Et in Facebook ego

Today is the birthday of the friend whose death elicited this post two years ago. I republish it today for your consideration. 

In Nicolas Poussin’s mid-seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, shepherds have stumbled upon an ancient tomb on which the titular words are inscribed. Understood to be the voice of death, the Latin phrase may be roughly translated, “Even in Arcadia there am I.” Because Arcadia symbolized a mythic pastoral paradise, the painting suggested the ubiquity of death. To the shepherds, the tomb was a momento mori: a reminder of death’s inevitability.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Poussin was not alone among artists of the period in addressing the certainty of death. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, vanitas art flourished. The designation stems from the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omni vanitas, a recurring refrain throughout the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: ”vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” in the King James translation. Paintings in the genre were still lifes depicting an assortment of objects which represented all that we might pursue in this life: love, power, fame, fortune, happiness. In their midst, however, one might also find a skull or an hour glass. These were symbols of death and the brevity of life. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to make the most of their living years.

Edwart Collier, 1690

Edwart Collier, 1690

For the most part, we don’t go in for this sort of thing anymore. Few people, if any, operate under the delusion that we might escape death (excepting, perhaps, the Singularity crowd), but we do a pretty good job of forgetting what we know about death. We keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind. We’re certainly not going out of our way to remind ourselves of death’s inevitability. And, who knows, maybe that’s for the better. Maybe all of those skulls and hourglasses were morbidly unhealthy.

But while vanitas art has gone out of fashion, a new class of memento mori has emerged: the social media profile.

I’m one of those on again, off again Facebook users. Lately, I’ve been on again, and recently I noticed one of those birthday reminders Facebook places in the column where it puts all of the things Facebook would like you to click on. It was for a high school friend who I had not spoken to in over eight years. It was in that respect a very typical Facebook friendship:  the sort that probably wouldn’t exist at all were it not for Facebook. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the platform. For the most part, I appreciate being able to maintain at least minimal ties to old friends. In this case, though, it demonstrated just how weak those ties can be.

Upon clicking over to their profile, I read a few odd notes, and very quickly it became disconcertingly clear that my friend had died over a year ago. Naturally, I was taken a back and saddened. He died while I was off Facebook, and news had not reached me by any other channel. But there it was. Out of nowhere and without warning my browser was haunted by the very real presence of death. Momento mori.

Just a few days prior I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by the tragic news of a former student’s sudden passing. Because we had several mutual connections, photographs of the young man found their way into my news feed for several days. It was odd and disconcerting and terribly sad all at once. I don’t know what I think of social media mourning. It makes me uneasy, but I won’t criticize what might bring others solace. In any case, it is, like death itself, an unavoidable reality of our social media experience. Death is no digital dualist.

Facebook sometimes feels like a modern-day Arcadia. It is a carefully cultivated space in which life appears Edenic. The pictures are beautiful, the events exciting, the faces always smiling, the children always amusing, the couples always adoring. Some studies even suggest that comparing our own experience to these immaculately curated slices of life leads to envy, discontent, and unhappiness. Understandably so … if we assume that these slices of life are comprehensive representations of the lives people acutally lead. Of course, they are not.

Lest we be fooled, however, there, alongside the pets and witty status updates and wedding pictures and birth announcements, we will increasingly find our virtual Arcadias haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead. Our digital memento mori.

Et in Facebook ego.

The Facebook Experiment, Briefly Noted

More than likely, you’ve recently heard about Facebook’s experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. I know, Facebook as a whole is an experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. Fair enough, but this was a more pointed experimented that involved the manipulation of what user’s see in their News Feeds. Here is how the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  summarized the significance of the findings:

“We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.”

Needless to say (well except to Facebook and the researchers involved), this massive psychological experiment raises all sorts of ethical questions and concerns. Here are some of the more helpful pieces I’ve found on the experiment and its implications:

Update: Here are two more worth considering:

Those four six pieces should give you a good sense of the variety of issues involved in the whole situation, along with a host of links to other relevant material.

I don’t have too much to add except two quick observations. First, I was reminded, especially by Gurstein’s post, of Greg Ulmer’s characterization of the Internet as a “prothesis of the unconscious.” Ulmer means something like this: The Internet has become a repository of the countless ways that culture has imprinted itself upon us and shaped our identity. Prior to the advent of the Internet, most of those memories and experiences would be lost to us even while they may have continued to be a part of who we became. The Internet, however, allows us to access many, if not all, of these cultural traces bringing them to our conscious awareness and allowing us to think about them.

