FACEBOOK™, PROZAC™ AND HELL’S HALF-ACRE

The authors digesting a Vietnamese brunch.

William wrote to Annette, to Coleridge and the Frenchman – I received a letter from Mrs. Clarkson, a very kind affecting letter, which I answered telling her I would go to Eusemere when William went to Keswick – I wrote a little bit to Coleridge. We sent off these letters by Fletcher. It was a tremendous night of wind and rain. Poor Coleridge! a sad night for a traveller such as he. God be praised he was in safe quarters. Wm. went out, and put the letters under the door – he never felt a colder night.

– Dorothy Wordsworth, from her journal, February 24, 1802

This email thread began when a mutual friend ‘finally’ joined Facebook, and Scott and I began ruminating on the nature of this social media.

January 14: Vince to Scott

Facebook is pernicious, but it fills a need for an atomized ‘community’ (ie. spread across the planet rather than sensibly in one physical location). And it fills the same need even when we live in the same city, where people don’t have the time to ‘see’ everyone they know every day. I don’t see X for months at a time, for instance – about as infrequently as I see you, actually!

So as a Facebook user, I’m not happy to be part of a data-mining experiment, but I like the way FB brings together various things (photo albums, messaging, etc.) that we were doing already in a less integrated way. But what is FB doing to human consciousness? What strange shapes will it be taking? And what is next?

January 14: Scott to Vince

Nice summation of Facebook man, and good questions. I am undecided. It is really good – I mean in the same way that email is really good, for cutting down distances. I have friendships that frankly would not have existed without it.

January 22: Scott to Vince

Hey, a contribution to this discussion in The Guardian.

The article doesn’t go very deep, but it’s interesting to note that there is some negative coverage. The closing sentence (‘Before everyone travelled on the bus or train with their heads buried in an iPad or a smart phone, they usually just travelled in silence.’) seems odd to me – as if we have no short term memory. Before people were on iPhones or BBs they listened to music on walkmans – tapes first, then CDs. And before that, I suspect there was more chatter or at least present-mindedness. My mother tells a story about taking the horrid tram as a young adult in Ottawa, being forced to breathe in the smell of sweat from working girls reaching up to steady themselves on transit.

January 23: Vince to Scott

I browsed the Guardian article earlier today … it is interesting that a number of academics have come out against FB recently. Remember, the internet at first served exactly that community – academics! (I mean, after the Pentagon.)

I think it’s sort of hairsplitting or just minor adjusting that is happening around the new social media networks – people are nervous because there’s no way of telling where it is leading us. But the positive aspect of these media is precisely what I liked about writing letters in the age of snail mail, for instance – the chance to ‘get one’s thoughts down’ before sending them out (blurting them out) – also, the opportunity to maintain friendships long-distance.

I’m reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals (in a book called Home at Grasmere that weaves her journal entries with her brother William’s poems written around the same time) – and their main concern, every day, is getting the mail. Going out on a walk to ‘meet the mail’ – anticipating letters – responding emotionally to letters – writing letters, mailing letters. Social media indeed! (Of course there was also the occasional thirteen mile horse ride that separated them from where Coleridge lived at the time.)

January 23: Scott to Vince

I find it interesting that you’re more or less positive about Facebook. On the surface it seems to run at odds with your sceptical or critical outlook on ‘mainstream’ things. I say that delicately because I don’t think I’m writing it in as nuanced a way as I could. There are many problems with Facebook – it tends to emphasize a kind of narcissism, the problem we have as humans with dealing with new technologies that get the better of us (the example of people checking their iPhones during a funeral being pretty strong evidence that technology’s got the better of us), and of course the very serious issue around privacy and marketers.

