The Consequences of Our Enlightened Age

28 04 2010

In case you often heard, Facebook is doing something that is pissing off people on the Internet. Considering how easy it is do that, I’m not necessarily sure how seriously the company should take the criticism. After all, forum rants don’t pay nearly as well as advertisers. Certain groups always rail against perceived encroaches by companies upon the sacred soil of the Internet, but I’m not sure it’s ever really made them change course.

In some ways, the debate wears me out. The fundamental nature of the Internet, and the argument its most ardent zealots will put forth, is that it should be an open platform. Software should be editable by anybody and intellectual property such as music, movies and video games freely shared. If that’s true for the hackers, shouldn’t it be true for advertisers as well?

This balance also reminds me a lot of a hard-core capitalist who want markets to face little regulatory hindrance here but then demand that we protect our manufacturing jobs from shipping oversees. It’s an economic theory that values the lowest price and the most efficient method. If you want to keep little plastic shit at Wal-Mart cheap, then that’s the cost.

Of course, I don’t want to really be defending the moves made by Facebook in this situation, but I find it funny that it surprises people so much. Like economics, the logical position is to seek balance, but it’s more of a good time to pick sides and send salvos flying the other way.

When it comes down to it, I have mixed feelings. The thought of Twitter honestly revolts me a little bit. I do not feel the need to tell people obsessively about my current situation or have intimate knowledge of how their dog’s haircut went . The Facebook status feed is close enough for me.

However, I blog and Facebook and all that good stuff, so it’s not that I want to say such activities are without value. It’s more that I think there’s enough traffic out there on the Web these days that is incidental. With a few notable exceptions (think Iranian elections), the problem with Twitter and social media in general is it the information it gives does not inform. People across a spectrum of industries are viewing it all as some sort of Holy Grail, but what the Internet often delivers best is hype. For example, MySpace, which sold for millions and used now almost exclusively by bands and bots.

Questions of privacy usually take center stage with expanding Internet technologies, but it’s also a matter of validation. When that subject is considered, the implications are interesting.

As I said before, my opinion on this is far from consitent and I veer dangerously close to hypocrisy on several levels. Afterall, I am here writing this blog for the very purpose of having other people read my thoughts. I could write this as a note to myself, but then I would be missing the catharsis of perhaps having my musings “liked.” But the meaning of what we say changes in how we say it. Sarcasm remains a tricky thing to always successfully convey without speech and body language.

The question to ask is to what degree is such activity replacing the ways we would normally transit such information. I’ve read several history books lately detailing the lives of famous Americans such as Aaron Burr and Andrew Jackson, and the largest source of material for such accounts is always the personal letters written by such men to their friends and family. It’s possible that if, 100 years ago, I would voice my musings on the world around me with ink and parchment instead of a keyboard and fiber optic cables. All the same, the information would be transmitted.

In this view, the evolution of communciation is relatively benign. However, with every advance of humanity there is invariable something we lose. Our new ways of keeping in touch have also placed demands that we do it, that we master new manners of socializing lest we be affixed with a certain level of social stigma.

It’s even more so on a professional level, where social media is simultaneous a way to present oneself to employer and a way to present a product to a consumer. Success, in several areas of life, doesn’t mean exactly what it used to.

There is also something to said for quantity of quality. As our missives get reduced to 140 characters and Facebook statuses, the importance shifts from what is said to the simple fact that it is said at all. We are encouraged to keep “in touch” via short, simple messages. Our knowledge is tertiary, mostly composed of anecdotes and incidents. The debate on whether or not all this increased interaction is making us closer to our fellow human beings or more remote is still an open question, I think.

With the awareness that much of what we do is public domain comes the need to sell yourself (again, I’m guilty as charged of this one). Truthful articulation becomes secondary and words are measured as units of calculated risk instead of self-expression. When you start to hide things from everyone else, you also invariably start to hide them from yourself. Honesty, along with privacy, is also pushed aside.

I don’t think it’s too much science fiction to think that in 50 or 100 years there could be a strong, popular backlash to our always-on culture. The price of connectivity will always be privacy. Open up the gates if you want, but it might not be a bad idea to shut them off every now and then.




One response

29 04 2010

more, please. this is good.

but frank, what does privacy mean to us? does it matter if FB has an ungodly amount of information on you and shares it to businesses? I mean, is the worst thing that could happen is an ad target to you for toothpaste? in your head, what’s the worse result to facebook’s information whoring.

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