Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

11 November 2010

Is Facebook Doing Us In?


As an ex-scientist and sometime engineer with a lifelong love of technology, I find my own attitude toward Facebook troubling. I have an account, but I hardly look at it anymore. And when I think deeply about its social, political and economic impact, I begin to feel like an evangelical contemplating the anti-Christ.

Why, you might ask, does this new “technology” raise such revulsion in a person who has used and programmed computers for nearly 50 years? Let me count the ways.

First, it’s a massive distraction. Before I made a browser filter to send its incessant messages directly to their own directory jail, I would get several messages a week, asking me to approve a new “friend.”

Now I’m from the old school. I take friendship seriously. So what should I do on receiving a message from someone I’ve never met, who purports to be a friend or relative of someone I know, or a friend or relative of a friend or relative of someone I know? What do I do when I think I might remember the name, but it also might resemble one of the thousands of people I’ve met, heard of, or read about in my 65 years? Can I reject someone (and possibly give offense) without serious thought and wracking my memory? Can I accept someone whom I don’t know and whose future messages might be distracting, boring and/or annoying?

Properly responding to a request to “be friends” takes some thought—far more than deleting spam, which takes mere seconds. So I settled on filtering the requests and sending them all to a dead file that I may look at someday, perhaps if terminally ill. For me Facebook is a thing that stole lots of my time, mostly uselessly, before I learned to ignore it. I keep in touch with my friends—and sometimes rediscover old ones—by individual e-mail.

Facebook’s second cardinal sin is that it trivializes everything. It’s not entirely Facebook’s fault. After all, it’s just a new medium. Maybe it’s not entirely responsible for how people use it. But it violates what I call the “law of the tribe.”

Some years ago, social scientists and psychologists discovered an interesting fact. We humans evolved in tribal groups of about thirty individuals. That’s the size of “village” for which we are hard-wired, and with which we are most comfortable. Skilled politicians and teens enamored of Facebook may be able to remember thousands of names and the faces that go with them. But they can hardly know all the histories, characters, attitudes, beliefs and habits behind those faces, as they would members of their family or tribe.

In getting us to believe that our 1,000 or 10,000 “friends” on Facebook have any real social or psychological meaning, Facebook leads us to live a lie. Of course we can have no real relationship with that many people. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. That’s true even for a retired person like me, let alone youth that should be busy with learning or adults who should be gainfully employed. All we can do with “friends” like that is count them, as Silas Marner did his pieces of gold.

And there’s the rub. Facebook “friendship” becomes a numbers game, a quantitative contest, just like our twisted economics. Quality and human feeling count for nothing. Quantity is all. The one who has the most toys and “friends” wins.

But of course “friends” on Facebook are not the same as real friends. Many a teen has learned that lesson painfully when “friends” have turned on him in an instant, based on a secret told or a clever lie. Real friends of course don’t do that.

For a grounded adult, these ciphers’ betrayal means nothing. No grounded adult would consider them friends or rely on them for anything real. But in a Facebook-influenced adolescent society, desertion of these ciphers can cause loss of self esteem, depair, even suicide. And so we try to solve our youth’s inability to understand friendship with civil actions or criminal charges against “cyberbullying.” How pathetic!

As in social life, so in economics and politics, my third point. Have you ever seen a Facebook posting run more than one or two paragraphs? I haven’t. What passes for economic or political “discourse” on Facebook is the electronic equivalent of bumper stickers, which Twitter has made an electronic art form. Anyone who thinks any good will come of this dumbing down of the national psyche, especially among youth, is seriously deluded.

The reductio ad absurdum is the “like” page. With the click of a mouse, you can express your “liking” for a person, a business, an ideological position, a candidate for public office, or a nation. So thorough, so nuanced, so deep.

This “liking” processes reduces us to pre-adolescent children trying to be “popular” at school. No one who delights in these moronic “elections” ever stops to think how easily the questions are slanted by clever wording, omission of opposing views, or bold lies. Most of those who record their “likes” have no instruction in propaganda and no idea of the power of modern public relations. They would be hard-pressed to write a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent paragraph. They therefore have no clue how much these “like” pages can advance the agendas of demagogues and dictators. Eat your heart out, George Orwell!

