Adventures in Luddism, part II

by longingforthereal

Next week I’ll be driving to Amherst, Massachusetts to participate in a conference on “Citizenship and Its Discontents: Belonging in a Global World.” As soon as I saw the call for papers three months ago I jumped at the opportunity. It seemed like the perfect forum to voice some of my ideas about the cultural consequences of the Internet, particularly as they are likely to affect the shape of global citizenship in the twenty-first century. But now I’m faced with the challenge of actually putting these ideas into some meaningful configuration. Part of the point of the conference is to speculate about the future, so naturally I feel a certain amount of pressure to speculate accurately (convincingly? within reason?), right?

It occurs to me (sitting in this coffee shop, arguably procrastinating) that I am in the eye of the storm that is writing social criticism, or trying to write social criticism well. In order to say something useful about the likely portents of present developments, I have to try to take into account all the relevant factors and possibilities. I have to try to be both imaginative and fair. And this is hard.

The paper I proposed is loosely based on the research I did for the first chapter of my dissertation. For the purposes of the conference I called it “Citizenship as ‘Facebookization’: Consumer Selfhood on the Internet.” Actually, the initial title was “Citizenship as Aesthetic Paradox,” but I decided to reign myself in after I heard they’d accepted it. Perhaps I had taken certain liberties in the abstract, I thought in retrospect.

“In the era of digital revolution,” I wrote one January morning after a strong cup of coffee, “the idea of belonging is undergoing major revision. Bereft of the stability furnished by heritage, national boundaries, and strong local loyalties, citizens of the world are uniting in new ways, but within singular formats. Thanks to the marvelous possibilities of the Internet, individuals are connecting across vast swaths of geographic space and time. Yet in an important aesthetic sense the world is getting smaller. One of the most successful engines of aesthetic uniformity at present is Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site Facebook…” And so on.

“Facebookization” is Time magazine’s phrase, and I still think it’s an accurate one for describing what’s happening to American culture, if not global culture, through the influence of this ubiquitous website. Time named Zuckerberg Person of the Year in 2010 when the site had about 550 million users worldwide. Today it has over a billion, and by all indications this number will continue to grow. The question is what Facebook’s popularity tells us. What ideas of citizenship are likely to emerge under its influence, and how will its model of sociability continue to affect the shape of culture worldwide?

The main features of Facebook’s “model of sociability” are familiar enough: users around the globe upload around 1 billion new pieces of data each day, which includes friending, status updates, photo sharing, tagging and commenting. According to Zuckerberg, all this activity testifies to a basic human predisposition, which Facebook merely sets in rapid motion through the power of the Internet: “It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you,” he told The New Yorker shortly before he was named Person of the Year. Openness, connectivity, and social trust are universal values. Facebook just happened to bring them together under one format.

In all the public interviews he’s given since 2007, Zuckerberg often speaks of Facebook in quasi-utopian terms, as if his company is building a new kind of socialism for the twenty-first century. Yet to a significant extent, his social network boils down to a sophisticated marketing apparatus. Facebook makes sharing consumer preferences an integral part of “friendship” and its main source of revenue, a feat company executives consider one of their greatest achievements. “What marketers have always been looking for is trying to get you to sell things to your friends,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, explained to Time. “And that’s what you do on Facebook.”

Along with news articles, restaurants, bands, and nonprofit organizations, Facebook encourages its users to click the “like” button for products that might automatically generate advertisements on the pages of their friends. During the 2010 World Cup, for instance, Nike ran an ad and 6 million people clicked on it. Few Facebook users seem to mind the role of advertising on the site. In fact, as Time summed up, “plenty of people are willing, even eager, to make their social lives part of an advertising pageant staged by a major corporation.”

The monetization of social life clearly predates Facebook. But whatever its sources, this circumstance bodes well for what Chris Cox, the company’s Vice President, calls “Mark’s vision” of the future: “Literally everything you use could be a conduit between you and people around you. The television could. The GPS on your car could. Your phone could. iTunes could.” Once the Facebookization of the Web is complete, no consumer choice will have to exist in isolation. Everyone will have the benefit of knowing where their friends are and what they like first.

Given these possibilities, I want to say that the precise contours of Facebook-style socialism come into sharp relief, and that we should want to contest Mark’s vision of the future as an abomination against true individuality and genuine free choice (whatever those mean). But Zuckerberg is a tricky utopian theorist; he consistently tries to charm you with his good intentions: “The thing that I really care about,” he told Time, “is making the world more open and connected. What that stands for is something that I have believed in for a really long time. Open means having access to more information, right? More transparency, being able to share things and have a voice in the world. And connected is helping people stay in touch and maintain empathy for each other, and bandwidth.”

It’s possible that these airy assertions form the intellectual-technological blueprint for a better world. Perhaps the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions are evidence of this. But Zuckerberg’s ideological blind spots are hard to overlook. That he could so easily conflate the words “open” and “connected” with their concrete manifestations on Facebook testifies to the looseness of his definitions and the restricted sense in which they apply within the abundant consumer culture he takes for granted. Facebook’s CEO rarely speaks of ethical terms like empathy outside of a business and marketing context, and this is telling. Here, for instance, is how he explains Facebook’s near-term goals: “I think the next five years are going to be about building out this social platform…It’s about the idea that most applications are going to become social, and most industries are going to be rethought in a way where social design and doing things with your friends is at the core of how these things work.”

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Is it some absurd neurosis that makes me chafe at Mark’s vision of the future? Is it some pronounced (also absurdly hopeless) anti-capitalist bias? What is fair to say about Zuckerberg and Facebook? Is it enough to say that I for one do not want to live in his version of a socialist consumer-republic?

They put me on a panel called “Making it Compute: Possibilities and Limitations of Digital Spheres.” Hopefully when I begin to speak they’ll know my heart is in the right place.

-Michael Fisher