What Facebook’s experiment suggests rather strikingly is that such a prosthesis is, as we should have known, a two-way interface. It not only facilitates our extension into the world, it is also a means by which the world can take hold of us. As a prothesis of our unconscious, the Internet is not only an extension of our unconscious, it also permits the manipulation of the unconscious by external forces.

Secondly, I was reminded of Paul Virilio’s idea of the general or integral accident. Virilio has written extensively about technology, speed, and accidents. The accident is an expansive concept in his work. In his view, accidents are built-in to the nature of any new technology. As he has frequently put it, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

The general or integral accident is made possible by complex technological systems. The accident made possible by a nuclear reactor or air traffic is obviously of a greater scale than that made possible by the invention of the hammer. Complex technological systems create the possibility of cascading accidents of immense scale and destructiveness. Information technologies also introduce the possibility of integral accidents. Virilio’s most common examples of these information accidents include the flash crashes on stock exchanges induced by electronic trading.

All of this is to say that Facebook’s experiment gives us a glimpse of what shape the social media accident might take. An interviewer alludes to this line from Virilio: “the synchronizing of collective emotions that leads to the administration of fear.” I’ve not been able to track down the original context, but it struck me as suggestive in light of this experiment.

Oh, and lastly, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg issued an apology of sorts. I’ll let Nick Carr tell you about it.

On Paper

“The world of Paper is an anachronism. It’s a screenless world created to sell you a thing made for the screen. It’s the past resurrected in order to convince you that something entirely common today is actually a portal to the future. Anyone touching a shiny, bright screen is going to look futuristic when they’re ensconced in a world furnished with stuff from Grandmother’s attic. This is a manipulation. If we want the world of Her, let’s actually go build it. Let’s figure out how to build technology that can be productively used without having to stare at it all the time. Let’s figure out how to do that in a way that doesn’t continue to hand over our privacy and free will to corporations that clearly still haven’t figured out how to get out of the advertising game. Let’s figure out how to break the attention barrier and return to a sense of technological progress that is measured by how useful things are, not how good they are at catching us in digital traps where we waste our lives clicking things. But let’s not delude ourselves that we’re just an app-install away from a frictionless and clean world of invisible technology.”

From Christopher Butler’s wide-ranging reflection on Facebook’s new app, Paper, “fashionable Luddism,” the commercial uses of nostalgia, depictions of the future in film, and our perpetually re-negotiated settlements with technology. Read the whole thing.

Et in Facebook ego

In Nicolas Poussin’s mid-seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, shepherds have stumbled upon an ancient tomb on which the titular words are inscribed. Understood to be the voice of death, the Latin phrase may be roughly translated, “Even in Arcadia there am I.” Because Arcadia had come to symbolize a mythic pastoral paradise, the painting suggested the ubiquity of death. To the shepherds, the tomb was a momento mori: a reminder of the inescapability of death.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Poussin was not alone among artists of the period in addressing the certainty of death. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, vanitas art flourished. The designation stems from the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omni vanitas, a recurring refrain throughout the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:  “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Paintings in the genre were still lifes depicting an assortment of objects which represented all of that we might pursue in this life. In their midst, however, one would also find a skull and an hour glass:  symbols of death and the brevity of life. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to make the most of their living years.

Edwart Collier, 1690

Edwart Collier, 1690

For the most part, we don’t go in for this sort of thing anymore. Few people, if any, operate under the delusion that we might escape death (excepting the Singularity folks I guess), but we do a pretty good job of forgetting what we know about death. We keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind. We’re certainly not going out of our way to remind ourselves of death’s inevitability. And, who knows, maybe that’s for the better. Maybe all of those skulls and hourglasses were morbidly unhealthy. I honestly don’t know.

But while vanitas art has gone out of fashion, a new class of memento mori has emerged: the social media profile.

I’m one of those on again, off again Facebook users. Lately, I’ve been on again, and recently I noticed one of those birthday reminders Facebook places in the left hand column where it puts all of the things Facebook would like you to do and click on. It was for a high school friend whom I had not spoken to in over eight years. It was in that respect a very typical Facebook friendship:  the sort that probably wouldn’t exist at all any longer were it not for Facebook. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the platform. I appreciate being able to maintain at least a minimal connection with people I’d once been quite close to. In this case, though, it demonstrated just how weak those ties can be.

Upon clicking over to their profile, I read a few odd birthday notes, and very quickly it became obvious that my high school friend had died over a year ago. It was a shock, of course. It had happened while I was off of Facebook and news had not reached me by any other channel. But there it was. Out of nowhere and without warning my browser was haunted by the very real presence of death. Momento mori.

