To what do I owe the pleasure of speaking with you today? In sequential order I attribute technological credit to: writing (Which Socrates thought would compromise the powers of the mind) and the printing press (Denounced by Christian theologians to be the be the work of the devil) or, depending on how you are reading this, the Internet (the current whipping boy of social commentary).
Generally, I owe this opportunity to many facets of life affected by a large degree of “mechanization,” the hot button word in Andrew Kaplan’s opinion piece from last week entitled “Facebook Mechanizes Friendships, Relationships.” In summary, he lays the blame for shallow, unrewarding social relations to the advent of Facebook and its social “mechanization.” He essentially argues that the medium is altering the message for the worse. The solution, it can be assumed, is to halt the use of Facebook.
In the same way that an environmentalist calls for a blindly idealized realization of a back-to-nature vision as the sustainability scientist sits in front of them trying to wipe the stars out of their eyes with a bundle of scientific studies that suggest otherwise, we may now sit with a self-satisfied smug of contempt for the dawn of social media and let the underlying problem ignorantly bubble under out feet. Picking a new technology to complain about seems to be the enduring historical and modern pattern of public commentary. These mechanizations and how we use them, however, are symptomatic and not causative to what is being hailed as superficial relations. If anything, Facebook is just the hyperbolic gene expression of the problem that has been in our social chromosomes for all of time.
Has it not, for one thing, gone eerily unnoticed that the effect that mirrors have on us is almost paradoxical? The time one has in front of the mirror is resolutely time one has with one’s self and yet it is put to use as time used in preparation of dealing with others and their perceptions of you. Absurd, no? How often does one really sit down with one’s self besides those precious reflective minutes before descending into sleep, to go spelunking in the mental darkness? There are few of us that go in there, fewer who live there all the time and even fewer who bring it out into the light for others to see.
I think of my favorite portion of Jack Kerouac’s infamous roman-a-clef On the Road where Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) described his recent time spent with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) illustrates the opposing phenomenon quite well: “Dean and I are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honestly an absolute completeness of everything on our minds. Sometimes we stay up for two days getting down to the bottom of our mind… We sit on the bed, cross-legged, facing each other.” Facing each other and facing them selves, it is at once one of the scariest and most exhilarating experiences possible because in deeply talking to another you must deeply talk to yourself, sincerely.
Although we may not have the courage to bear ourselves to another beyond a passing, clean and clichéd “Hello! How are you,” fake smile and other such default graces, we still deeply crave the connection. Hence, in conjunction with the economic demands and technological advances of the developing times, we now have the metropolitan and hi-tech separation of people into boxed realms that duplicate the denied socialization.
Cars allow you dramatic radio shows and audio books; living rooms provide an endless televisual landscape of 30-minute dramas of human connection; iPods make these amenities portable on even public transportation. Like a computer chip, like clicks on a Facebook page, roads and sidewalks are like a circuitry, not a place to enjoy the company of others, but as “in-betweens” to a “somewhere.” In fact, it almost comes off as garish if someone has an interaction with someone in the middle of a trafficked area while we all listen in to our mediated bits of commoditized human drama. These privatized means of feeling a social connection is the result of the dominance of one set of social values over another in the attitudes leading up to these infrastructural changes, not the result of a technology creating a set of values. We all primp in front of the mirror in an unspoken assumption of what appearances are acceptable, of what social connections are appropriate to be presented, walk in straight lines, feel confused when someone smiles at us or – egads! – strikes up a conversation in a long line beyond a comment on the weather.
We may now gaze upon our hundreds of Facebook friends with a superficial satiety – look, we say, look how any people I know! – and please ourselves with the 24 hour trivial ping pong game of the newsfeed. Of course, the anonymity of the Internet, dropped of the consequences of identity, is opening up connections however shadowed in the corners of cyberspace they may be.
At what a bruising and exacting price that we commit this safe loneliness to ourselves, a life-long season of self-imposed blight and betrayal that cannot fail to leave sad yearning that not even the television, or any level of mechanization can entirely pacify! I personally boast two of my best friends on the outreaches of the Internet with which I may be as tone deaf as I please with regards to social conventions and graces and laugh with like a virtual mélange of Internet whores (vulgar because it’s real) whose keyboards are ripe for infinite tapping in the cyber web mansion of You Tube-ian aficionados and Blogosphere addicts. I can only recommend that if you see a teeny glint of another soul that you recognize yourself in, virtual or not, you reach out and grab it with whatever “mechanization” you might have. Be it a click or a hand, reach out… sincerely.