, they can degrade them given online anonymity, immediacy, and absence of social cues. Indeed, the ethical sensibilities that Patrick invokes are in jeopardy in those spaces. Hate speech can be a manifestation of those problems.

    Online spaces of interaction have great promise to bridge diverse communities and foster participation but present the difficulties that Patrick and A.J. identify. The more that students, workers, and members of associations inhabit those spaces to interact with each other, the more that they face these challenges. Without a sense of civic virtue and civility, citizens interacting in digital spaces can morph into a online mob calling for war or the death of groups, see Kill a Jew Day Facebook group or Kill the Beaners online videos. With guidance and facilitation, citizens might instead have interactive debates on tough issues without devolving into calls for destruction.
    Online intermediaries have an important role to play in helping users appreciate the challenges of digital citizenship and in negotiating them.

    Hopefully, I will be blogging more about these issues so that I can get your feedback!