Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is Facebook Ruining Your Life?

All new technologies have their proponents and their detractors. And all new technologies have good and bad sides. Nothing is all good or all bad. The question is whether the benefit outweighs the detriment, whether you gain more than you are willing to lose.

Even the printing press, a great advance in technology, was bad news for professional scribes. And the mechanized loom, a boon to those who had better things to do with their time than make clothes for their families, caused much pain and suffering among textile artisans.

Like other technologies Facebook has both good and bad points. While I agree with William Deresiewicz that Facebook encourages teenagers to live their lives as public performances, and that this is not a good thing, I also believe that we should not be so quick to denounce it as ruinous to personal friendships. Link to his article here.

Deresiewicz's strongest point is this: "Now we're just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back."

While I agree that this public-performance aspect of Facebook is disconcerting, I am loath to say that a teenager sending a picture of Central Park is waiting for someone to confirm his very existence. That is just one rhetorical flourish too many.

And while I agree with Deresiewicz that displaying intimacy in public is a bad thing, I do not accept that the child sending a picture of his bedroom wall is engaging in pornography.

I am, as I have mentioned before, much more concerned about the damage sexting can do to vulnerable teenagers. Perhaps I am mellowing with age but I believe that much of what teenagers do on Facebook is like trying out a new toy or a new game. Such trials involve good and bad, but if we are not going to allow young people a fairly free reign to try out the new, then we risk becoming a nation of old scolds.

Deresiewicz has written a very long, and rather intricate analysis of Facebook and the meaning of friendship. His thesis is that Facebook "friendships" are "cannibalizing" true friendship, the sort that existed in the good old days before we had modern technology, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution.

His article has a veneer of intellectual sophistication that makes it feel more persuasive than it really is. Take the following few sentences: "[Facebook and its avatars] [have] accelerated the fragmentation of consciousness, but they didn't initiate it. They have reified the idea of universal friendship, but they didn't invent it. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone. We may pride ourselves on our aptitude for friendship-- friends, after all, are the only people we have left-- but it is not clear that we still even know what it means."

In the guise of intellectual sophistication the author has produced high-toned snark. Whatever does it mean to say that friends are the only people we have left? Tone aside, Deresiewicz' reasoning is rank sophistry.

What does he mean by the fragmentation of consciousness? First, he is talking, reasonably enough, about the effects of the Industrial Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution fragmented small communities. Unless you are the last living Hegelian this is not the same as fragmenting consciousness.

In his words: "As industrialization uprooted people from extended families and traditional communities and packed them into urban centers, friendship emerged to salve the anonymity and rootlessness of modern life." Surely, he is correct here.

Given that young people have unparalleled opportunities to move around the nation and the world in search of education and opportunity, why is it a bad thing that they attempt to keep in touch with those whose lives they have crossed along the way?

Actually, Deresiewicz's main grief is with capitalism. He appears to believe that there is something bad about the fact that we do not know the people who grow our food, sew our clothes, and manufacture our furniture.

Strange idea, to say the least. If we lived in the kind of small, primitive village where we knew all of these people personally, our standard of living would be drastically reduced. However much philosophers imagine that the non-fragmented consciousness of primitives is a natural glory, the fact remains that living in such conditions imposed hardships beyond what any of us would be willing to accept.

And then, whatever does Deresiewicz mean by this notion that Facebook reifies the idea of universal friendship. Of course, anyone who uses a notion like reify wants you to know that he is identifying himself as an advanced critical thinker.

The word "reify" means treating a concept as an object. But who do you know who believes in the concept of universal friendship? Since friendship is a voluntary association, making it universal is simply absurd.

Given the nature of our interconnected world most of us would be contented to learn how best to get along with people from different cultures in order to do business together and to grease the wheels of international trade and commerce.

These practical considerations have nothing to do with worshiping at the altar of universal friendship.

