catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 13 :: 2009.06.19 — 2009.07.02


Virtually at home

Without a world between men and nature, there would be eternal movement, but no objectivity.
Hannah Arendt

One of my college friends was going through a Facebook crisis.

This kind of crisis involves first realizing that one’s time is being massively encroached upon. Panic follows, soul-searching, quasi-theoretical speculations about “real life” versus e-life. My friend decided to take action. She sent out a mass message to all her facebook friends. “Don’t take this as a judgment on any of you,” she wrote, “but I have decided it would be better for me to stop spending so much time on Facebook. A week from today, I’ll be deleting my account. Please send me cell phone numbers if I don’t have yours yet.”

Another friend messaged me about all this later. “I don’t get it. Now she’ll just spend all her time texting and talking on the phone. Facebook is just another tool for connecting friends. Just like a phone.”

But I had to wonder if he was right. Certainly I didn’t share her concerns about Facebook strongly  enough to make me delete my account, but this language of tools tripped me up. It occurred to me suddenly that social networking is really a whole new step in the evolution of technology.

Previously, the most immersive and life-changing technologies remained instruments designed to manipulate nature. But with social media we find the world itself replaced. Technology is revolutionized, transcending its intermediary role. Social media do not so much connect worlds as become worlds themselves.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt noticed the world-building tendency of technology long before Facebook or MySpace showed up. She distinguished between labor and work:

The work of our hands, as distinguished from the labor of our bodies, fabricates the sheer unending variety of things whose sum total constitutes the human artifice, the world we live in. They are not consumer goods but use-objects, and their proper use does not cause them to disappear. They give the world the stability and solidity without which it could not be relied upon to house the unstable and mortal creature that is man.

In other words, our technologies, our fabrications, the “work” of our hands, serves to create a world within the world-a world where the weather doesn’t bake or freeze or dry or drown us, a world in which seasons don’t mark the end of a food supply, a world in which time is freed for leisure and humans can cultivate each other. Viewed this way, social media might seem both pinnacle and transformation of technology. There is no space for interaction freer of the dangerous changeability of nature than the internet. But at the same time, this is not an improvement of existing space so much as an alternative space. No wild animals, or natural disasters, or human physical needs, or the press of time, or the separation of distance, can impede the social union that occurs on Facebook, but only because the world in which those things occur has been left behind altogether.

But I don’t want to debate whether the alternative worlds of social media are moral or beneficial. Taking them as a given, I want to meditate on the alternative ecology to which they give rise.  The “alternative ecology” of social media is remarkable because in it humans becomes their own environments.

One might expect, working from the old paradigm of the struggle between man and nature as the source of all problems, that in an alternative and entirely manipulable world problems would disappear. They don’t. The old earth-bound-if you will-needs and appetites are replaced by the needs and appetites of an organism in the world of social media (the need for many friends and much wall-action). The uncertainty of weather and even seasonal uncertainty according to which labor must adapt are replaced by the mood of friends (as represented by their “what are you doing now?” updates) and by the sway of fashion in media platforms (once MySpace, now Facebook, soon Twitter). The physical home is replaced by the homepage or profile where security protects against the eyes of stalkers rather than burglars and where a whole new snobbery informs interior (or perhaps e-terior) decoration. In this alternative ecology, new opportunities for imabalance occur. For example, I recently read a self-help article in which the author described how his readers could centralize and balance their Twittering, Facebooking,, YouTube-ing, and blogging.

Ultimately, I don’t believe that social media necessarily bespeak the evil of technology. It’s a separate question entirely whether the “real world” is superior, or morally distinct, from the world of social media. And anyway, the technically handicapped and naive seem to dominate that line of criticism. What is clear, however, especially because of the emergence of the alternative ecology I have been describing, is that human beings carry their own problems around in their hearts.

In any world, even a world we have fashioned to protect us from brute nature, sin reigns until redemption comes. The social space created by social media-a space purely social, which if we had more time we could explore as a legitimate step in the differentiating process of creation-does not escape the nature of man. Rather than condemning it, like my friend who deleted her Facebook account, I propose redeeming it.

But this proposal is not the same as that of my friend who suggested treating social media like any other tool. A tool is redeemed through its uses. But how is an alternative world redeemed? That is the next frontier.     

your comments

comments powered by Disqus