I am alluding to writer Zadie Smith, the literary fiction star whose 2000 book White Teeth became a sensation even before it was published. Ms Smith has written a review of the movie The Social Network in the NYRB. She shudders at the proliferation of internet based social sites like Facebook and their soul sapping effects on real relationships. Without declaring it in so many words, she clearly implies that Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook and possibly also some of its users, lack the empathy and the "personhood" of relating to flesh and blood human beings and the capacity for forging face-to-face, side-by-side friendships, thus verging on being autistic in their social skills. That conclusion seems to make her very sad and almost panicky. A couple of excerpts:
What Lanier, a software expert, reveals to me, a software idiot, is what must be obvious (to software experts): software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible.
True, technology is philosophy altering, as were reading, writing, telephone and photography once upon a time and as also television and space travel have been, more recently. But exactly how scary is the advent and popularity of the internet?
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned....
I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX
When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual? ...
But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.
Hmm.. I guess it does seem very scary to Zadie Smith. I have opined on internet tools a few times and Facebook in particular, at least once. While I am not in any great awe of cyber networks (I am counting blogs among them; after all, we heard some of the same grumblings about the blogosphere only half a dozen or so years ago) and find some of their juvenile aspects irritating, I am not specially worried about their effects on real life relationships either. It is a bit like Smith's own "good fiction vs bad fiction" analogy in the article. Stuff is out there - pick and choose what you want to do with your time and energy. But Smith is not as comfortable letting consumers choose their cyber tools as she is about how they shop for fiction. The internet technology, in her mind, is far more intrusive and offers fewer choices than the printed world. So what should she do? Retire to an uninhabited mountaintop, island or lock herself in her home? Rather than make a suggestion, I quote a few lines from a fantastic book by yet another Sicilian author (thanks for the recommendation, Elatia) I just finished reading. The lines are part of a conversation between Laurana, a professor, and his friend's reclusive brother.
"You never leave the house?"
"Never, haven't for some years. At one point in my life, I made a few quite precise calculations: if I leave the house in search of the company of one intelligent person, one honest person, I run the risk of meeting en route a dozen thieves and half as many idiots who stand poised to communicate to me their views on mankind, the national government, the city administration, Moravia .... Does it seem to you worth the trouble?"
"No, actually not."
"And then I am very comfortable at home, especially here." He pointed to the books and gestured as if to gather them all to him.
"A fine library," Laurana said.
"Not that I can always avoid stumbling into thieves and idiots even here. I'm speaking of writers, obviously, not their characters. But I easily get rid of them. I return them to the bookshop or I present them as a gift to the first fool who comes to call on me."
"So even by staying at home you don't manage to avoid fools entirely."
I wonder if Zadie Smith can avoid fools and unpersonable persons by shirking the internet's social milieu and sticking assiduously to exquistely discerning literary salons and the ivory tower. I suspect not, at least not entirely I am sure. Instead, she probably has to endure a whole lot more pomposity and an equal measure of narcissism as she sees exhibited on Facebook. I think the real problem may be that Smith is not opposed to narcissists and celebrity seekers, per se. After all, she is a celebrity herself and books don't sell without some high wattage star power. What she probably finds objectionable is that "everyone" is seeking public recognition and she doesn't think that all are worthy. Perhaps celebrity is a prize to be earned only by a select few, sometimes by writing a highly hyped book. In other words, cut through the high minded lament about the disappearance of "friendships," and you find a very articulate snob and a high brow gatekeeper of cultural protocol.
A couple of more objections to Ms Smith's take on Facebook - Jonah Lehrer in the Frontal Cortex and Razib Khan at Gene Expression. Since my last comments about Facebook, the number of my FB "friends" has increased by another sixy five or so. I can assure you that I have not lost a single "real" friend on account of that.