I’ve heard great things about Zadie Smith’s work as a writer, but I had a hard time bringing myself to click on this link.
The essay is about Facebook, and the generation that made it, and the movie that everyone’s talking about. It also references Jaron Lanier’s critique of the internet and adds to a growing collection of crafted pieces by good writers who don’t get it.
I used to agree with Lanier, for one, but here’s what happened: I stayed open, I was still curious, I kept looking for bright spots, I kept trying things, I adopted the best and rejected the worst, I found ways to make it work for me, I kept learning from mistakes; I cultivated a productive, rewarding and meaningful way of working and living with the internet.
Like everyone else who actually understands it.
What works will be different for everyone. Facebook works for some but not others. Twitter works for some but not others (or not even most). Even within Twitter there are as many different ways to use it as there are users. The people who know the most about the hazards and challenges are the people using this stuff and learning from mistakes.
I went along with the skepticism for a long time and I appreciate ongoing criticism, but these people (Gladwell too) who are standing around outside, watching us instead of jumping in and learning how to swim, fretting, “OH NO, we all might drown!” keep looking more and more ridiculous.
Smith tried Facebook and didn’t like it, so she quit after two months. Well same here. It wasn’t right for me at the time but I’ve changed, Facebook has changed, the world has changed, I went back and approached it differently. It’s working ok for me now.
Don’t just give up if you swallow a big gulp of water the first time you jump in. You can either keep trying or leave it alone. But if you walk away you can’t come back with a diatribe that basically argues what we already know: it isn’t perfect…
These sentences from Smith’s NYBooks piece finally put these fears into perspective for me:
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.
I think I see where the problem is now.
Have you ever met anyone who has been reduced to data? Do you know anyone who’s had their desires, their fears and messy feelings get swallowed up by Facebook? No. What happens is, when some aspects of our lives become data, we expand — we use that as part of a platform or framework to create new opportunities and objects for new kinds of fears and desires.
In other words, humans will always find new ways to be human.
We’re not just resilient, we’re ingeniously assertive. Our species has been surviving for ages: crawling through deserts, trudging through swamps, climbing over mountains, hacking through jungles, sailing across oceans, careening down rapids, launching into space, clawing in the dirt, driving as deep as we can into any visible challenge, making our mark on the world however we can, fabricating tools with whatever we can find, etc.
After all that and more for thousands of years, do you think Facebook is really so dangerous?
If love and friendship are so delicate that Facebook can undermine them and consequently tear apart the fabric of humanity, would they be worth saving? Or is this just about particular kinds of love and friendship that happen to be near and dear to some people at one particular place and time?
Whatever makes us special is too deeply engrained in our nature to clearly distinguish and articulate. Facebook and Twitter aren’t going to take it away from us — nor, conversely, is it so adjustable that Zadie Smith or Malcolm Gladwell or any philosopher can swoop in and save it.
They’re not against technology being used to objectify and reduce human behaviour; they’re merely against any new kinds of reductivism emerging to surpass their own favourite brand of it.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of people who’ve become “gadgets” — reduced and enslaved by two-hour movies and two-hundred-page books.
Elsewhere people have feared that photography and the written word would steal souls. But instead of reducing the breadth and depth of human experience, technologies keep creating opportunities for expansion and enrichment. I don’t see any reason to assume this time will be any different.
Here’s our choice: moan about the inevitable and miss our chance to grow, or look for the bright spots and make the most of our opportunities. Pretty easy, I think.
Part of me wants to be diplomatic, but another part is getting tired of so many fussy, timid, whiny, precious complaints coming from otherwise intelligent and talented people.
Pushing forward into the unknown, using the internet won’t reduce the meaning in life; it’s in many ways the most meaningful thing we can do.