There has occurred at some point in these last fifty years, a terrible corruption of dystopian fiction. Of course dystopian works are arguably the corruption of utopian works, which were the corruption of serious political philosophy. Plato in his Republic described the good place. Thomas More in his Utopia described the no-place. Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World described the bad place. In our age, the works of Susanne Collins and the productions of Lionsgate media are only used to describe, in ad nasueum repetition, how attractive Jennifer Lawrence is. Dystopia no longer describes a place because the imagined world is not seen to be possible. Plato thought his ideas might be realized in a good city, just as Huxley thought his predictions might be realized in a bad one. But no one who turns the pages of The Hunger Games thinks they might be glimpsing their future. They are simply enjoying their present.
Thus is lost the ability of the great dystopian novels to do what they intended: warn of a coming problem, prevent a worsening world. We have stopped heeding the warnings of dystopian fiction at the exact moment when those warnings would be most helpful. I may tell you that today was born in your neighborhood a young boy who might grow up to be a robber, but it is far better to tell you if the robber is at this moment approaching your door. Ignoring all the vagaries of time and circumstance, you would know the nature of the problem and the nature of the solution.
Now the robber of our story has not battered down a door or entered through the use of extreme force. He has slithered in along the cables we ourselves installed. He does not take everything at once, but slowly slips his booty away, leaving little to no hint that anything at all is missing. But surely, very surely, those things which used to supply the comforts of home and hearth show their absence by the emergence of discomfort and imbalance. The dystopian world is a world which has lost something.
I argue here that two novels in particular reveal that we have been losing something to one of the most popular websites in the world: Facebook. We have lost what Hans Anderson’s emperor lost when he banished the living nightingale for its wind-up imitator. Facebook is seen by millions as a wonderful tool for communication. The character of Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network says he wants to “take the entire social experience of college and put it online.” Today, Facebook claims to help users “stay connected with friends and family.” The idea is that the social can graft easily onto the digital. Facebook’s critics regard it as a problem but perhaps as a tolerable problem; something to be handled carefully like alcohol but not an outright evil. I offer a disagreement. I suggest that Facebook, and its attending states of mind and methods of communication, is fundamentally at odds with the social nature of the human person, in much the same way that pornography is at odds with the sexual nature of the human person. Both replace the person with an object. Both, if widely practiced, lead to the destination of dystopia.
This suggestion may be met with both reactive and reflective opposition. If one reacts against my thesis simply because they cannot bear the thought of a day lived without the comfort of checking Facebook, let them remember the anger of the drunk when his bottle is taken away. The inability to give something up is a very telling hint toward the presence of a problem. But if it is argued that the Internet is now the normal way we communicate, and Facebook is simply the best avenue for this, let the critics remember that Huxley warned of becoming “normal in relation to a society that is profoundly abnormal.” I readily admit that 128 million Americans currently check their Facebook pages daily. But this is no objection to my argument. Democracy has proved time and time again that the majority is often wrong. Do not offer the argument already put down by Seneca. Do not say that Facebook is right because it is popular. “The number of the insane is used as the defense of their sanity.” Misery loves company and a crowd of sad people is still sad.
If Facebook is taken as what it claims to be, namely a “social network,” then those who accept it have swallowed a very large lie. It is not social, but solitary. It does not draw together but breaks asunder. The dystopian authors provide a picture of the person suffering corruption and this picture, as we will see, bears an uncanny resemblance to ourselves. My purpose is to examine this image, in the hope that David Foster Wallace and Aldous Huxley might through fiction reveal fact, and perhaps be taken more seriously. In their works are displayed crooked and cracked worlds, intended by the authors to resemble our own. In so far as I am able to connect their imaginings with our inventions, I ought to be able to show the central and unavoidably fatal flaw with Facebook: it utterly lacks faces. You can spend many fruitless hours looking for a person on Facebook, and you will not find one, regardless of how many profiles you view. Man was not made to be alone, but to meet the eyes of another. In so far as these encounters are avoided, the individual will be anxious and the civilization will be unsettled.
