Backlash against social media gathers steam
Two articles recently caught my eye. Although they were not apparently related, I saw an underlying connection that speaks, perhaps, to the future of social media.
The first, on the front page of last Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle, was headlined “Cafe asks customers to turn off laptops and start talking.” It seems there’s a coffee shop right here in Oakland whose owner “is asking customers to leave their laptops at home and actually speak to each other.” Anyone who’s ever been in a free wi-fi environment like Starbucks is familiar with the situation: people hunkered down at tables, nursing a $3 latte for hours while surfing the web. “I don’t have anything against technology,” said the cafe’s owner, a young, hip-looking guy with a goatee (i.e. not some dinosaur Boomer who “doesn’t get it”), “but it’s not the same as looking someone in the eye and pressing the flesh.”
I’ve expressed some negative feelings in this blog over the last year about the way laptops and other personal digital devices, like cell phones, are intruding into the social contract. That contract is an old one, understood pretty much by everyone, and it relates to how we behave in shared social situations. In a crowded elevator, for example, most people will be silent and avoid making eye contact with strangers. On an airplane flight, passengers understand the concept of personal space, which includes audio space: don’t let your arms stick over into your neighbor’s area, don’t make unnecessary noise, etc.
What technology is doing to us is destroying the traditional social contract. Now, that person next to you in the elevator is just as likely to be yakking into a Bluetooth. The other day at my gym, a woman was screaming at the top of her lungs into her cell phone for a good half-hour, while the rest of us had to endure her drama. With laptops in cafes, it’s just the opposite: where ten years ago patrons might have been debating about politics, gossiping, or playing chess, today they’re absorbed in their own little worlds. They might as well be on the Space Shuttle as in a crowded room with other human beings. “It’s now socially acceptable to text during dinner parties or stand alone at a party and check email,” the Chronicle article acidly observed.
Not at my dinner parties!
The second article was sent to me by Ron Washam, the famous Hosemaster of Wine. It is an excerpt from a new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” by a Harpers Magazine writer, Jason Lanier. Lanier deconstructs many myths surrounding social media in a way I strongly agree with. His underlying message is that social media is not only not bringing us closer and making us better, more dextrous communicators, but in fact is achieving exactly the opposite. “I know quite a few people, most of them young adults, who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, their statements can be true only if the idea of friendship is diminished,” Lanier writes, in a devastatingly pinpoint j’accuse whose truth is hard to deny. Lanier also demolishes one of the more persistent myths of social media: that its “hive mind” nature, in which thousands or millions of individual human minds are collectivized digitally, is somehow superior to a mere “organic human.” This is the assumption made by those entrepreneurs (and I’ve recently written about them) who are launching all these new “people’s wine tastings,” in which the collective wisdom of the crowd is said to be more trustworthy than the judgment of an individual expert. “The most tiresome claim of the reigning digital philosophy is that crowds working for free do a better job at some things than antediluvian paid experts,” Lanier writes. Tiresome, indeed.
The connection between the two articles is that there is a backlash setting in against social media. In the first case, real people, such as the cafe owner, are starting to understand how divisive technology can be (and it’s interesting that their customers are beginning to agree with them). In the second case, academics are questioning the metaphysics of social media, not just analyzing it, but peering into its destructive potential. So we have two prongs moving together in a pincer movement: normal people on the ground and the philosophers of the academy. That is now movements form, and generate momentum.