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Fr. 650

July 9, 2015

Yet this experience of flattening or reduction is not without its appeal. In it, the person goes from meaning many different things for smaller groups to meaning very little to the many. Smith elaborates:

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.

The liberating sensation proves, for the author, fleeting and largely meaningless, reduced to the point of having stripped everything that was worthwhile in the perhaps decadent, modern sense of self. There remains, however, much more to be said on just how Facebook in particular takes this demolition work too far. Consider the kinds of information that the network’s own format makes salient, that to which it calls attention before all else, particularly in comparison with fiction:

Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees. Fiction reduces humans, too, but bad fiction does it more than good fiction, and we have the option to read good fiction. Jaron Lanier’s point is that Web 2.0 “lock-in” happens soon; is happening; has to some degree already happened. And what has been “locked in”? It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)

Whereas fiction often calls attention to strengths, failings, even quirks of character, both independently of and in relation to archetypes, Facebook proceeds directly from an archetype of its own making and without the deeper roots of those found in the literary tradition. A person is an entity who exists in a highly specifiable emotional connection to another, can provide evidence of its social activities, and, perhaps most strikingly, enjoys certain kinds of media: “movies, music, books and television”. Interests falling outside of the above take on a heterodoxical character and are, at best, captured in the user’s belonging to one of any number of user-created groups (information not immediately presented to users perusing the profile in question).

Precision, exteriority, mass media, recognizability: such are the dominating traits in Facebook’s vision of personhood and self. It is perhaps just these traits to which the author reacts so strongly and this from a personal vision of self. Indeed, Smith briefly sketches personhood as diametrically opposed to the above all the while acknowledging that possibility that it belongs to another time:

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. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve. Of course, Zuckerberg insists selves simply do this by themselves and the technology he and others have created has no influence upon the process.

This conclusion provides much in the way of rich contributions to the topic under discussion. What purpose does the person as mystery serve? For all images of self serve one purpose or another. Perhaps we might link this to the rise of the literary imagination in bourgeois culture and its “decadent” views of personhood. For this reason, we could further suppose with Smith that this image no longer suits the world of today in which this imagination has less and less cultural currency.

Moreover, this would prove in keeping with the evolution to which the author gestures, albeit briefly. Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self makes a similar case with the development of the modern sense of self. Yet Smith’s closing remark recalls one important fact to be taken away from the ongoing experiment and experience with social media. Namely, self does not merely evolve from inside stimuli but is keenly attuned to outside pressures from the social and natural worlds. Indeed, Zuckerberg’s views on the matter are belied to a great extent by the works of such contemporary theorists as Foucault for whom all manner of media and controls represent so many technologies for work on personhood and the self. Far from being inert and substantial or autopoietic and aloof, personhood and self stand as flows, rhythms (à la Barthes) with which any number of factors can interfere.

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