Wallace and the Anxious Individual
If David Foster Wallace intended to rib, with a wry wink, the distracted reader for being distracted, he could not have done better than publishing his 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest. Against him we cannot level the charge of hypocrisy. He is not a hoarder preaching thrift. He is not a glutton preaching continence. He held himself to his own high standard, even up to his mortal end. He acknowledged the potential for the corruption of human relations by technology and explained that in the book, “people are essentially connected, I guess, in all the sorts of ways that the great champions of the Internet and the information highway are so excited about now.” By the misery of his characters, even as they live in a world where then can “get pretty much anything [they] want” for entertainment, Wallace suggests that the most uncomfortable of social interactions are paradoxically those which are the most rewarding, if only they will be endured.
Early in Infinite Jest, Wallace describes the rise of “video-telephoning (aka videophony)” and its sudden and unexpected fall. Bearing much similarity to modern-day Skype, “teleputers” allowed for oral and visual communication. These devices soar in popularity in Wallace’s imagined America, but “within like 16 months… the tumescent demand curve for ‘videophony’ suddenly collapsed like a kicked tent.”
The two major reasons for this collapse are “emotional stress” and “physical vanity.” There “was something terrible stressful about visual telephone interfaces that had not been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces.” This occurred because the absent-minded haze of your average telephone call was whisked away like fog in a strong wind when the camera appeared. “Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you to not have to pay anything close to complete attention to her.” Wallace here echoes the spirit of Huxley, particularly his insistence that our “infinite appetite for distractions” will prove be a social and political problem. People using the telephone were free to “look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from…cuticles,” etc…. But “you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided.”
“Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable.” Now conversation required earnest attention and in no way permitted the gross, anti-social habits previously kept secret by the telephone’s inability to transmit them. “Callers [on the teleputers] who… unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end.” This gave rise to “videophonic stress.”
This stress was compounded if the users of the teleputer “were at all vain.” Presentability was not a problem with phones because our voices cannot appear naked or unkempt. The experience of receiving a video-call was more akin to having a surprise visitor at the door; requiring one to dress and groom in haste.
But this discomfort for the vain was nothing compared to the shock of seeing what waited on the screen. People were horrified to see “not their caller’s faces, but their own.” Given, by way of the teleputer’s programming, the chance to see how their faces looked during the call, most everybody accepted. For the “appearance-check was no more resistible than a mirror.” The experience, however, was “universally horrifying.” Users confronted with their own faces thought they appeared “unlikable.”
Thus came the invention of “High-Definition Masking.” This (at the time) imagined technology would take “the most flattering elements of a variety of flattering multi-angle photos of a given phone-consumer” and combine “them into a wildly attractive high-def broadcastable composition of a face.” Of course this technology was soon supplanted by the cheaper option of taking those flattering angles and “actually casting the enhanced facial image in a form fitting polybutylene-resin mask.”
The slide from there was obvious. If a mask could be made to make a person appear slightly more attractive, what was to stop a mask from being made to make a person appear a great deal more attractive? Entrepreneurs met the demand with excessively attractive masks, gobbled up by the unrelenting hunger of vanity. Of course the users of these masks were then faced with the problem of leaving their house. Having appeared on screen behind the mask, they were reticent to go outside and be seen as comparatively unattractive to their masked appearances.
As technology improved, the cost differential between digital faces and the resin masks evened out and soon digital masks could be purchased and would transmit during conversation “what was essentially a heavily doctored still photograph.” Once everyone realized that they were simply broadcasting fake faces back and forth to each other, they simply dispensed with the whole mess and returned to “good old telephoning.”
The parallels to social networking sites, like Facebook, should be obvious, especially the “heavily-doctored still photograph” bit. Like the absent-minded assurance that one can pay little attention to the person on the other end of the phone—without a fear that they are not paying attention to you—Facebook profiles are created in the belief that people will actually look at them–which rarely ever happens. Users of Facebook pay almost no attention to the “Favorite quotes,” “movies recently seen,” “places visited,” etc… of others, while still providing this information about themselves.
There is also the issue of vanity and the desire to hide. I was a high school student when Facebook became available to the wider public. Senior portraits (“heavily-doctored” to be sure) were the golden standard for a profile picture. Further, when Photoshop soon became as standard a program on a computer as the calculator, any picture could be tweaked to bring out the best before being posted.
Add to this the vanity of popularity and you get the advent of group photos at parties and “selfies” with friends. Remember it was fear of appearing unlikeable that drove Wallace’s characters to the market for masks. What appears more likeable than posing with a bunch of friends having a great time? The irony of course, if you have ever stood back at these sorts of gatherings and watched the proceedings, is that the photos are telling a pretty substantial lie.
