Evgeny Morozov on the Death of the Cyberflâneur

Evgeny Morozov pens a thoughtful piece on the death of the cyberflâneur – a natural consequence of the customized, walled-off, app-and-Like-and-Tweet-button-infested ‘Net that is staring us in the face–no pun intended–as Mark Zuckerberg and his merry band of Facebook buccaneers ride through town, rolling blunts in thousand-dollar bills. (Morozov runs the inevitable risk of turning off those who don’t like invocations of French notions in contemporary commentary but it is one worth taking.)

The cyberflâneur is animated and sustained by serendipity as he travels through and around the ‘Net. He hopes he will stumble upon the new, the unexpected, the not-immediately-contingent-on-the-past through his travels. He puts his trust in the ‘Net’s ‘community’ to generate content that he might like (not Like); he might generate some of his own to throw into the bubbling mix. He is not guided at every single step by their preferences, their recommendations, their idiosyncrasies. Facebook’s most tone-deaf assumption–as revealed in Zuckerberg’s par-for-the-course infantile insistence that we want to go to the movies with our friends–is that what we consume, appreciate and possibly integrate into our preferences is wholly driven by what our contemporaries do. We are creatures of our time indeed, but we are also capable of, and responsible for, our own distinctive paths and patterns of interaction with the culture that surrounds us. The kind of lock-step marching that appears as a not-too-distant consequence of the kind of ‘sharing’ culture Facebook is preparing for us is truly depressing in its grey conformity and its frightening lack of solitude.

If the Zuckerberg-Facebook assumption–that we always want to be guided by our ‘friends’, that we always want to share, and have tastes shared with us–were true, then we would always visit the most crowded attractions in the world and go precisely where the herds go. But we don’t. Even in a museum packed to the rafters on a weekend, we sometimes take a turn into the obscure side-gallery because something has caught our eye, tickled an obscure part of our imagination, tapped into a part of us that we did not know existed till then. We do not know ourselves fully; to explore by ourselves, guided by our own mysterious inclinations can be an entrancing journey of self-discovery. To be constantly guided, prodded, pushed, recommended, into well-worn and commented on paths is dismissive of our potential for reconfiguration.

The ‘Net was supposed to be Borges’ library. It might be that; but it is a library with all its books marked with little stickers telling us who liked what, with its pathways marked with commentary, urging me to add my own so that I may ‘guide’ the others who follow me. This library’s custodians don’t want us browsing the shelves; they want to guide us into small reading rooms where we will meet those with whom we are already familiar.

In this ‘Net, our past determines our future; our essences become fixed quickly as we lock into trajectories determined by our ourselves and our Friends. Talk about existential crises.

I left Facebook more than a year ago, and have not returned. My decision, in many ways, was irrational: as a writer, I cut myself off from a form of advertising that is increasingly crucial in today’s social media world. I still owe myself a post here that explains my rationale for doing so. All in good time.

5 thoughts on “Evgeny Morozov on the Death of the Cyberflâneur

  1. One point that has been ignored is that apart from directing us to content using the interests of our ‘friends’, the social web also permits us to make ‘friends’ on the basis of common interests. On blogs or on Twitter, we regularly see conversations between former strangers on subjects of common interest.

    1. John,

      Thanks for the comment; good to see you here! Fair point, and given David Barry’s recent comment, one I should respond to – the number of posts I owe is piling up!

      Thanks,
      Samir

  2. I don’t really understand what you and Morozov are getting at. It seems to me that you’re saying that when you find something interesting on the Internet, it has some extra value for you if you discover it yourself. I suppose I understand that, and it is true to some extent for me too. But to a small extent with Facebook, and to an enormous extent with Twitter, I get to see many, many more interesting things than if I were randomly following links. The comparison is not even close: if I put even a small value on the interesting thing itself, then the total number of interesting things will overwhelm the pleasure at discovering a cool website on my own. To take your library metaphor, with social media I see many more bookshelves than I would have seen on my own.

    And even then, it is not as though I’m constrained by what my friends are reading on the WaPo or Guardian Facebook apps. The other day I went looking for 19th-century-style fonts and discovered Scotch Modern, something which zero of my friends found interesting. Repeatedly clicking on links in Wikipedia articles looks to me like a sort of flanerie, and this habit is common enough to have been used as fodder in a webcomic (it’s in an xkcd I can’t be bothered looking up).

    1. David,

      Fair point – as I note in my reply to John (and my wife said something similar) – this is something I need to respond to. I’ll address it in a separate post (that makes it two I owe you).

      Cheers,
      Samir

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