Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reflections on Social Networking by Computer: Living From Our Smallness

If you have not read it, I highly commend to you an article (in the November 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books) by Zadie Smith, entitled Generation Why? 

The article offers some review and commentary on the much discussed film The Social Network, and also includes some bit of review and context from You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jerome Lanier.

Zadie Smith amazed me by putting into print a lot of the discussion I have been having (with myself in my mind, and with peers) about being part of the "Facebook Generation". The title grabbed me, first of all: why? Is all really about networking? What do we get from sharing what is often most banal of our daily existence with our list of friends?

Not much in the way of substance seems to be my answer and Smith's.

I don't ultimately think this lack of substance is horrible, but I do think that if one seeks deeper and more integral relationship with family, friends and other travelers on this grand journey of ours, the first place one can count on not finding that is on Facebook.

Once again, I can feel the outcry "Luddite! Luddite!"

Not at all, not at all. No, not so.

Here are the things I really like about Facebook: I have been able to reconnect with people I knew in High School and elsewhere. There are people that I really wanted to keep in touch with, and it was a shame that we all lost track of one another when we went off to university, got married, moved away, such and so on, etc. I love being able to see what people have done in their lives. It is marvelous to be able to "chat" with people in other parts of the world. To share recipes and jokes. Possibly the biggest plus is to get the earliest report of some critical national or international news happening from someone closest to the scene.

But, as Ms. Smith points out in her article, all this had been possible before Facebook, and is possible now through various other computer options. While Facebook is touted as being all about networking, it is really all about taking our "personal information," mostly in the form of our likes and dislikes, and forwarding this to various parsing agencies that will, over time, bombard us with offers based on them. In other words, it is not about promoting brotherhood and sisterhood, but about promoting sales.

If you are a member of Facebook, you don't have as many choices as you might think you have for controlling the your personal information, and what is available reaches a wider audience than you would imagine. You might not want to have everyone be your friend, first of all. And you might not want to have some of the quips you share with pals be shared with absolutely everyone you know and all the people they and their friends and family know. But that happens, and we have no control over it. We are at the mercy of our most unguarded moments on the internet. And it is can be hilariously laughable, such as this very funny BBC satire of Queen Elizabeth as Facebook member.

Hilarious. Laughable. Okay, now what?

The internet was invented to be a tool for the free exchange of information, but, to some extent there is nothing free about it, and what is being exchanged is our personal dignity. Why? Because all of our cute (or not so cute) little quips and quirks live on and on, even after we have departed from the internet or, indeed, the world. Zadie Smith recounts that the FB "wall" of a murdered British teen had notices from people to the deceased, as if she was still alive or would be checking her FB account from the grave.

I have not seen The Social Network, yet, and I am not sure that I particularly want to. Yes, I am sure that the portrait of Mark Zuckerberg is slanted in a particularly vile way, and I am equally sure that Zuckerberg is the kind of geek that lives from and through his computer.

There is a smallness about boiling the human brain and heart down to binary code in "if-then-else" language parsing. I have not read You Are Not A Gadget, by Lanier--but I plan to, based on what Zadie Smith has shared in her NY Review article, and what I see in an excerpt made available by the publisher through the New York Times. It is clear the book is a reminder that being is much more than the sum of parts. Here is a quote from Lanier's book: "Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality."

Facebook can only ever show an extremely limited portion of our reality. It boils us down to the smallest we can be, for as many people as want to view that. This is not where revolutions will be fostered, or world peace, or very much, indeed, in the way of achievement. Marketing and sales are likely all we can expect of Facebook. And what we share there, discreet or indiscreet, will be "carried forward" into whatever fad the next computer generation cooks up, networking or otherwise.

We'll never be able to live large or deeply on Facebook. And, thankfully, we don't have to live on Facebook at all.

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