In The Social Network, the character of Sean Parker declares to an audience of enthralled undergraduate co-eds that with Facebook you can go to a party, post the pictures you take and then “re-live the party online. We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we are going to live on the internet!” The problem is that it is difficult to “re-live” a party that was never lived in the first place. Social gatherings have become dominated to a large extent by people arranging group photographs and then reviewing them to decide which is the most flattering for Facebook. Like an afternoon at the JCPenny photo department, the object is to produce pictures, not to foster friendships. The website that was merely supposed to catalogue a night’s events now exerts a great deal of control over them. It is the difference between the documentary and the feature film crew. The line between having a party and acting a part is becoming increasingly blurred thanks to Facebook. To the extent that most of the party is spent taking pictures, the camaraderie suggested by those pictures does not actually exist.
This is particularly troubling because it deflates what would otherwise be a substantial objection to my argument. Unlike Wallace’s imagined characters, hiding at home for fear of being seen as they really are, most users of Facebook still get up and leave the house to do things in the wider world. But even here the influence of the website clings close. As in the case of parties, these activities may be conditioned by the knowledge that what happens in private may be displayed in public. Also and alongside is the habit of bringing Facebook with us wherever we go. The dangers of smart phones–their corrosive effect on conversation and their destruction of the ability to sit undistracted for ten minutes–has been so well-argued that I do not here need to establish it for myself.
What I ought to mention before moving on is how profoundly sad Wallace’s world is. In this world where social interactions may be avoided, perhaps indefinitely, substance abuse abounds, suicides seem a matter of course, and each person feels (to a greater or lesser degree) as though they are misunderstood. The title of Infinite Jest comes from the name of a movie so good that its viewers will watch it on repeat until they expire; it is entertainment too good to let you look away. Wallace expounded in an interview that he wanted to raise the question of entertainment for an age in which it was a very real possibility to do nothing but be entertained. What would we accept? What would we reject? Wallace himself did not own a television because he “would watch it all the time.” With 128 million daily users in the United States alone, Facebook poses a similar threat.
With the advent of digital communication, the human person can now willfully seek out those avenues which least resemble true human interaction. Talking can become texting. Playful punches can become “pokes.” Smiling upon hearing good news can be replaced with “liking.” Romantically speaking, flirtation and expressions of love can be replaced with sexting and pornography. The lesson of Wallace’s teleputers is that, as concerns communication, human weakness will seek out the path of least resistance, even to the point of self-imposed isolation. The paradox is that the more vulnerable we are in an encounter, the more rewarding that encounter is. But we cannot be vulnerable hiding behind a screen.
Huxley and the Conforming Crowd
It is obvious that one disquieted soul is not much of a problem, politically speaking. The outlaw in the Old West became a problem when he gathered together a gang. Similarly, one instance of the vanity and psychological disease described by Wallace would be little more than an alarming spectacle. But if a group of such persons were to make up the majority of any given civilization, their private vices would become public problems.
Such is the story of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Here selfish vanity is on clear display (Bernard Marx feels insecure about his height as he is far shorter than Alphas ought to be; Lenina Crowe spends dozens of pages grooming her already flawless form; Linda elicits shrieks for appearing with the natural wrinkles of age), as is the tendency toward anti-social communication. Great pains are taken in Brave New World to ensure that that no one spends a moment alone. The “feelies” are viewed in groups, and the solidarity services ensure that each person finds their meaning and purpose in the presence of others. No prayers are whispered privately to God. No replenishment or meaning is sought from what Huxley elsewhere calls the “ground of Being.” All the purpose one needs and all the pleasure one wants can be found in the bodies of fellow citizens of the world state.
Here I must deflect an objection which could leave the reader in total incomprehension of my argument. I spoke above of technology’s effect of separating persons into a self-imposed confinement. It may be objected that the fearful and voluntary isolation of persons behind digital masks is totally unlike their compulsively keeping company. The man in his room, so it is argued, is absolutely other than the man in the crowd. This is false on two accounts: First, both are similar in that both are extremes. The first man is extreme in his isolation, the second in his exposure; second, the placement of bodies does not matter so much as the state of their minds. In Mr. Huxley’s world “everyone belongs to everyone else.” People are interchangeable and you can take or leave them if you please. In Wallace’s world, people could equally be left, and often were, to be replaced by booze, drugs, the thrill of a robbery, or the closure of killing oneself. It is crucially important that people in the brave new world exist to each other as mere “functions” not as “total personalities.” For there is an unpleasant paradox of being in a crowd: that one can be surrounded by thousands and yet be completely alone. People are not people in a crowd; they are parts of the environment and they are interchangeable. This is the common thread between these two novels: Humans in each see each other through the same cracked lens. Because of Facebook’s unavoidable defect, which I shall address further on, it too forms a crowd in which each person is alone.
