In a recent TLS review of a book on the impact of social media (The Four-Dimensional Human, by Laurence Scott) I read these interesting but oddly familiar sentiments:
“It’s astonishing to think how in the last twenty years the limits and coherence of our bodies have been so radically redefined”, he observes. “We have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation” ... But “everywhereness” takes a toll, “for it can make life feel both oppressively crowded and, when its promise is wasted, uniquely solitary”.Also:
Moments that are untweeted or uninstagrammed come to seem lifeless, incomplete; “It has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a word or a sign from elsewhere”. Because “everywhereness” demands a blurring of here and there, it “can produce a sense of absenteeism, and the suspicion that, despite being in many places at once, we’re not fully inhabiting any of them”.Others have made similar observations. In fact, substitute "photography" for "social media", and it may even seem wearily familiar. This technological thing you like to do gets in the way of real life! Indeed, we could point yet again to Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", and doubtless a whole genealogy of jeremiads stretching back into antiquity on the inverse relationship between technology and "authentic" experience, and wonder when, if ever, anyone has truly experienced anything authentically since people first started gathering around a fire, thus failing totally to really get into the true experience of an Ice Age winter. Wimps! Get back out here and suffer! It's meant to be cold!
But that bit about the "everywhereness" of social media making the world simultaneously overcrowded and lonely does ring true, doesn't it? In many ways this craving for an empty ubiquity might be said to be filling a psychic void left by the decline of religion. This is probably simplistic, theologically, but until relatively recently I think the vernacular experience of religion was:
- You are watched
- You are known
- You will be judged
- You can have no secrets from God(s)
Obviously, the downside of this was to experience oppressive and disproportionate guilt over the smallest acts of transgression, but there was also a major comfort in believing that you were never truly alone, that your smallest acts of kindness or cruelty had been noted, had significance, and ultimate, existential consequences.
With the decline of religion, art took up some of the slack. A conventional novel, for example, is the mirror-image of this consoling belief: you yourself, as reader, are the silent, angelic witness to the travails of fictional characters, in whatever desperately solitary predicaments they may be portrayed; it's an inverted experience of omniscience. But this is very far from the child-like faith in a personal, all-knowing, all-seeing guardian angel. Knowing all, seeing all, you can nonetheless do nothing to help, except stop reading! It's more like that sobering moment when you become a parent, and realise you have been handed the job (for a while, anyway) of being – or attempting inadequately to be – some poor child's all-knowing, all-seeing guardian and guide.
Collecting and giving "likes" looks rather like earning and bestowing Get-Out-of-Purgatory-Free Points (a.k.a. "indulgences"), once you remove the underpinning theology (get me Martin Luther!). It also looks a lot more like an addictive palliative for the anxiety of isolation rather than any means of engaging with its causes. I can haz mo bettah kittehs, nao? Pleez? But there is no doubting that the social media clearly do something for a great many people. A very great many. It does no good for preachers and teachers to complain about the shallowness or triviality. We are shallow, comfort-seeking creatures, who rejoiced in the convenience of fire and warm clothing in the face of the harsh "reality" of an Ice Age winter, and who would rather watch Breaking Bad than read Proust. But to regard engagement with Facebook and Twitter as an actual social life strikes me as close kin to the belief that TV personalities and soap-opera characters are your actual personal friends. Though how and how far this differs from believing that Emma Bovary is a character possessed of a real human psychology is an interesting question.
I'm certainly in no position to judge when it comes to an energetic social life. If, like me, you're a "high-functioning introvert", you probably find (real) socialising highly enjoyable, but very tiring. Three hours is about my limit. The pleasure of my own company then becomes a necessity, not a terrible burden. My father was much the same: he loved a party, would sparkle after a few drinks – you might even mistake him for an extrovert – but famously would fetch his pyjamas to warm in front of the fire to alert guests that they were about to outstay their welcome. I suppose the contemporary equivalent might be to ostentatiously turn off the WiFi router, especially if your guests are all face-down over their phones checking their incoming messages, like peasants fiddling with their prayer beads.*
But, my, is that the time? Good night, everybody!
* Although my daughter insists that NO-ONE ELSE turns off their router overnight. I always do. It saves electricity and means our IP address is new each morning, and thus makes us a moving target for the Forces of Evil.