Deresiewicz closes the passage I quoted above by declaring that perhaps we do not even know what friendship means any more. This is pretentious and presumptuous. Unless you are a philosopher you do not need to know the true meaning of friendship in order to be a good friend. Friendship is a practice; you either know how to do it or you do not. As Deresiewicz explains well later in his article, friendship involves ethical behavior.

Knowing how to play the game is not the same as knowing what it all means.

While Derexiewicz does understand Aristotle's analysis of friendship-- friends seek out the best and seek to bring out the best in their friends-- he seems to believe that this highest form of friendship is the only one.

While we should all have best friends, life cannot possibly be limited to those nearest and dearest to us. As I would put it, there is a hierarchy of friendships in everyone's life, ranging from BFFs to mere acquaintances. It matters that you can share intimate secrets with someone you trust, but it also matters that you can walk into the dry cleaner's and recognize the person who is going to press your suit.

Even though Aristotle thought of friendship as the most important of social ties-- because it is voluntary and involves the practice of virtue-- Deresiewicz seems to look in horror at the fact that two lovers would call themselves boyfriend and girlfriend and that spouses would consider themselves to be best friends.

He seems to suggest that by using the term for relationships that involve something other than the highest virtue we have cheapened the notion of friendship. Aristotle was not as squeamish; he saw degrees of friendship.

Better that we base human relationships on friendship than on blood ties or sexual connections. The former leads to tribal cultures and racist institutions while the latter leads to constant and fruitless drama.

Deresiewicz, however, sees friendship being cheapened by Facebook. Malevolently it produces a situation where, in his words: "We can be friends with whomever we want, however we want, for as long as we want."

But if friendship involves mutual consent, then, by definition, you cannot be friends with anyone you want, however you want, for as long as you want.

It is fatuous to pretend otherwise.

More importantly, Deresiewicz complains about the virtual circle of friends that we gain when we join Facebook. There is good and bad to his perspective.

Deresiewicz suggests that people are being fed the illusion that their Facebook friends constitute a social circle. Since it never crossed my mind that my Facebook friends formed a circle, I am not sure that I understand his point.

Let's read his analysis: "To imagine that they added up to a circle, an embracing and circular structure, was a belief, I realized, that violated the laws of feeling as well as geometry. They were a set of points, and I was wandering somewhere among them. Facebook seduces us, however, into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group."

Again, this is rhetorically pretentious, and, I am tempted to say that perhaps this is his experience, but it surely isn't mine. I am glad to discover that circles have a circular structure, but am not so sure that social groups embrace people.

Then again, I am no longer a teenager. If I had to venture a guess I would say that a teenager who a has hundreds or thousands of friends on Facebook does not imagine that these form a social circle.

Deresiewicz seems to beleive that circles of friends were invented within the last half-century. Obviously, this is an error. Fraternities, social clubs, quilting bees, informal pub gatherings, even religious congregations are as old as the human species.

What is new about Facebook friends is that their connections are often more virtual than real. Here our author makes a good point.

But why not consider it more a challenge than a detriment.

I am not as confident as he is that these Facebook friendships are a substitute for real friendships. On the evidence of my own experience every night of the week restaurants in New York are filled with young people, all of whom are surely on Facebook, congregating at restaurants and bars to socialize.

If the noise level is any indication it seems that they are not having any great problem conversing with each other.

I can even imagine that their communications on Facebook give them more to talk about.

As for teenagers who spend their evenings working on their Facebook pages, would it be better if they simply watched television. I remember a time when right-thinking citizens believed that television was ruining our minds and our lives.

1 comment:

Meridith said...

I'm not convinced Deresiewicz understands what Facebook is fundamentally about. I think he mistakes the platform for being about friendship when, at it's core, it's really a platform for communication and connectivity. I also think he takes the notion of Facebook "friends" too literally. No one who uses Facebook considers everyone in their network or list of friends to be "friends" in the traditional sense of the word. In making that assumption, he insults the intelligence of a large population of Facebook users. Although I may not be "friends" with everyone in my Facebook network, I do believe the application facilitates friendship by helping people stay in touch and allowing people to share what they're doing and thinking. I don't see anything wrong with that.