Not only are crowds unfit for the individual person, but they also provide an opportunity to harm the general population. By keeping a constant stream of distractions, no citizen of the imagined World State ever had a moment to give to reflection about the true state of the world. In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley gives the example (unavailable at the time of the novel’s publication) of Hitler’s technique of gathering the German people into crowds so as to ease his ascent to power. The use of the loud speaker allowed a massive crowd to hear Hitler’s words as though he were standing next to them. For Huxley this is a regrettable cost of modern technology: “Never have so many been manipulated by so few.” His fear about the pliability of minds in a crowd is not without justification. How many political rallies seek a small thoughtful few over a raging, chanting mass?
What made Hitler’s rallies so effective was that his audience was unusually receptive to his words. He could say things to a crowd which would get him thrown from a house, had he shared his ideas over dinner and dessert. A crowd composed of the insecure and unstable persons described by Wallace will—when gathered into a group—be remarkably easy to sway. In a crowd, people can lose themselves and give way to whatever hysteria is on offer.
If a crowd can therefore be defined as a collection of persons existing not as total personalities but as particular functions, then I maintain that Facebook is just such a crowd. The Facebook profile is admittedly a cherry-picked portrait of the self. Many users, including yours truly, wish they were as cool in real life as they appear on Facebook. The existence of people as “particular functions” comes from the built-in ability to block, ignore, or totally delete those persons whom we find disagreeable, or even slightly inconvenient. Yet people still desire to have hundreds of Facebook friends. Curious.
If Facebook is a crowd of incomplete personalities, it ought to concern us that Facebook has in the past manipulated the content of the website to experiment on the moods of its users. The purposeful emotional manipulation of a crowd is a serious injustice to the human person. Consider for a second that Facebook has the power to make 128 million people have a bad day. They can control how nearly half the country feels. What ought to give pause to those who disagree with my assessment, and consider themselves to have everything under control, is that every person who has ever been seduced by the effects of a propaganda artist has done so willingly. It is only from the vantage point of history that we balk at the stupidity and the baseness of it.
Facebook matches remarkably well to Huxley’s imagined world. The Brave New World was full of games and movies to fulfill man’s “infinite appetite for distractions.” These diversions could get man to focus his attention on the “totally irrelevant.” A casual glance at my Facebook newsfeed reveals links to endless lists on Buzzfeed, years of video available on YouTube, the top-ten worst celebrity Photoshop failures, a special discount on winter coats, etc., etc., etc…. The cost and concern is that the world of “non-stop distractions” keeps us from the actually important. Huxley points out that this stream of distractions was made possible and is perpetuated “by the abolition of the family.”
Man was not made to be alone, nor was he made to be in a herd. He is neither angel nor animal. Man’s nature is such that small groups, such as the family, are ideal. Huxley pithily remarks that Christ promised to be there where two or three are gathered. “He did not say anything about being present where thousands are intoxicating each other with herd poisoning.”
Mr. Huxley, though he misses the mark on the material composition of our world, still captures its essential spirit. Though he could not see Facebook coming, he could see that in always being together, people might be kept apart. He saw that people interacting as incomplete personalities would be conducive to centralized control. He saw that accommodating, rather than controlling, our infinite appetite for distractions would “prevent people from paying too much attention to the social and political situation.” In short, people under the conditions described above would seek solace not from friends or family but from a government program. Reproduction would be sought in the controlled environment of the laboratory while being avoided in the increasingly uncontrolled sexual life. No one would ever have to be alone; there would always be a distraction to amuse them. Most people living this way would have no idea how far they had fallen and have no objection to the state of things. If this picture does not describe our world, then there is really no need to be concerned.
