Systems were made for men, and not men for systems, and the interest of man which is self-development, is above all systems, whether theological, political or economic.
C.H. Douglas, Economic Democracy.
Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, recently posted a short editorial that has absolutely provoked the most horrifying response from the general population of the internet. In his short piece, entitled “The Twitter Trap”, Keller shares his own insecurities concerning the current direction and development of communication in the age of Facebook and Google (and everything else). Of course, he has provoked more ire than I have seen directed at a writer in some time. Of course, from where I sit, the irony is that the exact sort of dismissive, content-less communication that makes Keller uneasy (and, to an extent and in my opinion, rightfully so) has come forth in a flash flood, drowning out any meaningful discussion and leaving us with our crowd-sourced consensus of superiority. I’ll get back to that in a bit.
I wanted to make clear that this isn’t really about “taking a side”, but about examining why such a successful, media-driven individual would feel uneasy in our current sea of communication. It’s far too easy to knock Keller down as a “Luddite” or to call him a “troll” and ridicule him into submission. It takes a far more honorable person to actually examine the concerns and problems raised while maintaining a distance allowing for as much objectivity as possible. I have found the response to the article to be simple mind-boggling, if not completely expected. Keller attacked us. He threw a bit of pudding at his classmates at lunchtime, and now we have an epic food-fight on our hands. The metaphor hardly ends there, as, just like a grade-school food-fight, it quickly becomes not about individuals, but about how much tomato sauce you can pour on as many people as you can. In the glory of current trends of conceptual-personhood on the internet, we are neither singular nor easily-bound defined as a personality. To quickly explain, I can say that I am any multitude of persons in my life as a citizen of the ‘tubes. My Facebook shows my casual, friendship side; on LinkedIn I’m all professional and quick to the point; Twitter is an internal monologue brought to public space; my Google searches are a cache of my inquisitive mind and my desire to continue expanding beyond the borders of my own self.
In the end, we’re becoming “more than a person” in any classical sense. We’re becoming the very technologies we employ to represent us. And this isn’t something that can be argued to be either inherently good or bad.
Now, the point that I would like to get across is that I believe Keller’s premise to be somewhat solid. At least the premise is as solid as a short bit of editorializing can be without a full-backing of sociological support. The issue comes with not being able to see the trees for the forest. We can peer out into our extremely convoluted communications and see just that: a messy tangle of information that both obscures coherency and makes available a wide range of immensely different points of view. There is nothing inherently bad about any of this.
But what an author doesn’t speak of is almost always what the problem becomes. Some members of the internet community have snapped-back at Keller for being a “troll” or for not understanding modern communication. They are able to exhibit a certain smug, completely consequence-free chance to tell the Executive Editor of the New York Times that he’s a moron and that he must be stupid, himself. This is the first problem: the tautological concept of the self. You see, in our current cultural trends, we accept that I equals I (I=I). There is nothing to characterize ourselves except that we characterize ourselves. We are all unique and no one is the same (though we have similarities) and no one is different (but we do have differences). We are all “I”. This concept, immensely Western, is at the heart of our social media. And it isn’t freeing.
Secondly, Keller disappoints in that he declines to discuss the motivations for such trends.
And this is where everything gets messy. I’ll take a subject that individuals reading here should care about: poetry. I am always struck by the contradiction that 1) our culture doesn’t value poetry, and 2) that our culture now produces more poetry-for-consumption than ever before. Through social media and the instant communication of the internet, we have more access to more poetry than ever before. Gone are the days when poets were a professional rarity. Anyone can get a blog and pass around work on Facebook or read the entirety of the “classics” from the instant-comfort of their home. We are drowning in poetry. Yet the strange part is that no one seems to care aside from poets. When I was back in undergrad studying with Carolyn Forche, we would sometimes come upon the too-often repeated joke that “only poets read poetry”, and this is both a ludicrous statement and a very astute observation all packed into one. The concept that both producer and consumer of a poem are, in some quantum-esque relationship of the self (remember that I=I), the same thing is devilishly telling of the disregard our culture holds for poetic verse. Practically speaking, it hints not at the reduction of poetry-consumers to a small, static group of poets, but that it expands the entire field of verse to include as “poet” any individual who enjoys poetry and therefore, they themselves become poets. Let’s face it: poetry holds the lowest bar of minimum skill for entry. Any individual with a half-decent education in the English language can produce something. In comparison, to “be a painter” requires a barrage of special, specific technical skills which bar many from entering into even the lowest rungs of the ladder. Anyone can get a hold of a notepad, pen and basic instruction in language. Putting together a studio or darkroom or recording setup takes money, and often a lot of money.
