Swarms and Networks

“I also suggest,” Zygmunt Bauman wrote in 2008, “that identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation.” “Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation,” he went on to say, “turns into a lifelong task …. There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing.” The result, he added, is “a lot of tension and anxiety.” There is no remedy or cure for this anxiety because “the efforts of identity formation veer uneasily, as they must, between the two equally central human values of freedom and security.”

I’m not sure what to make of the emphasis placed on the tension between freedom and security. The book to which these words form a part of the Introduction, Does Ethics Have A Chance In A World of Consumers?, was published in 2008. I would assume that Bauman was working on the text in the mid-2000s, that is to say very much in the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed. In this context, a focus on the freedom/security binary makes some sense. Make of that opposition what you will. Bauman goes on to make a number of interesting observations, which I think it worth our time to consider. I’ll note two of them here, and one or two others in future posts.

1. “In the void left behind by the retreat of fading political authorities, it is now the self that strives to assume, or is forced to assume, the function of the center of the Lebenswelt …. It is the self that recasts the rest of the world as its own periphery, while assigning, defining, and attributing differentiated relevance to its parts, according to its own needs. The task of holding society together … is being ‘subsidiarized,’ ‘contracted out,’ or simply falling to the realm of individual life-politics. Increasingly it is being left to the enterprise of the ‘networking’ and ‘networked’ selves and to their connecting-disconnecting initiatives and operations.”

2. “In a liquid-modern society, swarms tend to replace groups, with their leaders, hierarchies, and pecking orders …. Swarms need not be burdened by the groups tools of survival: they assemble, disperse, and come together again from one occasion to another, each time guided by different, invariably shifting relevancies, and attracted by changing and moving targets …. A swarm has not top, no center; it is solely the direction of its current flight that casts some of the self-propelled swarm units into the position of ‘leaders’ to be followed for the duration of a particular flight or a part of it, though hardly longer.”

While Bauman was writing, social media was still in its infancy, but I’m struck by how useful 1. and 2. can be to helping us understand the social role of social media. Swarm: is there a more apt metaphor to capture the fluid dynamics of social media platforms, whether we are talking about viral memes or Twitter mobs?

Social media platforms materialized the social conditions that Bauman was describing. The networked self and the swarm became visible and, thus, traceable when they manifested themselves on social media platforms. Consequently, they also become subject to manipulation. Platforms (apps, etc.) are to the digital age what institutions were to pre-digital modernity. Power flows through them.

“Watching any individual ‘unit’ in the swarm,” Bauman went on to write, “we would find it daunting to explain the twists and turns it followed, and even more daunting to grasp the secret behind the amazing similarity and synchronicity of moves made by the great number of individual units.” Until, that is, every movement of the unit could be monitored and recorded with frightening precision, as is the case with the operations of individual “units” or users on social media platforms. Suddenly they become legible, subject to analysis and manipulation. Our politics are now driven by actors who understand this new state of affairs.


Tolkien and Twitter

In December 2016, I observed, alluding to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that Twitter was akin to Trump’s ring of power. Just as the One Ring in Tolkien’s fictional world had been devised to control all other rings of power, so Trump deployed Twitter to manipulate other media. With one tweet, Trump could own the news cycle.


Here’s a brief elaboration of the analogy without reference to Trump.

In Tolkien’s world, the One Ring makes the wearer invisible to those around them but with a catch: it makes the wearer visible to the Sauron, the true master of the Ring, and corrupts the soul of the wearer. The power Twitter confers, on the other hand, is precisely the power to become visible, potentially to a great many people. The catch is that such visibility is ephemeral and distorting. It is gone in a flash and what it makes visible is often a reduction of the person distorted to fit the demands of the medium.

First point, then, starkly put: Use of Twitter, like wearing the ring, can disfigure and corrupt the soul of the user as it disfigured and corrupted Gollum.

As with the Ring of Power, it is often the case that the wisest among us, like Gandalf, refuse to bear it at all.

With Twitter as with the Ring, those like Boromir who are most naively intent on using its power for good are also those who are most likely to be corrupted by its power.

Yet it is also the case with the ring of power that some were called upon to bear it for a time, Bilbo and Frodo most notably.