Problems in Practice
To put the next objection simply: philosophy has, in every age, been plagued by a host of elegant but untrue ideas. Expression is not sufficient for truth. Saying “man is but a monkey,” does not, upon leaving the lips, alter the state of a single soul. From the Platonists to the post-foundationalists, from Anaxagoras to Ayn Rand, philosophers have produced ideas which are quite subtle, quite clever and quite wrong. Rand and the rest of the libertarians have given birth to a theory of human nature, but they cannot give birth to a human with that nature. Machiavelli thought he was describing the prince when he simply was describing a prince, and a bad one at that. Just so, a critic may come to this point in the argument and still remain unconvinced. Perhaps my elaborate theory of social life, dystopian novelists and digital networks is a little too novel to seem true. I may, like Freud in his study and in his books, be simply blowing smoke. But if a thing has failed in practice, it most certainly has failed in theory. A standing bridge may or may not be cracked, but a collapsed bridge certainly is. Upon encountering a train wreck, it is reasonable to suppose that the locomotive in question, at some point, went off the rails.
We can ignore everything I have said so far and simply look at our social networks to see if in fact they work or even if they may rightly be called social.
What do we see upon encountering the status update? Certain materialists have a bad habit of forming sentences without subjects. In their jargon, “men like that ought to be in prison,” replaces the much more sensible: “the police ought to arrest that man.” Similarly, the status update is missing an essential piece of the puzzle: an addressee. The status update exists as a digital megaphone, used to shout out our current location or emotion to a digital gymnasium of friends and relatives, each of whom has their own megaphone. A status can be addressed to certain people by way of “tagging” (which when I was growing up was a discouraged form of low-brow artistic expression). Yet even this customized status can still be seen by those not directly concerned with it and too closely resembles the boorish behavior of the vociferous lot at the back of the bus to pass our notice. Either we yell to everyone (which is crass) or we yell to just a few people (which is rude to everyone else). This is to say nothing of those who frequently use their status as a way to throw a continual pity party and gain far more attention than they would by throwing it in the corner of the student commons.
What do we see upon encountering “Facebook chat”? Using it is remarkably stressful, for the simple reason that it fosters the thought that the other person is ignoring us. Not seeing their face or hearing their voice, one person sends to another the message: “Hey, what’s up?” Thanks to Facebook’s current programming, which may admittedly change by tomorrow, a digital chatster can see if their conversation partner is currently typing a response. If Wallace’s imagined teleputers cracked the veneer of the belief that you were receiving the full attention of another person, Facebook chat shatters that belief like a cheap wine glass. The “typing” icon will appear and disappear and eventually, perhaps up to ten minutes later, a short reply (“Not much”) appears. It is ironic that Facebook chat is an update of so-called instant messaging when neither is very instant, nor, for that matter, very chat-like.
What do we see when the aged, who in bygone eras used to be the source of so much wisdom, enter into the social networking world? We see the spectacle of stumbling and confusion. The cliché about old dogs and new tricks proves to be true. “Status updates” of the old are posted as comments or on walls not their own. They search in vain for pictures because of a confusion between the home page and their profile. Admittedly, some seniors do just fine on Facebook. But the overwhelming norm is that they do not. Mr. Zuckerburg keeps “improving” his platform, so operational habits cannot form. It is like the cruel, and thankfully fictional, man who keeps moving Helen Keller’s furniture.
Since man has been able to speak, a conversation has been raging concerning the nature of the cosmos. What then do we see of religion on Facebook? Very little. A meme I spied boldly declares: “Zero. The number of times I have changed my mind because of something on Facebook.” That religious conversion or even intellectual persuasion should be purposefully avoided is distressing, and strange. It is conversion stories that are the most enjoyable to hear and the most meaningful to tell. Even secular conversion stories share in this truth. I have not always been a vegan.—or—Everything changed the day I started meditation. The common man in his common life loves to change his mind and to have other people push him along. The entire purpose of the newspaper editorial is to persuade the persuadable. What does it mean that this distinctly human experience must be left at the login page?
Finally, What are we to make of Facebook’s effect on an even more human experience: the cultivation of love? Having recently become engaged, I was asked by several people in deafening succession why the engagement was not “Facebook official.” When did Facebook become the notary public of the heart? Is it not strange that the legitimacy of romance should rest on the shoulders of a website barely ten years old? Does an exchange of promises between lovers mean nothing if not declared public in the digital domain? My fiancé and I went to great lengths personally to tell every person we wanted that we were engaged. We wanted to be there to share in their joy—or in their dismay—to show we cared for them by seeking a personal encounter. I doubted the wisdom of our choice when many, including a few family members, asked why we did not just post the engagement online and save ourselves the trouble. What does this say about the social habits cultivated on Facebook if not that they are in a very bad way?