I tend to think that as a communication device, it’s no more or less serious than the person using it. You use Facebook to maintain strong bonds with people who are far away, snowed in, busy, what have you. I have managed to have and maintain strong friendships in other cities (Montreal), other countries (the US and Switzerland) because of FB and emails (mostly email, actually). I suspect if it weren’t for email, you, R—, N–, would no longer be friends, but you are, even though we haven’t lived in the same place, in your case, since 1997, R—, since 1992, N– since 1988. Three guys I expect at my funeral not checking their iPhones.

People manipulate its function to serve their purposes (a good thing and a bad thing). For example, I am right now telling you I’m spending the week in New Orleans at a conference, and that I will spend Monday afternoon (when nobody knows I’ll be there yet) going down to the Gulf coast to take photos of the oil spill. I can tell you that I am ambivalent about chasing disasters to get good photos, but also that I’m really excited to see the Gulf and the devastation (assuming I can find the mess – a lot of it has been cleaned up). I can also tell you that I’m spending two days shooting commercial videos for our client, and doing a social media presentation to a bunch of business people where none of the nuance of our FB discussion will be apparent. I can also tell you that I’m about to post ‘Spending the week in New Orleans at a conference, shooting videos and doing a social media presentation’ on my Linked In and Twitter accounts for TOTALLY different reasons and with a TOTALLY different message than what I just described to you. Both are possible, immediate and meaningful in their own way due in part to the medium. The latter, of course, is a manipulation of the message for my own ends (I make my living this way, and it increases, ever so subtly, my value), and the ends of conversing with a buddy (the ambivalent message).

Re-reading your email, I think there is an important distinction to make between the Internet and social media (particularly apps and FB, Twitter). The Internet is open, distributed, very difficult to control. FB, Twitter, and most other services like them, are closed – they are served up by one company and their own server farms. If FB goes down, the internet will not be there to back it up, everything on FB disappears (to us, though the information is still there) when the servers shut off. A better example are those services like bit.ly that shorten links. If bit.ly goes down they estimate billions of links on the ‘internet’ will be broken. The links themselves – not shortened – would still be fine. This issue – the closed nature of social media – is potentially pretty serious.

January 23: Vince to Scott

The reason I’m ‘more or less positive about Facebook’ is that I’m more or less totally negative about the more overarching qualities of Western ‘Civilization’, and so my feeling is that the difference between being alienated on Facebook and being alienated on just plain old email / blogs / flickr / websurfing is a relatively small one. Facebook assuages a pervasive sense of disconnectedness, brought about by an oil-driven hyperculture that spreads people all over hell’s half-acre who are still biologically ‘hardwired’ to live in village / tribal social interconnectedness. It doesn’t solve the problem, it just offers a slightly bigger bandaid than email / blogs / etc., just as those bandaids were slightly bigger than snail mail, telephones, commuter drives … none of it makes our social structure less alienated. We are all Major Tom, ‘floating round my tin can far above the world’.

I think it’s true, what you say, that Facebook is ‘closed’ where previous stuff was ‘open’. And it’s a datamining thing, of course. And it is doing strange things to our old compartmentalized concepts of ‘private’ and ‘public’, not to mention ‘past’ and ‘present’ (when you are suddenly back in communication with people you haven’t actually talked to for 20 years). That’s what I mean by its being a huge social experiment of which nobody can imagine the outcome.

I’m not worried about ‘losing everything’ if and when FB fails, simply because I don’t keep anything of great value on FB. The photo albums are all copies of jpgs I have on my hard drive and elsewhere. The texts are ephemeral (although apparently there’s a way to download them!). It’s not a thing that we ‘have’, as such, FB is a constant series of flows of information.

Facebook is here because we need it. It fills a need created by our living in an already highly artificial, technological environment. Nostalgia for a ‘simpler time’ when we didn’t need these things is a very real and very important feeling, in my mind. But to get rid of the need for Facebook, we’d have to get rid of a whole heck of a lot of other stuff. There are movements in that direction – notions of ‘permaculture’, ‘slow’ culture, hand-made crafts revivals – but for now the main thrust of our ‘civilization’ continues to be in exactly the opposite of the direction I think makes sense.

