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.
Zadie Smith, “Generation Why?,” New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010
Smith’s musings on The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg, and Facebook are worth reading, but the moments where she does that old person thing — you know, where they purse their lips and claim they’re just identifying, not decrying, change — are baffling.
These parts about her feeling that she’s different from the kids coming up are instructive, but perhaps not in the way she thinks. She says it’s because the Internet has changed us, but I rather think it’s the opposite. She’s different from us because we know how to deal with Web 2.0, and she thinks it’s something unable to dealt with.
There is a certain type of argument that, the moment we begin to make it, warning bells should ring in our minds. That is, if we believe something — new technology, art, the media — is making people do something, we should ask ourselves how it is that we few Cassandras are unaffected. Are we better than the masses? (If your automatic answer to that question is “yes,” then fall back homie.)
Quotes like this one of Smith’s fail for me because they don’t match my experience of reality:
But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed.
Something that is not a mystery: My Facebook profile contains some lies. They’re not big lies, and they’re there as jokes, not deception. One says that I’m married; if you look further, however, you’ll find me admitting I’m married to the sea. Another (unless a redesign has omitted it, which it may have) says of my music listening preferences, “I don’t really listen to music.”
The first lie has fooled people. At times I’ve been friended by people who have met me but not yet got to know me. Every now and then, as I get to know someone better, they’ll ask me whether I actually am married.
I’m not trying to disrupt Facebook with these mistruths, but the fact that I have created some kind of disruption pokes holes in Smith’s theory. I am still a mystery. I am not my Facebook profile. Facebook didn’t shrink me. But it didn’t shrink the people who don’t tell lies on their profiles, either, the ones who diligently fill in all the information the site requests. That’s because we live lives that aren’t Facebook. (I, for instance, have a Twitter and a Tumblr!*) So that’s why it just seems baffling that Smith thinks something like this is insightful:
Is it possible that we have begun to think of ourselves that way? It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook.
No, you probably can’t, but can you feel the pleasure of unexpectedly reconnecting with an old friend on a typewriter? Can you encounter satisfying anger using a microwave? On a telephone, can you have that feeling of quiet wonder experienced while browsing an art gallery and coming across something marvelous by an artist of whom you have never heard? No, because the typewriter, the microwave, and the telephone are pieces of technology designed for a specific purpose. Just like Facebook. Owning telephones didn’t stop us browsing art galleries, and nor is Facebook denuding anyone.
*Old People: That was a little joke, voila.