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.

Psycho Dad Videos and the Spectacle of Performative Parenting

The rant is not my preferred rhetorical mode, but I may in what follows tread perilously close to ranting. I’ll begin, though, with Plato’s telling of the story of the Ring of Gyges. You’ll remember that the mythical ring of Gyges had the power to render the wearer invisible. Plato deploys the story in order to explore the nature of virtue. The question it raises, of course, is rather obvious: What would we do if we knew that no one would see? The implied response is that most of us would behave rather badly. Consequently, we may conclude that it is the possibility of discovery that keeps most of us in line. Anonymity induces vice.

The advent of Youtube, however, invites us to ask another question, one that reverses the logic of the Ring of Gyges: What would we do if we knew that a million people would watch us?

Answer? All manner of malicious idiocy, it would seem.

Consider, for example, the Psycho Dad video genre that has emerged over the last few years. I suspect you’ve seen an example or two. You may remember, for instance, this gem from 2012 in which a dad puts a few bullet holes in his daughter’s laptop after learning that she’d posted some disparaging comments about her parents on Facebook. Thirty-nine million views and counting. Or take this more recent entry, the immediate cause of this post, in which a father plows over his sons video games with a riding lawn mower while the son descends into an extended emotional meltdown.

With apologies to Foucault, we appear to be witnessing the reemergence of punishment by public spectacle. But honestly, to put it that way lends these cases far too much gravitas. These videos strike me rather as being instances of either self-indulgent vindictiveness or, worse, spectacles of emotional torment.

Even if some reasonable case could be made for the wisdom of these actions, even if we assume that the parents are in each case entirely in the right, why, I would like to know, would one feel compelled to publicize these proceedings. It is not as if these are instances of culturally mandated ritual shaming to which the parent reluctantly acquiesces. They are cases of performative parenting for the sake of a virtual audience and at the expense of the children involved.

Do you, as a parent, feel that disposing of your sons video games is the best way to keep him from wasting his life away? That’s probably not the best course of action, but, even if it were, could it not be done without also exploiting your son’s emotional response for the sake of Youtube infamy?

The fact is that I have a hard time accepting that these are, in fact, instances of “tough love,” as they are often characterized. For my part, I’m not sure how, on any plausible account of love, we could justify the public exploitation of the ones we love, particularly in the self-serving work of role-playing some fantasy of kick-ass fatherhood.

But, of course, that’s not the whole story. These videos are made and posted precisely because they get the attention they seek. They get that attention because enough people, enough of us, take perverse pleasure in watching them and then go on to share them with approving commentary on our social media networks. And we do so because we have grown all too comfortable with the casual erosion of the dignity of the human person upon which all of what passes as “reality” based entertainment is premised. That they are ostensibly willing participants does nothing, in my view, to mitigate the moral peril.

One of the more memorable stanzas in Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” reads,

“A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.”

These lines get at the problem with the psycho dad videos and others like them. They presume a world in which one should laugh and jeer because another wept, and that is not a world any of us want to live in.

On the Merits of Inconclusive Debates

On social media, criticism too often takes the form of aggressively ironic derision performed for those who are already prone to agree. It can also be challenging, although not impossible, to find sustained discussions that are both civil and well-reasoned. Relatedly, one of the complaints I frequently hear about online debates, one that I’ve made myself, is that no one ever changes their mind as a result of their online exchanges, no matter how prolonged or passionate those exchanges might be.

Of course, there are many reasons for this. For instance, we are, it seems to me, much less likely to surrender our positions, particularly our cherished convictions, in a public forum. Most of us are not so humble. Moreover, shifts in perspective or intellectual reversals tend to happen gradually. So much so, that one may not even be able to pinpoint the moment of conversion. In any case, they rarely happen in the heat of intellectual battle. And that last metaphor is also part of the problem. There’s a tendency to characterize our intellectual life as a quest to vanquish all foes rather than as a mutual, dialectical pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. A change of mind, then, is experienced as a defeat rather than a step toward better understanding.