Just a few days prior I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by the tragic news that a former student had unexpectedly passed away. Because we had several mutual connections, photographs of the young man found their way into my news feed for several days. It was odd and disconcerting and terribly sad all at once. I don’t know what I think of social media mourning. It makes me uneasy, but I won’t criticize what might bring others solace. In any case, it is, like death itself, an unavoidable reality of our social media experience. Death is no digital dualist.

Facebook sometimes feels like a modern-day Arcadia. It is a carefully cultivated space in which life appears Edenic. The pictures are beautiful, the events exciting, the face are always smiling, the children always amusing, the couples always adoring. Certain studies even suggest that comparing our own experience to these immaculately curated slices of life leads to envy, discontent, and unhappiness. Naturally … if we assume that these slices of life are comprehensive representations of the lives people lead. Of course, they are not.

But there, alongside the pets and witty status updates and wedding pictures and birth announcements, we will increasingly find our social media platforms haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead.

In that dreary opening chapter of The Scarlett Letter, Hawthorne wrote, “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

And so it is with our digital utopias, our virtual Arcadias.

Et in Facebook ego.

Living for the Moment in the Age of the Image

We live for the moment because the moment is what an image captures.

(That, I’ve come to realize retrospectively, is the take away from my last post.)

It’s not uncommon, I presume, to snap a picture again and again in the often vain attempt to get it just so. Getting it just so in such cases entails matching the image captured by the photograph to the image in our mind of what that moment should look like (and feel like).

Two questions follow.

First, where did that image in our mind come from? Likely from countless similar images we’ve seen on Facebook or Pinterest or Flickr or television or Norman Rockwell or whatever.

The other night, I stood in a near empty section of a big box store waiting, surrounded by aisles of Christmas decorations, enveloped in the projected sounds of Christmas music, and I thought to myself, if this were a movie, this is the scene in which the director would zoom further and further out, showing me standing there alone with would-be purchases in hand, and it would scream that tired-late-capitalist-suburban-ennui cliché.

And even if I had felt as much, not simply thought that this was what the image suggested, but actually felt that ennui, would it have been because I was, in fact, an instance of the case, or would it have been because I had that pre-interpreted image in my head?

We’re Platonists, but our Ideas are not eternal, timeless Forms remembered from glimpses we caught of them in some preexistent state of our souls. Our Ideas, against which we seek to test the truthfulness and reality of our experience, are the Images that have become iconic commonplaces generated in the age of photography, film, and Madison Avenue, and now by social media on which we all play Don Draper to our own curated brand identity.

The second question, then, is this: Why are we so intent on getting that image just so?

Because it is what our dominant forms of remembering will receive. To be remembered is to appear, to be taken notice of, to be; so we desire deeply to remember and be remembered. So much so that we will transform the logic by which we make sense of our lives so that our lives may be subject to means of remembering.

In the age of stories, be they stories told by the rhapsode, the bard, or the novelist, what mattered was the whole, not the part. Individual scenes were subordinate to the logic of the whole plot. They gave one the sense that there was a beginning, middle, and end; and it was not until the end that the whole significance of the beginning and the middle could be perceived, much less understood.

In the age of images, this is reversed. In the image, the whole is instantaneously present. We crave that moment and the image that captures it, and so we pose and point and click and frame and click and click again and pose again, but naturally, and click.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan, how in the closing scene Ryan, played by Matt Damon, now far advanced in years, breaks down before the grave of Capt. Miller, Tom Hank’s character, and pleads with his uncomprehending wife to tell him that he has lived a good life — a life that, in the end, made sense of the sacrifice of those who died for him? We could care less about the good life taken whole and judged from the end, but, ah, we’d love to play a scene like that. It would work so well on Youtube, and it would feel just right, just then.

We are connoisseurs of the moments and scenes that the camera can frame, but we have little patience or taste for the satisfactions that arise not in the moment, but in deferred time, when, long after the moment has passed, it may finally be understood in light of some larger canvas. How, then, could we be expected to take notice of and live in light of some as of yet future whole. There is no memory to sustain such a project any longer. But there is memory enough and more to sustain the capture and storage and retrieval of the moment.

Recently, I suggested that Facebook might undermine the quest for the narrative unity of a life. This was naïve. It is not that Facebook undermines the quest for narrative unity, it is that Facebook makes such a quest implausible to begin with. Facebook — as a means of remembering, as our treasury of memory — receives the image, not the story. No one will write our story, and even if someone would, who would have the patience to listen to or read it.

If we will remember and be remembered, it will be by the image — and so we will live for the image, for the moment.