Zygmunt Bauman, the esteemed Polish sociologist, is now 90 years old. His advanced age has done nothing to slow his prodigious productivity. During a recent visit to Spain, he gave an interview that was published in El Pais. I encourage you to read the whole thing, it is not very long. There was one paragraph in particular that caught my attention:
The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy… But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.
I’m not sure that the very broad strokes with which he characterized social media are entirely fair. A bit more nuance is probably called for. That quibble aside, the bit about networks and communites strikes me as being quite well put and worthy of our consideration. One way of characterizing the history of modernity is precisely as the progressive liberation of the individual from the bounds of traditional communities. This liberation has not been without its costs.
I’ll pass along another interview, this one in De Zeen with Maarten Hajer, chief curator of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2016. I found it notable chiefly for Hajer’s determined opposition to what I’ve called a Borg Complex:
Speaking at an opening event for the biennale, Hajer called for architects and designers to stop treating the advent of smart technologies as inevitable, and to question whether they will solve any problems at all.
“People with lots of media force pretend to know exactly what the future will look like, as if there is no choice,” he said. “I’m of course thinking about self-driving vehicles inevitably coming our way [….]
Discussions about the future of cities are at risk of being “mesmerised” by technology, he added.
“We think about big data coming towards us, 3D printing demoting us, or the implication of robots in the sphere of health, as if they are inevitabilities. My call is for us to think about what we want from those technological advances.”
I should add, too, that I’ve very recently started posting with some regularity at CSET’s blog. Click over and follow along.
2 thoughts on “Links and News”
In grad school I read Bauman voraciously because he wrote in such broad strokes. His work provided an easy way into the hermeneutic circle for a number of topics, liquid modernity being the gateway drug toward postmodernity. Rereading some of his work about a year ago, I couldn’t help but be taken back by just how undercited all of it was. It echoed an academic sentiment but failed to clearly connect those beliefs as experienced.
Reading him now, I cannot help but be reminded of Marx’s interaction with a gentleman while in Manchester. After Marx lamented for some time about the state of the place and just how ill-built the city was, his companion said, “And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good day sir.” In his own mind, didn’t that man choose to listen to the echoes of his own mind? Don’t we tends towards tribalism?
Similarly, academic disciplines have their own comfort zone; they too bid a good day to other views. Has Bauman bothered to read the studies from Facebook? How much does he think about new technologies and the strength of weak ties, or the hostile media effect, or motivated reasoning? How many studies has he read that muster a n above 1?
Myopia will never be in short supply, and it is especially the case in debates over sociability and technology.