It is true that Frodo took up the burden of bearing the ring only so that it might be destroyed. While destroying Twitter in the fires of Mount Doom is not in the cards, it is not impossible to imagine using Twitter in a way that countermands its dominant tendencies. At the council of Elrond, it was made clear that, if the Hobbits succeed, it will be because they are working against the logic of the ring and its maker, refusing its power rather than seeking maximize it.

But … Bilbo and Frodo are not left unchanged by the ring. Humbly noble as they may have been, they were not beyond its corrupting influence. So it is with Twitter: there will be very few who are so virtuous, indeed so holy, as to take it up and be left unchanged. About this we should be clear-eyed.

An expanded version of these observations will appear on the Front Porch Republic sometime next week as part of an ongoing discussion about Twitter, social media, Wendell Berry, and localism. The initial post in that discussion is here.

The Interrupted Self

In Letters From Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, written in the 1920’s, Romano Guardini, related the following experience: “I recall going down a staircase, and suddenly, when my foot was leaving one step and preparing to set itself down on another, I became aware of what I was doing. I then noted what self-evident certainty is displayed in the play of muscles. I felt that a question was thus raised concerning motion.”

“This was a triviality,” Guardini acknowledges, “and yet it tells us what the issue is here.” He goes on to explain the “issue” as follows:

Life needs the protection of nonawareness. We are told this already by the universal psychological law that we cannot perform an intellectual act and at the same time be aware of it. We can only look back on it when it is completed. If we try to achieve awareness of it when we are doing it, we can do so only be always interrupting it and thus hovering between the action and knowledge of it. Obviously the action will suffer greatly as a result. It seems to me that this typifies the life of the mind and spirit as a whole. Our action is constantly interrupted by reflection on it. Thus all our life bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted, broken. It does not have the great line that is sure of itself, the confident movement deriving from the self.

It seems to me that the tendency Guardini identifies here has only intensified during the nearly 100 years since he wrote down his observations.

As an aside, I find works like Guardini’s useful for at least two reasons. The first, perhaps more obvious, reason is that they offer genuine insights that remain applicable in a more or less straightforward way. The second, perhaps less obvious, reason is that they offer a small window into the personal and cultural experience of technological change. When we think about the difference technologies make in our life and for society more broadly, we often have only our experience by which to judge. But, of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, or we can’t remember what we have never known. And this is especially the case when we consider what me might call the existential or even affective aspects of technological change.

Returning to Guardini, has he notes in the letter on “Consciousness” from which that paragraph was taken, literature was only one sphere of culture where this heightened consciousness was making itself evident.

I can’t know what literary works Guardini had in mind, but there is one scene in Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), that immediately sprung to mind. Early on in the story, which begins with Ilyich’s death, a co-worker, Peter Ivanovich, has come to Ilyich’s home to pay his respects. Upon entering the room where Ilyich’s body lay, Peter Ivanovich is uncertain as to how to proceed:

Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself. But he was not quite sure whether one should make obeisances while doing so. He therefore adopted a middle course. On entering the room he began crossing himself and made a slight movement resembling a bow.

I’ve come to read this scene as a microcosm of an extended, possibly recurring, cultural moment in the history of modernity, one that illustrates the emergence of self-consciousness.

Here is Peter Ivanovich, entering into a socially and psychologically fraught encounter with the presence of death. It is the sort of moment for which a robust cultural tradition might prepare us by supplying scripts that would relieve us of the burden of knowing just what to do while also conveying to us a meaning that renders the event intelligible. But Peter Ivanovich faces this encounter at a moment when the old traditions are only half-recalled and no new forms have arisen to take there place. He lives, that is, in a moment when, as Gramsci evocatively put it, the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In such a moment, he is thrown back upon himself: he must make choices, he must improvise, he must become aware of himself as one who must do such things.

His action, as Guardini puts it, “bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted.”

“Peter Ivanovich,” we go on to read, “continued to make the sign of the cross slightly inclining his head in an intermediate direction between the coffin, the Reader, and the icons on the table in a corner of the room. Afterwards, when it seemed to him that this movement of his arm in crossing himself had gone on too long, he stopped and began to look at the corpse.”

He is not inhabiting a ritual act, he is performing it and badly, as all such performances must be. “He felt a certain discomfort,” the narrator tells us, “and so he hurriedly crossed himself once more and turned and went out of the door — too hurriedly and too regardless of propriety, as he himself was aware.”

