E Pluribus Facebook

In my post on vows (see http://josephtoltz.com.au/?p=499) I mentioned that I had taken the decision to suspend my Facebook account for the month of April. A few reasons led to this resolution.  First, I suspected that I was spending far too much time looking at Facebook. Indeed, my suspicions have been confirmed, for the past three weeks have seen many more opportunities to stay ahead of work preparation, write my blog regularly, begin piano practice again and generally find a lot more time to do things rather than view things. I estimate that I was spending approximately two hours per day trawling Facebook posts, looking up what my friends were doing but not feeling that I was interacting with them in a proper, meaningful way.

After the film “The Social Network” was released in 2010, the author Zadie Smith wrote an article in the New York Review of Books (November 25, 2010) entitled “Generation Why”.

Here’s a link to her full article, should you wish to read it for yourselves:



Smith reviewed the film, and combined the review with reportage on the reaction to the film by Zuckerberg, the issues and controversies surrounding the website at that time, a more general discussion of the website, and why she gave Facebook up.

I went back to Smith’s article to look at her particular critiques, in order to see if some of her thoughts resonated with my own discomfort and the subsequent decision to suspend the account for a month. One of the really interesting writers she cites is the programmer and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier:

“Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information under-represents reality. [In Facebook, life is turned into a database and this is a degradation] based on a philosophical mistake … the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.”

Smith goes on to emphasise the point (later made by Lanier) that software is NOT a neutral format:

“Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.”

These are a series of fascinating observations. We spend so much of our time online. Rarely do we consider that the tools at our disposal are actually not neutral in character, but shape the way we communicate, the way we interact with the internet itself, and how we communicate with others. We tend to notice such features when highly commercially explicit issues are at stake: only then are our hackles raised: for example, when Microsoft or Apple control in a proprietorial way that we are forced to purchase one product over the other; or when we receive junk-mail that resembles our ‘tastes’ in a curiously accurate manner based on browsing history; or in news items, when some poor sap in a mid-Western state of the US is prosecuted to the full extent of the law for copyright infringement, and we look on with guilty sympathy, knowing that he/she is merely a “fall-guy” (for want of a better term) for the millions who are perpetrating the same ‘victimless crimes’.

In practice, one simple answer against buying into the marketed product of Facebook is to create (or update) a blog – hence my own rather more active writing during the month of April. Blogs feel more proprietorial, individual, encapsulating a personal presentation of our personalities and opinions. Sure, we are still imprisoned to some extent by our ability to manipulate the software (WordPress in my case), but ownership feels more secure, presentation/layout seems more flexible and you can vet comments and responses.  But, I hear you FB loyalists cry, Facebook can do all of this and more, and it does it all for us with such ease!  Well yes, it certainly can provide such features and more – but I do find myself feeling uneasy about the intellectual property of my the images and thoughts contained on my Facebook profile; and then there the surprising and jarring global decisions on the part of Facebook to change formats without consultation or the chance for feedback.

Smith’s argument against Facebook is that it operates under the rubric of E pluribus Unim – (one from many). This phrase, embedded in the coat of arms of the United States is turned on its head in a beautifully ironic fashion by the writer. The height of her argument is encapsulated in the following paragraph:

“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.”

Ouch! Harsh but very persuasive words. Reductionism is something that we tolerate in our society, and manifests in the way we function within structures based on transcendental premises. The structures that are transcendental in our society include the law, the education system and the government (and, in times past, the arts).  They exceed our present reality as participants in society, denying immediate gratification for the promise of a greater reward. They reduce us to a general public, and we sacrifice our individuality in order that the general well being of society can function in an orderly fashion: ergo, the utilitarian social contract.

But we have not chosen any form of reductionism in our personal or general interactions on the Internet, despite the rhetoric and desire of governments (and, we suspect, private interests) to to regulate the Internet in various clumsy ways. When we choose Facebook over independent internet presentations of our selves, we unconsciously limit ourselves to what Zadie Smith bluntly terms a representation of us “entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”  There is nothing at all wrong in doing this. Facebook can help us reconnect with friends of years past; it can help us keep in touch with friends many miles away. But it is doing so through another person’s filter, and it’s worth keeping that at the forefront of our communications.

When I return to Facebook in May, I will enjoy reconnecting with friends and keeping up to date with the latest events, parties, photos and celebrations. I will enjoy being guided by friends towards fascinating and engaging articles, great musical and video gems.

But I will hesitate just a little bit when sharing my own personal thoughts and musings …


Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy, Social Graces

5 Responses to E Pluribus Facebook

  1. Bryant

    I too remember that brilliant article by Zadie Smith – thanks for reminding me of it. Great musings Dr Joseph!

  2. Rach

    Very interesting. I think I should take a leaf out of your book…..

    Will hopefully be able to interact in person in a few weeks – planning a weekend in Sydney sans kiddies…..mentioned to Al – hope to book this week.


    • joseph

      Super – I’ll email you and we’ll talk dates, and hopefully get together for a meal or a cwaffee at least! xx

  3. Linda

    I thoroughly agree with you and Zadie (what great company to keep!). Like a lot of my generation, I joined FB to connect with a particular group of friends and family so have stayed engaged for that reason, but I am certainly very wary of the sort of information I post. I remember back in the early 90s when I first became aware of the timewasting potential of the early surfing of the web (remember how much longer it used to take to load a page!) and made a conscious decision not to engage more than the necessary searches and email. Now 20 years later I don’t know what to do with a computer on the few occasions I don’t have web access!
    Hope you remain in control and continue your productive habits developed over the past month 🙂

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