Life is full. There are many things to be do besides stare out the window and think about the ways in which technology changes the experience of living, but that’s exactly what I have found myself doing this last month. It started when I was dog-sitting for some friends in September. Looking for a bed-time distraction, I stumbled on a 2-part documentary called “The Facebook Dilemma” that first aired on PBS in 2018. That led to some introspection and then further exploration of social media documentaries and news reports (in no short supply these days). That then led to an interesting conversation with my brother and a book recommendation: “No Sense of Place” by Joshua Meyrowitz. I started reading it last weekend. (Written in 1985 before computers were household items, it is a startling and prophetic book. I recommend it.) All the while, I have been trying to stay afloat with a new teaching job and various other real-life challenges. I have been meaning to write this for weeks, but have struggled with where and how to begin.
What follows in this 2-part post are the ramblings of an armchair theologian, philosopher, and social observer. I am no authority. I just have some thoughts to share. Most of those thoughts are about Facebook in particular and I appreciate anyone who is interested in a longer conversation about the issues. If you just think I’m crazy, that’s fine too.
People, Information, and Access
In the Facebook Dilemma, there is about 5 seconds of footage that includes a picture of a chalkboard wall in one of the FB offices with the following quote written across the length of it: “We have historically overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to one another.” (The last part is highlighted with red chalk.) There is no reference or citation under the writing, so I can only assume that someone said it once in a staff meeting and it instantly became a source of company inspiration — soul food for the bleary-eyed programmer looking up from the glow of a screen. As quotes go, it is catchy. It even has something of an Oscar Wilde ring to it: a dualism attempting profundity by questioning history and appealing to the human desire for relationship. (That is not a compliment.)
More than any other statement in the documentary, the deep irony in the above quote encapsulates for me the core problems with Facebook (and possibly all social media). I will outline these issues in a series of questions that come to mind when I consider the quote.
- Who is “we”? Computer programmers? Silicon valley residents? All Americans? All western cultures? (Europe & North America) All of living humanity? Is everyone in the world really guilty of the same relational/informational value reversal?
- What is “access to information”? To what information do “we” want or need access? What is the value of access to information? In what ways did “we” historically overestimate value of that access? Who guards the information and keeps it from “us”? Who determines its truth or falsehood? What is truth?
- What is “access to one another”? To what people do we want or need access? In what ways were we denied access before FB existed? In what ways did “we” undervalue people? In what ways did “we” undervalue access to those people?
- What is access? How is digital access different from physical or relational access? Do all kinds of access have the same value? The same effect or outcome? What is the meaning of digital access for the person or thing being accessed? What is the meaning of digital access for the person doing the accessing?
This last question is the most important. Everything depends on what is meant by access. Consider first that the nature of access will always depend on the nature of the thing one is trying to access. You do not access a river the same way you access a museum. Among other differences, only one of them has doors. In the dualism above, access to people and access to information are treated as similar and therefore parallel things. This is impossible. People and information are fundamentally different things. Among other differences, only one of them can be hugged. This difference in essential nature is important when considering the kinds of access that are possible. It is even more important when considering the relative value of each.
Consider also that “access” comes in an array of modalities, and each of these modes has its own nature. Access to the world begins with our five senses, but it does not end there. For all that cannot be seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled, we have memory, reason, logic, emotion, and spiritual revelation — modes of discovering Truth that exists beyond physical boundaries. Through these different modes, we discover the nature, meaning, and value of both the river and the museum. Further, none of these modes of access are interchangeable. I would never assume that, by describing the sounds inside a museum, I have understood the value or meaning of its contents. Nor does the visual beauty of a river give me any understanding of the historical value of the trade route it represents. The mode through which I access a person, place, object, or piece of information will give me only one kind of experience and one kind of information. The nature of thing itself thing will determine which modes of access are possible. Something else must tell us what is valuable.
Facebook: access to what?
To what exactly does FB give us access? People or Information?
Consider the most prominent feature: the newsfeed. I write a story, give it a headline, throw it into the FB universe, and sometimes it appears in someone’s feed. I do not choose my recipients unless I give them a hashtag so that others may see that I chose them. No one choses my story for their feed — FB does that for both of us, hoping that it will guess right more often if we would only keep clicking. Scrolling through my feed, I discover more than I ever expected to know about the various friends and acquaintances that have crossed my physical path at some point in the journey. What is this knowledge if not “information”? You might protest and say that at least it is knowledge of real people (important people), but it is knowledge of the most impersonal kind — information imparted without direction, not born of any question, that asks nothing of the one who encounters it. If I don’t respond to the stories I see, someone else probably will. If no one responds, the writer is not offended by a specific person, but by the absence of any person. It is not the absence of relationship but the absence of attention that causes the offense.
Consider the second most prominent feature: the timeline. The archive of my stories. The album of my photos. The ever-expanding graffiti wall on which others may leave evidence of their existence. To “access” someone’s timeline is to view the archive, the album, and the scattered inscriptions of others. The timeline requires nothing of the viewer, and the owner never knows who comes and goes. It is a storehouse of information with a bulletin board at the top. The history of a digital life. It is curated memory. It is also posturing: a specific presentation of selves to others. It is one kind of knowledge and one way of knowing not a person but a portrait — like those images made from a thousand smaller images. It is also a mode of knowing that inherently prioritizes the past over the present since every new post is about something that has already happened. (FB real-time events are a new addition and, are not the raison-d’être of the platform.) I can post a note at the top of that bulletin board if I want, but whatever I post becomes a part of that digital image of the person. More enduring than a public conversation, what is said lives on for both past and future observers. Only here, you don’t know who is observing or to what end. I don’t mean that in a paranoid way — simply that when the observer is invisible, so is the relationship with the observer. (There is a tangential point possible here: that by equalizing “access” and allowing us to observe each other invisibly, FB in fact obscures and confuses the true nature of each of our relationships.)
But wait! What about Messenger? That is real access to the person. You send a private message to one or more specific people, ask real questions and hopefully get honest answers. True. To send someone a personal message is a mediated form of access to a real individual — same as a text, an email, and even a hand-written letter. (Btw, whose handwriting do you know by sight any more?) But then, why do we need Facebook? WhatsApp should be enough. It’s not enough, however, because to simply connect real people to each other is not in fact FB’s reason for existing.
The Crux of the Thing
The deep irony is this: we have not “historically overestimated the value of access to information.” That’s what we are doing right now. Facebook has rewritten the definition of “access to people.” They have presented us with a wealth of previously unimaginable access to information about people and called it “access to one another”. They have not reversed the values themselves, merely the definitions of the terms, and we have believed them. They claim to connect people with each other, but the truth is that they connect people with information. Only one of those two things has a heartbeat but we treat them the same. All of our messages, photos, and posts are a singular mode of impersonal, information-based, self-declamatory interaction. To know a person and to know about a person are such different elements of the human experience, yet they are brought together and blurred to the point of confusion in the the world of Facebook.
I have so many more thoughts, and these barely scratch the surface of this side of the issue. Even so, I will wrap this post up with three things I am beginning to believe thanks to FB:
- People need each other more than they need information about each other,
- Information without relationship kills true connection, and
- Though I love hearing news of loved ones in distant places, savoring the present moment in a present place with real people is more valuable to me than all posts and updates I could ever read.