I wouldn’t mind meeting Socrates for a coffee and telling him just what I think of his pearl of wisdom – the unexamined life is not worth living. I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time lately examining various aspects of my life. Just when I think I’ve finally got a handle on it all and am indulging in a harmless bout of self-congratulations, wallowing in the fact that as lives go, mine isn’t all that bad at all, fate intervenes and with a swift kick, lands me flat on my ass back at square one. Generally, these moments of introspection are precipitated by something I read or hear – something that resonates with the inner voice that is my conscience. The latest provocateur is writer/entrepreneur Andrew Keen, who made a recent appearance on the TEDx stage here in Budapest.
Cult of the social
In his 18-minute presentation, Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture, spoke of the cult of the social and the 21st-century expectation that we reveal ourselves to all and sundry, be it through blogging, Facebook updates, or tweets. He fears for the fate of individual liberty in the networked age – what Silicon Valley is now calling ‘the social world’. He quoted the famous line from the movie The Social Network, from the on-screen character Sean Parker – we lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet – and goes on to say that we’re on the verge of a new world, a place where we are living online, where the virtual is becoming real, a world where data is the new oil and those who have control of this data, control the world. He contrasts the issue of loneliness as an essential human condition with the hyper-visibility we are embroiled in today – the new reality of the digital world.
I hadn’t ever given my use of Internet much thought. I would never describe myself as a social media junkie. I check Facebook a couple of times a day to see what my 200+ friends are up to (who’d have thought I’d ever be so popular!). I don’t access it by phone and my status updates rarely concern me. I don’t have a check-in application; the world doesn’t need to know where I am at any given moment. I never post photos of people as I see this as an invasion of privacy. The amount of personal detail available about me is negligible. I don’t tweet. But … (gulp) … I blog. I say that as if I’m confessing to some heinous crime and wonder if this makes me guilty of what Keen calls ‘digital narcissism – the embrace of the self’?
Back in 1961, Clark Moustakas, in his book Loneliness, describes the phenomenon as ‘a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, extend and deepen his humanity’. Whether we define loneliness as a state of being alone, of experiencing solitude, or simply feeling lonely, it is a fact of life. Or it was …
In his TEDx talk, Keen quoted a line from the real-life Sean Parker in a recent interview in Forbes magazine where he says that his pitch with his new company, Airtime, is to ‘eliminate loneliness’. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogs are already doing a damn good job of making us think that we’re closer than ever to our friends and family; we now have the capacity to be in touch 24/7. And while this might, on the surface, seem like a good thing, I wonder if we’re not diluting the quality of our interpersonal communications to the point that we are simply talking (or tweeting, or blogging, or updating our status) to remind ourselves that we are alive and despite the overwhelming numbers of friends or followers that we might have, we are, in fact, distancing ourselves from humanity.
If my status update doesn’t attract a bevy of comments, is this akin to being ignored? If only a handful of people read my blog, does this mean it’s worthless? If I have 700 Facebook friends and 1000 followers on Twitter and a klout ranking of 89, does that make me a better person than someone with no online presence at all? That the lines between the real world and the digital world are blurring is scary, but it’s the pervasiveness of the social world that is scariest of all. It’s time to re-examine our relationship with the Internet and how much of ourselves we are losing in being so visible. While it might appear that we are doing little more than engaging with the freedom of expression offered by social media, perhaps Keen is right to be concerned about the future of our individual liberty.
First published in the Budapest Times 14 October 2011