All of this is really just a way of introducing the following passage from Oliver O’Donovan’s Self, World, and Time. O’Donovan reminds us, reminds me, that there is value even in an inconclusive debate or conversation, because, again, the point is not to be proven right.

“Let us suppose that I disapprove of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it. As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear. One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial. If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask if those conditions could ever recur. I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too. None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me. What it amounts to is that if at the end of the argument I still say, ‘I disapprove of the death penalty!’ I know much better than before what I mean by it.”

Thanks to Alastair Roberts for drawing my attention to it. 

Why We Disconnect Matters

A little over two weeks ago, The New Republic ran a piece by Evgeny Morozov titled “The Mindfulness Racket.” Comments that accompanied links to the article on social media suggested that Morozov had torn into the advocates of mindfulness and critics of digital distraction with the sort of eviscerating rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from him. The title reinforced the expectation.

When I finally got around to reading the article, however, I found that this was not exactly the whole story. Morozov does take issue with the “digital detox crowd,” but not because of their desire to disconnect or their uneasiness with the new “attention economy.” Rather, he takes aim at their motives and their strategies. For instance, Morozov points out that many advocates of mindfulness urge us “to unplug—for an hour, a day, a week—so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction.” Unplugging and the pursuit of mindfulness, if it is only practiced in order to re-immerse oneself in the same regime of distraction and technocratic productivity, if it does nothing to change the conditions that gave rise to the need to disconnect in the first place–such practices simply do not go far enough.

Approached in this way, disconnection functions analogously, although inversely so, to the place of carnival in medieval society. Carnivals playfully overturned the expectations and assumptions ordering society. They inverted political, religious, and social expectations. They were temporary eruptions of disorder that ultimately functioned to preserve the order of society. They did so by operating as safety valves releasing the tensions, frustrations, and desires that were ordinarily repressed by the existing moral order. Extraordinary moments of controlled disorder, in other words, served to preserve the ordinarily existing order. On Morozov’s reading, disconnection as practiced by many of its advocates functions similarly. Disconnection is a moment of order that functions to sustain the ordinarily disordered status quo.

Morozov also alludes to Nathan Jurgenson’s critical essay, “The Disconnectionists,” and Alexis Madrigal’s similarly suspicious piece, “‘Camp Grounded,’ ‘Digital Detox,’ and the Age of Techno-Anxiety.” But Morozov’s brief discussion of these pieces is a hinge in his argument. After citing Jurgenson and Madrigal, both of whom raise important considerations, Morozov adds,

“Note that it’s the act of disconnection—the unplugging—that becomes the target of criticism, as if there are no good reasons to be suspicious of the always-on mode championed by Silicon Valley, what is called ‘real-time.’”

A little further on he warns, “critics like Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.” From there Morozov suggests that the problematic aspects of social media should not be viewed as a natural price to pay for the enjoyment and benefits we derive from it. Rather, he thinks we should scrutinize social media as we would slot machines: “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.”

Finally, Morozov is right to stress the fact that “why we disconnect matters.” “We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity,” Morozov suggests, “or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley.” Of course, it is the latter option that Morozov urges us to adopt.

I trust that this has been a faithful summary of Morozov’s argument, but I encourage you to read the whole piece. Critics like Jurgenson, whose essay from last year I’ve long meant to write about, and Madrigal raise important concerns, but it has always seemed to me that the net, perhaps unintended, effect of their criticism was to suggest that there is no real problem with the way that our digital lives are ordered. In my view, Jurgenson and Madrigal are most useful when they are pointing out the self-serving and self-righteous tendencies in some of the digital cultures critics. Morozov does the same, but in doing so he does not suggest that the problem itself is illusory. In fact, the most serious failure of the disconnectionists in his view is their failure to fully understand the scope of the problem. Consequently, they have not been serious enough in their efforts to redress 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.