We have emerged, over the last twenty years, from a culture of limitations to expression to a culture of limitless expression.
But it goes even further. We exist in a sort of willful blindness to the fact that our social media and instant communication does come with a price. That price is that while we become more and more enamored of our place as “self-important individuals” we look past the limitations on our own persons placed by the very tools of social interaction we now laud and claim accolades for their innovation. It doesn’t matter if it is Facebook or Twitter or Google, our social interactions exist within a specific form at a specific space and in specific ways. This is, again, not an inherently bad thing, but if there’s anything to be gained from this understanding it’s that we’re far, far less in control of ourselves and our culture than we would like to believe. Facebook, the be-all-end-all for individual branding, still doesn’t recognize things like polyamorous relationships. It mines and sells (or leaks) our data to advertisers and other companies. We’re beginning to see the most recent contradiction of our limitless expression in the form of targeted advertising: Google and Facebook, for two, are working very, very hard to be able to advertise and solicit for you and only you. While the concept itself is interesting and quite exciting, the theoretical point remains that we have a symbiotic relationship between ourselves and social media. They need us to create their content and populate their advertising space by creating expressions and representations of ourselves as concrete-individuals, and in return they reinforce our social construction of the self in ultimate tautology of I=I. In a way it is the greatest act of alienation we have yet to see. We are all individuals with an immense connection to unthinkable other individuals. We’re also, concurrently, becoming islands of self which set the stage for hubris of immense proportions.
So, we’re left with a world where so many voices scream that it becomes difficult to find any sort of guiding trend in our cultural philosophy. Everyone is right (or entitled to their opinions) and everyone is wrong. We have transcended not morality or ethics, but personal responsibility. Keller harps on about the intellectual damage we’re doing to ourselves, and I’ll admit that our entire concept of knowledge has shifted drastically (more severe than in any other time, truly). Yet that is example of the good that crowd-sourcing can and will bring. Wikipedia is now bigger, better and faster than any print encyclopedia. Yet when it comes to philosophic and “guiding” movement (i.e. the ability of a small group to influence the development of a field or mode of thought), we have handed our communal and social development to the hands of bodies which do not care about philosophic or theoretical development.
It becomes and remains a question without decent answers. Is Twitter making us stupider? yes and no. Does the barrage of raw information create a decidedly low playing field for intellectual pursuit and common-person discourse? absolutely. We have aggregators who protect us from the drivel, and we have Facebook to tell us how we structure ourselves and who take copyright for any activity we partake in over their structure. We have Twitter to limit our thought into concise 140-character blurbs. We have all of this, while the providers of these services do little to improve the quality because quantity is far more important to any company’s bottom line.
And the most damaging of all isn’t any of this: it’s that these conditions necessarily have created a distrust for, and disinterest in, exploring our ever-changing concept of truth. Perhaps most importantly, Keller’s painfully short bit of writing betrays the problem that our “limitless expression and freedom of information” is on a long-leash, but a leash none the less, in the hands of corporations which care not for the advancement of communication or human ideas, but their own bottom line. Not the past, present or future has any sort of idealized perfection, and we would do well to heed some caution over our communally greatest asset: our ability to cooperate, communicate and create.