What I argue we are losing on Facebook is recognition of the other person as a person. To borrow a phrase from Edith Stein, “we see nothing around us but physical soulless and lifeless bodies,” which makes empathy impossible. Far from being a “progress,” this attitude is a regression.
G. K. Chesterton wrote of the medieval serf that perhaps he was a “stool,” but he must have at least been a stool which had grown roots. Concerning the attitude of the lord to the serf, or the master to the slave, one attitude was never to be found:
No human being, pagan or Christian, I am certain, ever thought of another human being as a chair or a table. The mind cannot base itself on the idea that a comet is a cabbage; nor can it on the idea that a man is a stool. No man was ever unconscious of another’s presence—or even indifferent to another’s opinion. The lady who is said to have boasted her indifference to being naked before male slaves was showing off—or she meant something different.
Better writers than myself have drawn our attention to it, but it still manages to startle: that now the lady can truly boast her indifference because the cornea of the slave has been replaced by the camera of her phone. Sexually charged images, both suggestive and explicit, abound on Facebook and the other social networks. Girls who would not dream of walking through high school cafeterias naked now have their pictures passed about in that very room.
Facebook, by filtering the person though a profile, has made it possible to do what was, according to Chesterton, impossible in any age but our own. It is now possible to think of another person as an object, a nice painting or simply a stool. Xerxes needed half-a-dozen bent backs to serve as his staircase from his throne. But what of the aforementioned habit of collecting Facebook friends and the attendant anxiety if hundreds cannot be had? Are not our engorged egos more similar to King Eglon, whose fat swallowed the sword thrust into it? Is not each friend used as a small stool supporting a tiny fraction of the swollen ego? If we treat each other as such, there is nothing but time between ourselves and Wallace’s characters, between our world and the brave new one. Without really seeing others, the mind turns back to itself. You can read Wallace for the result. Without appreciating others as ends in themselves, but thinking that they belong entirely to you, the polis turns into a frenzied mass of sexual license and forced political conformity. You can read Huxley for an idea of it.
To avert what the dystopian authors have predicted, and to pursue a more humane approach to each other, we must once again encounter what is lacking on Facebook. The irony of Facebook is that it is totally devoid of faces.
Roger Scruton’s explanation of the face, in his 2010 Gifford Lectures, raises all the right and irreducible questions. Recall the childhood thrill of staring into a darkly lit room and thinking, for an instant, that another face was staring back. “Who’s there!?” you shout. But upon receiving no response you look closer to see what was a face become a lamp, a chair, the corner of the window and a rumpled, haphazardly thrown, shirt. Who is there? No one at all. But now recall the even more thrilling experience of staring at a lump of folded flesh and seeing the parts: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, cheeks, forehead and chin, become a face, a face that is truly staring back at your own. This human face cannot be split up into its component parts again. The “face” in the room was lit by moonlight, that is, from the outside. The human face is lit from within, hence the common idea that we “look out” on the world. “Who is there?” you ask this human face and from it issues forth an echo of the words of God to Moses: “I am.”
Were we to determine the words most invariably uttered by a Facebook profile, I am quite certain they would be: “I was.” Our selves on the social network are always our past selves, and there is no light coming from within them. Posts, pictures, comments and the rest are all time-stamped. Even “instant messaging” introduces a gap between utterance and reception, between speaking and hearing, between the one who is trying to be understood and the one who is trying to understand. In face-to-face conversation, the present moment is held in tension, like a rope in a tug of war. The face of the other exerts a force on us here, now and continually. Words may be carefully chosen before they are spoken, but the face of a person reflecting on word choice is still saying something. Her face says, “I want to speak clearly to you,” which follows from: “I care about you.” Only in a face-to-face encounter is the present moment shared. This is the irreducible problem with our social websites and technology: they replace the present with the past. By only knowing the past actions of a person, we more easily turn to that which is always present, namely our own thoughts, feelings and fears. In short, by turning to our social networks, we inevitably turn back to ourselves. In our attempt to be social, we end up alone.
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