Facebook ReflexTake “the Facebook reflex” for example. You know the phenomenon. It’s that impulse to ask, “How would I phrase that in a Facebook post?” Every user, likely, has experienced it at one point or another. I know I have. I call it “thinking in Facebook statuses.”
The Facebook reflex disconcerts to me. Why? Because. The Facebook reflex jerks me out of experience and into evaluation, away from attention and into reflection, from seeing to watching, from touching to examining, from glass to mirror. Rarely now do I simply experience an event. I want to capture it. My thinking and perception are shifting. It’s the ironic posture of 2010’s hipster. Nathan Jurgenson calls it “nostalgia for the present” and holds up Instagram as its symbol. Note: The symbol is a filter, not an object. It’s a way of seeing the world. That is the essence of the Facebook reflex.
The Facebook reflex is not new. Evaluating, reflecting, watching, and examining—it’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. We’ve always tended to disengage, haven’t we? Being hipster is inevitable. “We make ourselves a place apart.” Once, we huddled around the fireplace; but with Edison’s light bulb now we hole up in our own rooms.
Technology exaggerates this impulse. It steepens the hill on which we slide and climb. It exacerbates what we’re already prone to be: stupid, lonely, and narcissistic.
Self-Conscious SocietyWhen talking to yourself, there’s a fine line between a healthy internal dialogue for contemplating thoughts and emotions, on the one hand, and on the other hand, crazy. Developing an interior life is one of the hallmarks of adulthood. Before that, life is primarily sensation and expression. Internalizing these dynamics is part of growing up.
Much like human consciousness, dialogue is society’s expression and sensation. And like a child, society dialogue has happened externally—visual arts, music, architecture, and even literature and ideas in the form of books.
But as communications technologies have developed, society has begun internalizing this dialogue. Writing, print, electronic, digital. Over these millennia, society as a corporate body has been growing up and turning inward the way a person does.
With the arrival of the Internet, society’s internal conversation seems more like a ping pong match than ever before. We’re all participating in the dialogue, volleying back and forth along the synapses of the world brain. We’re all involved and interfacing. And the speed of the dialogue is something like self-consciousness. Society has a sense of self now.
On some level, we’ve always known as individuals that each of us is inside society and that it is inside us. And we’ve normally thought of society in terms of objects and ideas—in other words, content. But now, we’re also realizing that society has ways of thinking—in other words, process. We’re not just thinking new thoughts, we’re also thinking in new ways. We couldn’t see this before because it changed too slowly. But now our thought processes can change in a matter of years, or even months.
Facebook ReflectsGoogle, Facebook, and Klout are not doing new things. They’re doing things we’ve always done—only faster, more explicitly, more consciously, and also more invisibly. We cannot blame technology without implicating ourselves. We are accomplices. Facebook is not making us more of anything—it’s just making those traits more transparent to us. We are stupid. We are lonely. We are narcissistic. Yes, we are. We always have been. Only these technologies empower us to be even better at it.
Our technologies act like mirrors in this way. Not flat mirrors, but like circus mirrors, exaggerating features, even making us laugh. But they are reflexive. We can’t point at them without having them point back at us. They reflect ourselves back to us, even if the images are distorted.
But we also see what our technology is showing us. Why? Because we’re living in the upheaval. When technology slows down again and we adapt, the mirrors will turn to glass again—to filters—ways of seeing—Instagram. We will not see our technologies, or at least, not realize that their lenses are distorting our perception. We humans can adapt to most any change. And we accommodate the distorted mirrors of technology until they become the means by which we dialogue with the world.
But during this season of upheaval—of stupidity, loneliness, and narcissism—we have the opportunity to see ourselves, at least in part, for who we really are. And in this season of technological transformation, we have the opportunity to seek a way out. What will free us from our foolishness? What will reconcile us to each other? What will give us the power to love someone other than ourselves?
Whatever it is, it won’t be our technology. Technology can only reveal to us who we already are and what we’re prone to be. We long for technology because our hearts thrill at taking flight. We also fear technology because our hearts are dark and savage jungles. Technology seems filled with possibilities and with dangers—but only because technology springs from the human heart.