I’m not suggesting that Tolstoy intended this scene as a commentary on the heightened consciousness generated by liquid modernity, only that I have found in Peter Ivanovich’s awkwardness a memorable dramatic illustration of such.

Technology had a role to play in the generation of this state of affairs, particularly technologies of self-expression or technologies that represent the self to itself. It was one of Walter Ong’s key contentions, for example, that “writing heightened consciousness.” This was, in his view, a generally good thing. Of course, writing had been around long before Tolstoy was active in the late 19th century. He lived during an age when new technologies worked more indirectly to heighten self-consciousness by eroding the social structures that anchored the experience of the self.

In the early 20th century, Guardini pointed to, among other things, the rise of statistics and the bureaucracies that they empowered and to newspapers as the sources of a hypertrophied consciousness. We might substitute so-called Big Data and social media for statistics and newspapers. Rather, with regards to consciousness, we should understand the interlocking regimes of the quantified self* and social media as just a further development along the same trajectory. Fitbits and Facebook amplify our consciousness by what they claim to measure and by how they position the self vis-a-vis the self.

It seems to me that this heightened sense of self-consciousness is both a blessing and a curse and that it is the condition out of which much of our digital culture emerges. For those who experience it as a curse it can be, for example, a paralyzing and disintegrating reality. It may, under such circumstances further yield resentment, bitterness, and self-loathing (consider Raskolnikov or the Underground Man). Those who are thus afflicted may seek for renewed integrity through dramatic and/or violent acts, acts that they believe will galvanize their identity. Others may cope by adopting the role of happy nihilist or liberal ironist. Still others may double-down and launch out on the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

“Plants can grow only when their roots are in the dark,” Guardini wrote as he closed his letter on consciousness. “They emerge from the dark into the light. That is the direction of life. The plant and its direction die when the root is exposed. All life must be grounded in what is not conscious and from that root emerge into the brightness of consciousness. Yet I see consciousness becoming more and more deeply the root of our life.”

All of this leads him to ask in conclusion, “Can life sustain this? Can it become consciousness and at the same time remain alive?”


* For example: “Now the telescope is turned inward, on the human body in the urban environment. This terrestrial cosmos of data will merge investigations that have been siloed: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, biology, biochemistry, nutrition, epidemiology, economics, data science, urban science.”




Tip the Writer


Vows of Digital Poverty

Maybe deleting Facebook is something akin to taking monastic vows in medieval society.

Stay with me.

Here’s the background: In the aftermath of the latest spate of revelations confirming Facebook’s status as a blight on our society and plague upon our personal lives, many have finally concluded that it is time to #DeleteFacebook.

This seems like an obviously smart move, but some have pushed back against the impulse to abandon the platform.

[Self-disclosure: I have a Facebook account. I used to have a Facebook page for this blog. I’ve recently deleted the page for the blog because it struck me as being inconsistent with my work here. I have maintained my personal profile for some of the usual reasons: I thought I might do some good there and for the sake of maintaining a few relationships that would likely dissolve altogether were it not for the platform. The former now appears to be rather naive and the latter not quite worth the cost. I’ve begun to gradually delete what I’ve posted over the years. I may leave a skeleton profile in place for awhile for the sake of those weak ties, we’ll see. Update: I’ve deleted the profile.]

Here is how April Glaser presents the case against #DeleteFacebook:

I understand this reaction, but it’s also an unfair one: Deleting Facebook is a privilege. The company has become so good at the many things it does that for lots of people, leaving the service would be a self-harming act. And they deserve better from it, too. Which is why the initial answer to Facebook’s failings shouldn’t be to flee Facebook. We need to demand a better Facebook.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, no friend of Facebook, makes a similarly compelling case in the New York Times:

So go ahead and quit Facebook if it makes you feel calmer or more productive. Please realize, though, that you might be offloading problems onto those who may have less opportunity to protect privacy and dignity and are more vulnerable to threats to democracy. If the people who care the most about privacy, accountability and civil discourse evacuate Facebook in disgust, the entire platform becomes even less informed and diverse. Deactivation is the opposite of activism.

From a slightly different but overlapping perspective, a post at Librarian Shipwreck likewise complicates the impulse to delete Facebook. The post draws on Lewis Mumford to frame our use of Facebook as the acceptance of a technological bribe: “Deleting Facebook is an excellent way of refusing a bribe. Yet it must be remembered that the bribe has been successful because it has offered people things which seemed enticing, and the bribe sustains itself because people have now become reliant on it.” The post also cites Neil Postman, a vociferous critic of television, to the effect that suggesting Americans do away with television—as Jerry Mander, for example, argued—amounts to making “no suggestion at all.”

