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Facebook and the Degradation of Personhood

Behold homo sapiens lashed on the wheel of the digital social network: held frozen over a computer which is tied by a cord to a wall wherein the fiberglass cable carries the message; staring into the lit screen, the face pale in the unnatural light; or, with head bent in the street, the appearance sullen, running fingers across the blinking object of desire.   The creature is secretly harried: Constant updates are necessary, the user must tend the machine whenever and wherever possible – which is all the time and everywhere – and god forbid there is too long a lapse in the slipstream.  On Facebook, new friends and old are counted – may they always increase in number!  Some are in fact “friends,” in the now rotting sense of the word: the person who is to be confided in, who listens, cares what to listen for, knows secrets, keeps them, knows who you are to the extent that a friend can – the friend as he or she who might look into your eyes and, with affection and even love, claim to see the windows of the soul.

As we know, however, many Facebook “friends” bear no relation to how we want to understand the term.  Perhaps known to the user at work or at school in the flesh, yet they cannot be counted as real friends.   Some are strangers, known only via the interface of the machine, attracted to the user by an algorithm calculating the databit “likes” and “dislikes.”

Let’s forget for a moment that Facebook is probably the most ingenious info-aggregator yet invented for governments to spy on citizens.  Forget that the citizens are willingly doing the work for the intelligence agencies in building the database.  I worry about the matter of efficiency in friendship.   Facebook makes friendship efficient, in the manner of the assembly line, which is exactly what friendship should not be – if it is to remain human, if the friend as person is not to be degraded.   Friendship is dirty.  It’s difficult.  It smells – it sometimes has bad breath. It’s unpredictable, and sometimes hazardous.  The issue is about persons and about friendship defined, for if we are to take Facebook seriously, then we must recognize that the form of friendship it is promulgating will by technologic necessity reduce the nature and meaning of the friend.   Personhood on the Facebook page can only go so far.  It is a managed self.  It is degraded personhood.

I watched my daughter in Christmas of 2010 using Facebook.  I had never seen the social network machine in action.  Lea is 15, lives in a suburb of Paris with her mother, bored to tears like all suburban kids, and of course has perfected a Facebook personality.  Many pictures of herself, and friends, at parties and events attended, and much else: commentary on this or that pop culture item of interest – musical acts for the most part, but also the usual amalgam of commodities sought after.   I watched for a moment and then, abruptly, she shut it down, want me to see no more of the Facebook self.  I wondered how many “friends” she had, but she wasn’t talking.

A few months later, in the springtime, she was in Utah, in the town of Moab, where I used to live and where I return every few months or so to hide out and write in a cabin I rent from a friend.  Moab was once a lost little place in the desert.  Today it is invaded by people like me, who want to be in a lost little place and who thereby nullify each other’s desire for solitude.   Lea had a Blackberry, courtesy of complaining to her mother or grandmother – I never got a straight story as to who gave her the gift – but of course it had no signal at our cabin.  Disconnection today is a wondrous event; it’s almost like being punched in the face.  To be shut off from the global chatter, to not have to field the unending course and scrum of digital information, to be human in the primary sense of being merely person to person – this is what cabins in Utah are now apparently made for.   Lea and I sat in this informational darkness and ate big American breakfasts in the morning and lazed about in the afternoon sun and read books – she with “Lord of the Flies” – and went on hikes in the long spring light, carrying extra water but no cell phones.

Still, the connection was sought, and we were both sad little addicts.  Wherever there was wifi – at the neighbor’s house nearby the cabin, at the library in town, at the restaurants – I wanted my e-mail.  And Lea looked to connect and find the latest news on Facebook.  Being a hypocrite – having gathered up my own email and touched on my “friends” via the simpler (Lea would say archaic) interface – I chided her about Facebook.  She didn’t laugh.   This is a 15-year-old.   Social connection is tragically important.

Yet she admitted there was something not quite right in what Facebook asked of her.  “Facebook is good,” she said, “but it’s weird too.  You have to be constantly social,” she said.  “But with people – with friends – you should also have” – she’s bilingual in French and English but here searched for the right word – “some kind of recule.”  Recule meaning a stepping back, a moving away.

“Okay, recule,” I said.

“You’re not always there, you’re not always connected. You have your own experience. That’s what vacation is for.  You’re apart.  And then you come together and you talk, you know, face to face, and you tell everybody what happened on the vacation.”  Weird indeed, Lea.  You sound like a Luddite.

Would that there were more like her among the adults.  Not a week goes by that people who I’d otherwise consider mindful and intelligent do not fail to invite me on to Facebook.   Which prompts the immediate question: Why would any mindful and intelligent person be on Facebook?  I have a friend in Brooklyn, admittedly a vulgarian and not much in tune with the melodies of political correctness, who considers Facebook the province of “people standing in mirrors tarting themselves up and bullshitting and mincing around.  Facebook is the biggest waste of time since television.”  The man has a point.   Facebook is the ideal venue of expression for a society in which narcissism, as Christopher Lasch long ago pointed out, has become the rampant personality disorder. Facebook as sociopathology, as a symptom of social disorder and disease?  Perhaps.

Back in New York City, after three months of marginal grace in the cabin, I am confronted again with the mass of my fellow humanity carrying Blackberrys, SmartPhones, i-Phones, i-Pads, i-Pods – these electroplastic appendages without which modern survival is apparently impossible.  The urge is grab the things, with banzai scream, and smash them under my boot.  An intolerant, and intolerable, attitude, and certainly anti-social.  Still, there is something at once pitiful and repulsive – nauseating – in so many fellow human beings doing the same thing with the same electroplastic appendage hooked up to the same global network: the hand outstretched with device cupped, the eyes locked on the singular object, hooked into the Singularity. The appendage, always making some sort of rude noise demanding attention, appears to be doing the living, the leading, the looking, and the human holding it is afterthought, necessary only to point it like a divining rod to determine the next step forward.  A savage dropped from the sky into the city would say it looks as if the user is servicing the machine.

I read an essay by one Damon Darlin, a “technology editor” at the New York Times, who makes the classic argument of the technocrat, the scientific manager, that the benefits of efficiency trump whatever cost to humanness imposed by new technologies.  Probably a perfectly decent person, Darlin has at the same time clearly replaced his mind with a microchip.  He writes how he “learned to stop worrying by loving the Smartphone.” “For most people,” he writes, “a smartphone will change their lives and most likely for the better.”  And what are these “improvements”?  Poor Damon is “never lost” anymore in New York, or, presumably, anywhere that he can get a signal – the machine tells him where he is.  He is “never bored” – the machine entertains him.  He is “never without an answer” – the machine provides the answers.   He “never forgets anything” – the machine remembers.  “Google,” he writes, “begins to substitute for my memory.”  He writes that the Smartphone “can help us recall events in our own lives.”  The machine, says Darlin, becomes “an auxiliary memory of everything I do.”

To never be lost or bored or forgetful or without answers is to be something less than human. That Darlin’s article was not satire, indeed was grimly serious, is an indicator of how far along we’ve come in the degradation of personhood to make the machine look useful.  Yet his thinking is the gospel of the age.  It is a demented vision of human life, a form of technology-induced insanity – accepted almost totally as the norm.

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s and many other magazines, and is currently working on a book, “The United States Must End,” which advocates the dissolution of the US. He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out next year from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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