Zadie Smith has a… I’ll say frustrating… essay in The New York Review of Books about Facebook, The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. While she raises some interesting questions, and while I look forward to reading Lanier’s book, there’s a lot I don’t accept. Over at The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal has a smart and tempered response taking on, among other things, the charge that Facebook promotes homogenization.
Smith’s central point, as I read her, is this:
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.
Who among us has lost our messy feelings, our desires and our fears? Anyone? Bueller? I thought not. As I keep pointing out, we use online tools to supplement our offline lives rather than to replace them.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no reason for concern. Smith quotes Lanier:
Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature.
So what potentials are we stimulating with today’s web tools? Smith seems to think we’re not stimulating much worthwhile. Ezra Klein has a different take:
…if you’re someone who likes to spend Saturday in a quiet room with a good book and a long time to think about it, you might find Facebook unnerving. And Zadie Smith and Ross Douthat do. Sometimes, I’d guess, we all do. Conversely, if you’re someone who likes people but has trouble meeting them, or gets shy in unfamiliar social settings, you probably don’t think the Internet has made you less human.
It’s worth reading Ezra’s whole post. He references “Alter Ego”, a book matching photos of online gamers with their avatars. Ezra’s post highlights a particularly compelling example of “becoming human” online, so please give it a read.
For a more philosophical examination of how the web is contributing to human self-actualization, I recommend Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.
Benkler argues persuasively that the ‘net is enhancing our autonomy and enabling our individuality. This is not guaranteed by the technology. And so many of Smith’s concerns end up being important to guaranteeing that the net continues to improve human welfare. Yet, we have not been reduced and little has been lost. Rather, much has already been gained.