I confess that much of the foregoing analysis seems more or less right to me, yet something does not quite sit well.

None of these writers argue that there is a moral duty to remain on the platform, Vaidhyanathan comes closest to this position, but they all imply that the best path may be to remain and fight for a better Facebook, if not for yourself then for the sake of those, in the United States and abroad, who do not, for a variety of reasons, have the luxury of abandoning Facebook.

But what exactly is the relevant temporal horizon of moral action? If deleting Facebook has some unfortunate short term consequences, is it not still the better option in the long run? Can’t I find other ways to support the class of people who might be hurt in the short run by a mass exodus of people from Facebook? If I don’t think that any good or even better version of Facebook is possible, isn’t it best to abandon the platform and encourage others to do so as well?

For my part, I find it increasingly useful, if disturbingly so, to refer to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” as a way of framing our situation and the choices that confront us. Sometimes the only right response to the moral compromises that are foisted on us is to walk away, regardless of what it might cost us. However … it is also true that when we consider walking away, by deleting Facebook in this case, we should also consider who we leave behind.

So here is a suggestion. What if we imagine the decision to delete Facebook, or to abandon social media altogether, as something like a vocation, a calling not unlike the calling to the monastic life.

The monastic life was not for everyone. For one thing, executed faithfully it required a great deal of sacrifice. For another, society could not function if everyone decided to take vows and join a religious order. Rather, those who took vows lived a life of self-denial for their own sake and for the sake of the social order. Because the ordinary man and woman, the ruler, the solider, the artisan, etc. could not take vows and so devote themselves to the religious ideal, those who could take vows prayed on their behalf. They also, for a time, nurtured the intellectual life and preserved the materials upon which it depended. And they embodied an ideal in their communities knowing that this ideal could not be realized or pursued by most people. But their embodiment of the ideal benefited the whole. They withdrew from society in order to do their part for society.

We can usefully frame the choice to delete Facebook or abstain from social media or any other act of tech refusal by (admittedly loose) analogy to the monastic life. It is not for everyone. The choice can be costly. It will require self-denial and discipline. Not everyone is in a position to make such a choice even if they desired it. And maybe, under present circumstances, it would not even be altogether desirable for most people to make that choice. But it is good for all of us that some people do make that choice.

In this way we can create a legitimate space for refusal, while acknowledging that such a choice is only one way of fighting the good fight.

Those who choose to walk away will, if nothing else, be a sign to us, they will embody an ideal that many may desire but few will be able to pursue. They will preserve an alternative way of being in the world with its attendant memories and practices. And by doing so they will play their part in working for the good of society.

Of course, as it was with medieval monasticism, not all who pursue such a choice will do so in good faith, but those who do will be marked chiefly by humility.


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Facebook Doesn’t Care About Your Children

Facebook is coming for your children.

Is that framing too stark? Maybe it’s not stark enough.

Facebook recently introduced Messenger Kids, a version of their Messenger app designed for six to twelve year olds. Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Public Policy Director and Global Head of Safety, wrote a blog post introducing Messenger Kids and assuring parents the app is safe for kids.

“We created an advisory board of experts,” Davis informs us. “With them, we are considering important questions like: Is there a ‘right age’ to introduce kids to the digital world? Is technology good for kids, or is it having adverse affects on their social skills and health? And perhaps most pressing of all: do we know the long-term effects of screen time?”

The very next line of Davis’s post reads, “Today we’re rolling out our US preview of Messenger Kids.”

Translation: We hired a bunch of people to ask important questions. We have no idea what the answers may be, but we built this app anyway.

Davis doesn’t even attempt to fudge an answer to those questions. She raises them and never comes back to them again. In fact, she explicitly acknowledges “we know there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the impact of specific technologies on children’s development.” But you know, whatever.

Naturally, we’re presented with statistics about the rates at which children under 13 use the Internet, Internet-enabled devices, and social media. It’s a case from presumed inevitability. Kids are going to be online whether you like it or not, so they might as well use our product. More about this in a moment.