January 23: Scott to Vince

When I said ‘losing everything’, I didn’t mean it in a metaphorical sense – it is a true distinguishing feature of FB versus the internet. FB exists on FB’s computers. The internet is distributed among thousands or millions of computers. There is a movement afoot – I need to study things like this – to bring about more “human” social networks. One of which, I don’t remember which, asks you to “host” a portion of the service on your own server. They are directly addressing this issue of FB being a “hosted” platform by distributing it. Interesting idea, unfortunately I doubt many people understand/care that FB is on someone else’s computer. Tom Berners Lee is upset but nobody seems to listen to him much anymore.

I think you’re right about hyper modernity and life being oil-fueled and alienating. I live it everyday, and yet bonds of friendship – let’s for the sake of argument talk about our friends in Wakefield (20 km from our house) – are still so important to living a good life. Slow food – as in, I cooked the Christmas ham for 9 hours – goes with this kind of friendship. Playing music together. Shooting the shit, hanging out in each other’s hot tubs (wish I had one), going for a cross country ski. When I’m down – which happened in a big way a little over a year ago – this stuff brings me back.

But the alienation is really serious. My friend Emily wrote a book called Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude a few years back – a kind of memoir/research piece, the style often used by Americans when talking about ‘personal’ subjects. It touched on some of these themes, making a careful distinction between loneliness and depression. I kept on feeling like a book called Alienation should be written because it’s exactly that. Anything that humanizes helps but so much that humanizes comes, in the current situation, at a great cost.

I read the other day a story about anti-depressants in the St-Lawrence River, coming from Montreal’s sewage treatment plant. Tiny quantities, but enough to be found in the tissues of fish. In the article, more or less in passing, they mentioned that 25% of Montrealers are on anti-depressants. 25% – now there’s a social experiment to rival Facebook. Holy fucking shit. Imagine if they found, which seems likely, that anti-d’s (this is a term used in parlance on the subject) damaged soft tissue, say your liver, or your brain, and that it affected 25% of the population. It would be like ‘thalidomide society’ instead of babies. That on top of the fact that wow, 25% of people feel it necessary (or have had it foisted upon them) to take pills to address what ails them. And what is that exactly? Stress, speed, fatigue, lack of real communication, bad diet, no exercise, too much screen time, not being able to connect with those around you, substance abuse, bad childhoods, the list goes on but oil fueling quite a few of them. 25%. And you’d think Montreal was a kind of ‘happy’ place, what with the partying and general level of laughter and gregariousness (compared to, say, Ottawa, where the overall culture is very closed and rather sad).

Hobsbawm just wrote a book – How to Change the World which talks about Marx’s continued impact (what it is, what it should be?) and I wonder if that’s still the place to turn to begin to find a different way, or at least an avenue to help us understand just how badly everything is fucked up.

January 24: Vince to Scott

Ha! I saw that article about the fish too! And had the same though, ‘Hmm, funny they only mention in passing that A QUARTER OF THE CITY IS ON PROZAC.’

Perhap another quarter of the city is like me, smoking dope until they realize they’re not doing anything productive anymore … drooling over the Facebook newsfeed and watching the YouTube links.

I went to Words and Music at the Casa recently, which was a ‘real’ event with ‘real’ people … my favourite piece of the night was Kaie’s commentary on being mugged, in which he (almost inevitably) referenced Facebook, eliciting a knowing chuckle from the audience.

But my ambivalence stands, probably because I’ve always been this bashful type who feels more comfortable hiding behind words in print than in a face-to-face situation. Hence the ‘love of letters’ (’tis a literary life) which, once that died out in the nineties, led naturally to email which led naturally to Facebooking.

If an alternative to this whole alienated mess ever comes up, will I even be able to recognize it? Will I be able to plug into its matrix? Will I be able to parse its interface?

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One comment

  1. David Pieklowski · 15 Days Ago

    Great information thank you so much

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