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Is facebook turning us into machines?

January 11, 2010

As we saw here yesterday, a lot of the critical reaction to ‘Avatar’ is animated by anxiety about how much of our lives are now lived online. This anxiety is widespread. For example, William Deresiewicz’s essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education throbs with anxiety about friendship in the age of facebook. “We have given our hearts to machines,” he says, “and now we are turning into machines.”  The essay actually has many more threads than this Luddite slogan might suggest. Some are really interesting and some are tired, but in the end I think that if Deresiewicz’s piece shows anything it’s that, more than machines, we should be afraid of each other, of the human herd, of becoming animals.

First of all, if you’re going to talk about friendship it’s worth distinguishing several things that travel under that name.  There’s deep friendship, the one-to-one connection between two heroic souls exemplified by Achilles and Patroclus, Montaigne and Etienne La Boetie. There’s group friendship, where the connection is more to the unified social entity than to any of the individuals it comprises. (The discussion of group friendship is one of the real strengths of the essay.) Finally, there’s acquaintance friendship, what you have when you’re merely friendly with a person. In cosmic terms, deep friendship is clearly most valuable, group friendship second, and acquaintance friendship a distant third. There’s always been this hierarchy; it’s foolish to delude oneself into thinking that back in the good ol’ days all friendship was deep friendship, though it may well have been more common, or at least more commonly aspired to.  Moreover, all three forms of friendship have always been susceptible to pettiness and self-interest. There is in every case the potential for relationships based on superficiality, though deep friendship is no doubt the least susceptible of the three.

Now everyone knows that being facebook friends isn’t the same as being friends full stop.  Facebook friendship maps most directly onto mere acquaintance friendship, and is to that extent just a newfangled name for an old phenomenon. It would be silly, then, to protest facebook on the grounds that facebook friends often share nothing more than a passing acquaintance, because that’s what they are–acquaintances.  At most facebook is guilty of a too-liberal use of the word ‘friend’. But this is pretty harmless, and excusable considering that facebook is the best tool ever created for maintaining acquaintance friendships.

For his part, Deresiewicz steers clear of this semantic trap, but some of his criticisms are similarly suspect. For example, he thinks that facebook tricks us into somehow believing that digital representations of people are, or are as good as, real people.  We’re like children playing with dolls, convinced that the dolls are real.  Deresiewicz says that these digital dolls are:

simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

But Deresiewicz never considers that facebook might be as little a threat and as much a means to real friendship as baseball cards are to a real love of baseball.

Absurdly, Deresiewicz also thinks that reconnecting with old friends through facebook threatens to erase, overwrite, and corrupt our memories of those friends: “The past should stay in the heart, where it belongs.” In its maudlin way, this is true enough.  But if it’s an argument against facebook, it’s also, as Deresiewicz himself points out, an argument mementos, snapshots, and reunions, all of which wreak far more powerful effects on the memory than learning the current occupation, interests, and favorite TV shows of an old friend from summer camp.  In fact, if you want that badly to live in your heart and not the real world, then you should take comfort in the fact that facebook offers only superficial connections.

Some of Deresiewicz’s other criticisms are far more cogent.  Because facebook displays all your friends in the same place, it encourages the cozy illusion that your friends form a circle of friends, that your friends are all friends with each other. It’s an astute observation, but the problem might be largely solved with a simple change to the facebook interface: just group the user’s friends together only when those friends are themselves friends.

His most penetrating observation is about publicity.  Facebook puts us all on a permanent stage before a permanent audience. Even if that audience is made up of our genuine friends, indeed our circle of friends, it still forces us to take on a certain roles. Nothing wrong with role-playing as such–it’s essential to group friendship. But there is something wrong with too much role-playing, because deep friendship requires more. You can never form soul-on-soul bonds when you’re always playing to the crowd, no matter how friendly it is. Deep friendship needs to develop in a sphere of privacy.

So the real danger of facebook is that it makes us into herd animals. It may be wonderfully heterogeneous herd, but it’s still a herd.  We each of us may assert his or her individuality, buck the trends, but when we do it’s always with thoughts first and foremost of how it will play in public, as a status-update, as a badge to be displayed on our profiles. This hardly seems like becoming a machine, as Deresiewicz suggests. We succumb to our lower natures, but not to mere mechanism. Instead, we submit to forces of social cohesion, the forces that make us take an instinctive, insatiable, prurient interest in the lives of others, that make us gossip, that make us want to uphold or defy the group for its own sake, and that in different ways hold together bands of chimps, stone-age tribes, and circles of friends. Far from inhibiting friendship (at least group friendship), facebook may be all too successful at whipping up the potentially dangerous forces that lie underneath.

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