Facebook made a fool of me, and of us all. This so-called ‘social media’ is—like so many things in this Orwellian age—the very antithesis of sociability. Orwell would have shuddered at the ‘doublespeak’ but then we live in an age when that seems to be the media’s primary mode of communication. War=peace. Freedom=slavery. Black=white.
How has Facebook made a fool of me? By turning me—and all of us—into numb consumers of trivia. By appealing to our vanity, making us think someone on the other side of the world will care when we get up and have our morning coffee, or get a new pet, or have some promotion to sell, or pet cause to push. The cacophony is deafening. And it’s actually rewiring our neural circuitry—not necessarily for the better. The Internet itself as a medium—as every tool in our history has done—is shaping us. The tool shapes the shaper.
In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, Nicholas Carr crunches the hard scientific data of neurological studies to prove that this is not just alarmism or a Luddite rant. “The constant distractedness the Net encourages… is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking when we’re weighing a decision,” writes Carr. “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.” As just one authority on the matter he quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich as saying that “our brains are massively remodelled” by our constant immersion in the rapid-fire, short attention-span milieu of the Internet.
The consequences for the literary culture that brought us the past 500 years of refinement—since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press—are potentially dire. With the superficial reading induced by the Net displacing the more thoughtful, integrative reading of book culture, we are at risk of losing the advantages of classical literacy. “The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention,” Carr conjectures, “will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite.” In other words, to the state we were in before books could be made available to a mass audience. Though I’ll refrain from speculating as to political motives here I will say this hardly seems like an accident.
Already, Carr observes, we’re seeing more ways in which the tool is shaping the shaper. Not just in our reading but in our writing habits. He notes how three of the top bestselling ‘novels’ in Japan during the late 2000s were ‘cell phone novels,’ written collectively by people texting each other. These had little of the conventional plot structure of novels and the language of necessity was spare, barren of depth. In fact, barely deserving of the term ‘novels.’ Then we have the ‘writing’ that is done to communicate via Facebook, Twitter and other antisocial media. “As social concerns override literary ones,” says Carr, “writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favour of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.” (italics mine) To be fair, I’ve already seen a lot of this in the prose reductionism of our mainstream creative writing schools.
But I evade the question that forms the thesis of this essay. How did Facebook make a fool of me—and all of us? Carr doesn’t delve much into the social costs in his book but let me offer some observations. For thousands of years, humans have communicated mostly face-to-face. With the advent of the letter, we learned to communicate in written form, then with telephones, via sound over great distances. What all of these communication methods had in common was a human element that made the interaction vital—living. When speaking face-to-face, we observe—subconsciously—such vital cues to meaning as facial expression, gestures, and tone of voice. Although we miss the visual cues with telephones, we still learn much from the audio cues we receive. When people wrote letters they had been trained well enough to express themselves with clarity and depth—varying depending on the individual of course.
With Facebook and other antisocial media, all these cues are missing. All we have is a line of truncated text, out of context. If we’re reading a text message, we don’t even have full words or proper sentences. I’ve seen and sadly been exposed to some nasty exchanges via Facebook simply because someone misunderstood something I’d written. Being humans, once we feel misunderstood we often lash out. This leads to an equal and opposite reaction from the other party until—well you get the picture.
How has Facebook made a fool of me? I’ve tried to inject serious debate into what is by design a trivializing medium. Due to the so-called ‘enrichment’ of text on the Web, the proliferation of video and hypertext links, the medium has fragmented our consciousness. “The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention,” Carr writes. It’s no wonder we can’t read a simple sentence on a Facebook page and get the meaning intended by the writer. For one thing, there aren’t many cues. Worst of all, it has divided us further from one another.
I’ve always been one to challenge received notions. Why believe something just because you were taught it, or because everyone else does? Yet some times when I’ve tried to spark a lively intellectual debate, it has been perceived as a personal attack on the person to whom it is directed. For that, I am truly sorry. I try to choose my words carefully, and yes, sometimes they get away on me. But never have I set out to attack or defame anyone. Yet I have repeatedly found myself embroiled in what I call ‘Facebook wrangles’ where the emotions of all concerned—including myself—get out of control.
Until we either devise a better medium or learn to impose some social strictures on the medium of digital communications, we are at risk of further social division. This can only serve to further alienate and isolate us—the supreme irony of the era of supreme ‘connectedness.’ The age-old strategy of divide and conquer. Hmmm… wonder who that benefits?
So it’s time for me to disconnect from antisocial media. ‘There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent,’ the old proverb says. For me, now is the time to keep silent on Facebook.
See also Kim Goldberg’s post, Why I Deactivated Facebook. It was Goldberg who put me onto Carr’s groundbreaking book. http://pigsquash.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/why-i-deactivated-facebook/