We’re also told that parents are anxious about their kid’s safety online. Chiefly, this amounts to concerns about privacy or online predators. Valid concerns, of course, and Facebook promises to give parents control over their kids online activity. However, safety, in this sense, is not the only concern we should have. A perfectly safe technology may nonetheless have detrimental consequences for our intellectual, moral, and emotional well-being and for the well-being of society when the technology’s effects are widely dispersed.

Finally, we’re given five principles Facebook and its advisory board developed in order to guide the development of their suite of products for children. These are largely meaningless sentences composed of platitudes and buzzwords.

Let’s not forget that this is the same company that “offered advertisers the opportunity to target 6.4 million younger users, some only 14 years old, during moments of psychological vulnerability, such as when they felt ‘worthless,’ ‘insecure,’ ‘stressed,’ ‘defeated,’ ‘anxious,’ and like a ‘failure.'”

Facebook doesn’t care about your children. Facebook cares about your children’s data. As Wired reported, “The company will collect the content of children’s messages, photos they send, what features they use on the app, and information about the device they use.”

There are no ads on Messenger Kids the company is quick to point out. “For now,” I’m tempted to add. Barriers of this sort tend to erode over time. Moreover, even if the barrier holds, an end game remains.

“If they are weaned on Google and Facebook,” Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center of Digital Democracy, warns, “you have socialized them to use your service when they become an adult. On the one hand it’s diabolical and on the other hand it’s how corporations work.”

Facebook’s interest in producing an app for children appears to be a part of a larger trend. “Tech companies have made a much more aggressive push into targeting younger users,” the same Wired article noted, “a strategy that began in earnest in 2015 when Google launched YouTube Kids, which includes advertising.”

In truth, I think this is about more than just Facebook. It’s about thinking more carefully about how technology shapes our children and their experience. It is about refusing the rhetoric of inevitability and assuming responsibility.

Look, what if there is no safe way for seven-year-olds to use social media or even the Internet and Internet-enabled devices? I realize this may sound like head-in-the-ground overreaction, and maybe it is, but perhaps it’s worth contemplating the question.

I also realize I’m treading on sensitive ground here, and I want to proceed with care. The last thing over-worked, under-supported parents need is something more to feel guilty about. Let’s forget the guilt. We’re all trying to do our best. Let’s just think together about this stuff.

As adults, we’ve barely got a handle on the digital world. We know devices and apps and platforms are designed to capture and hold attention in a manner that is intellectually and emotionally unhealthy. We know that these design choices are not made with the user’s best interest in mind. We are only now beginning to recognize the personal and social costs of our uncritical embrace of constant connectivity and social media. How eager should we be to usher our children in to this reality?

The reality is upon them whether we like it or not, someone might counter. Maybe, but I don’t quite buy it. Even if it is, the degree to which this is the case will certainly vary based in large part upon the choices parents make and their resolve.

Part of our problem is that we think too narrowly about technology, almost always in terms of functionality and safety. With regards to children, this amounts to safeguarding against offensive content, against exploitation, and against would-be predators. Again, these are valid concerns, but they do not exhaust the range of questions we should be asking about how children relate to digital media and devices.

To be clear, this is not only about preventing “bad things” from happening. It is also a question of the good we want to pursue.

Our disordered relationship with technology is often a product of treating technology as an end rather than a means. Our default setting is to uncritically adopt and ask questions later if at all. We need, instead, to clearly discern the ends we want to pursue and evaluate technology accordingly, especially when it comes to our children because in this, as in so much else, they depend on us.

Some time ago, I put together a list of 41 questions to guide our thinking about the ethical dimensions of technology. These questions are a useful way of examining not only the technology we use but also the technology to which we introduce our children.

What ideals inform the choices we make when we raise children? What sort of person do we hope they will become? What habits do we desire for them cultivate? How do we want them to experience time and place? How do we hope they will perceive themselves? These are just a few of the questions we should be asking.

Your answers to these questions may not be mine or your neighbor’s, of course. The point is not that we should share these ideals, but that we recognize that the realization of these ideals, whatever they may be for you and for me, will depend, in greater measure than most of us realize, on the tools we put in our children’s hands. All that I’m advocating is that we think hard about this and proceed with great care and great courage. Great care because the stakes are high; great courage because merely by our determination to think critically about these matters we will be setting ourselves against powerful and pervasive forces.

Tip the Writer