My fourth and perhaps most important reason for despising Facebook is conformity. In everything it does, Facebook empowers the crowd over the individual. Its raison d’être is belonging. “Do you want to belong?” it screams. “Join your ‘friends,’ or you’ll be lonely, left outside.” Big Brother never had so potent a tool of psychological pressure.

Yet all our great advances in human thought came from individuals who were mavericks, misfits and loners. From Archimedes and his “Eureka!” scream while running nude from his bath, through Martin Luther, Newton, Locke, Adam Smith, Darwin, Einstein, and Jefferson, to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., it has been people sitting alone in their rooms, just thinking by themselves, that brought us out of the caves.

Of course these great thinkers had friends and colleagues. Of course they exchanged ideas with their peers and read the works of their intellectual forebears. But their flashes of insight, which immeasurably advanced our species, were solipsistic affairs, the product of their lonely and focused concentration. And (except for Luther’s legendary notice tacked on the church door) the works in which they expressed these great thoughts were book-length, not bumper-stickers on a Web page.

No new ideas ever came from the crowd, for thinking is not a social phenomenon. Thinking “outside the box” is even less so, because the crowd’s pressure to toe the line of conformity is relentless. The more Facebook organizes more of our youth into crowds and mobs of varying sizes, the less likely we will be to see any new breakthrough in human thought. In the long run, this relentless pressure for conformity will give “unwired” societies a social evolutionary advantage over ours.

The final reason that Facebook ultimately turns my stomach is technological and industrial innovation. People blithely call Facebook and Twitter “technology.” But they are not. The programming that lets them depart from from the average Web page is unimaginably trivial, pedestrian and obvious, at least to anyone who knows how programming and computers work.

What is new about these sites is their twisted social and/or business ideas. They recognize that crowds and mobs can form spontaneously on line, that people can be tricked into considering this process “friendship,” that people (primarily adolescents just leaning social skills) might be interested in (even obsessed by) each other’s random and truncated thoughts, that political factions can use this sort of medium for propaganda, and that a select few can make obscene profits from all of the above, without anyone suspecting how quickly the process might poison real human culture. Facebook and Twitter are to healthy social and political life as unregulated derivatives are to a sound economy.

Many things going on in the world today constitute real technology and innovation. They include fabricated pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering, nano-manufacturing, robotics, electric cars, the batteries for electric cars, windmills, solar cells, solar thermal power plants, second-generation nuclear power reactors, and the smart grids and devices to tie all these things together.

These things are real technology and innovations, existing or in process. The nation or region that first perfects them will wax successful and rich. Nations that fall behind, as we are in the process of doing, will become stagnant and poor.

But Facebook and Twitter are none of these. They are pedestrian applications of well-known computer-programming techniques for entertainment and advertising. When they masquerade as leading-edge technological innovation, they subvert our sense of wonder at real discovery. They are distractions from real industrial innovation and investment in them, which are vital necessities if we are to regain our manufacturing base and restore our economic health. The investment they attract is largely a waste, however rich it may make the investors. They are the technological and industrial analogue of “American Idol” and reality shows on television, or a new form of advertising. Calling them “technology” just debases the word.

To the extent Facebook and Twitter are content-free, their blank pages could be used for good. Scientists might use them to collaborate, or disenfranchised voters to coalesce and form a new political party. But there are better forums for these purposes, more minutely adapted to their unique needs. In its advertising, incessant self-promotion and common usage, Facebook has an entirely different purpose: to feign the feeling of “friendship” and belonging in the most transient and superficial way possible.

If the anti-Christ did come to Earth, seeking to destroy the bonds of genuine human feeling and cooperation by parodying and diluting them in the most effective way—at the same time empowering the worst forms of mob psychology—he could hardly do a better job.

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