My essay ‘Social Media And The Training Of Our Minds‘ is up at Three Quarks Daily.
Of the many states of mind I fear–trust me, there are many precincts of my mental spaces where I fear to tread–I dread envy the most. And a prime domain for the evocation of envy is social media: it is where, after all, your ‘friends’ and those you ‘follow’ let you know how wonderful their lives are, how loving and sensitive their partners, how accomplished their children, how many books and essays and articles they have published, how productive their writing and reading day has been, how well-traveled and fed they are; we feel indirectly slighted when X praises Y but not us. I’m guilty of all of these forms of behavior, and I do not doubt for a second that I’ve irritated and vexed many by my behavior in turn; with probability one, many of my ‘friends’ have stopped ‘following’ me, turned off by the content of my posts; my apologies to one and all, including those whose timelines I cannot bear to look at any more. I’ve often thought of departing from Facebook and Twitter, and only really stay on so that I can have a place to post links to my posts here; but if I leave, I do not doubt that it will the fear of envy and the memory of some particularly debilitating attacks that will have made me pull the trigger.
The damage that envy does to relationships–friends, lovers, family, co-workers–is, I think, quite well-known. That damage is especially pronounced in competitive fields of endeavor; academia is one of them. This is not as strange as it might sound; advanced education, no matter how abstract or philosophical, offers little by way of defense against the assault envy mounts on our mental ramparts. Moreover, jobs are scarce; those without secure employment envy those with; in turn, the supposedly ‘lucky’ ones may spend their time fretting they have not published enough, in the right places, gotten praise from the right quarters, attained the right kind of recognition, and so on. If you are afflicted by impostor syndrome, social media is a very bad place to be. Sporadic reassurances that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome are of no help when the vast majority of your daily diet consists of various species of trumpet blowing.
Envy is corrosive, an almost instantaneous killer of self-esteem; it damages one’s relationships with those we are envious of; we resent them, and worse, we may come to seek distance from them so as to prevent a recurrence of the emotion. In these moments, we forget the wisdom in George Orwell’s remark that “Every life, when viewed from the inside, is a series of small failures.” Those we envy are quite cognizant of their own failures and would not recognize our perspective on their lives; we, in our turn, fail to recognize their flourishes of triumph as quite possibly their attempts to beat back the ever encroaching doubt that one’s life is an irredeemable failure. The chief cause of our existential unhappiness, as some wise person once put it, is that we imagine others to be happier than they are. And social media, of course, is where we all go to pretend to be happier than we are. Envy follows in our wake.
Yesterday, as part of ‘The Brooklyn College Teach-In & Workshop Series on Resistance to the Trump Agenda,’ I facilitated a teach-in on the topic of ‘web surveillance and security.’ During my session I made note of some of the technical and legal issues that are play in these domains, and how technology and law have conspired to ensure that: a) we live in a regime of constant, pervasive surveillance; b) current legal protections–including the disastrous ‘third-party doctrine‘ and the rubber-stamping of governmental surveillance ‘requests’ by FISA courts–are simply inadequate to safeguard our informational and decisional privacy; c) there is no daylight between the government and large corporations in their use and abuse of our personal information. (I also pointed my audience to James Grimmelmann‘s excellent series of posts on protecting digital privacy, which began the day after Donald Trump was elected and continued right up to inauguration. In that post, Grimmelmann links to ‘self-defense’ resources provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ars Technica.)
I began my talk by describing how the level of surveillance desired by secret police organizations of the past–like the East German Stasi, for instance–was now available to the NSA, CIA, and FBI, because of social networking systems; our voluntary provision of every detail of our lives to these systems is a spook’s delight. For instance, the photographs we upload to Facebook will, eventually, make their way into the gigantic corpus of learning data used by law enforcement agencies’ facial recognition software.
During the ensuing discussion I remarked that traditional activism directed at increasing privacy protections–or the enacting of ‘self-defense’ measures–should be part of a broader strategy aimed at reversing the so-called ‘asymmetric panopticon‘: citizens need to demand ‘surveillance’ in the other direction, back at government and corporations. For the former, this would mean pushing back against the current classification craze, which sees an increasing number of documents marked ‘Secret’ ‘Top Secret’ or some other risible security level–and which results in absurd sentences being levied on those who, like Chelsea Manning, violate such constraints; for the latter, this entails demanding that corporations offer greater transparency about their data collection, usage, and analysis–and are not able to easily rely on the protection of trade secret law in claiming that these techniques are ‘proprietary.’ This ‘push back,’ of course, relies on changing the nature of the discourse surrounding governmental and corporate secrecy, which is all too often able to offer facile arguments that link secrecy and security or secrecy and business strategy. In many ways, this might be the most onerous challenge of all; all too many citizens are still persuaded by the ludicrous ‘if you’ve done nothing illegal you’ve got nothing to hide’ and ‘knowing everything about you is essential for us to keep you safe (or sell you goods’ arguments.
Note: After I finished my talk and returned to my office, I received an email from one of the attendees who wrote:
Thank you for your talk today. I’m sorry that you are so very correct.
It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar. Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.
That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.
Our mood rises and falls in sync.
As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.
Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.
I would like to consider myself a plain-speaking person, the kind who is always able to ‘speak his mind,’ ‘say what he is thinking,’ ‘tell us what he really thinks,’ and so on. But I’m afraid the evidence suggests that all too frequently, in all too many conversational spaces, I bite my tongue and hold my peace, suppressing words that might otherwise have found expression. A written counterpart to this behavior exists, of course: in online discussion spaces too–like this one, for instance–I do not venture an opinion in many domains. We do all do so for reasons of propriety and etiquette, of course, and indeed, such self-restraint is often a virtue of sorts, but there are many other reasons for not speaking up or holding forth.
Sometimes I engage in such self-censorship because, quite simply, I have nothing to add to an ongoing conversation–I sense that what I’m about to say would be redundant or not as perspicuous as other contributions to it. I like to talk, and like anyone else, consider my opinions to be ‘correct’ ones, so such holding back does not come easily to me.
Far more interesting is the case, of course, when I hold back for fear of provoking a reaction I do not have the time or the inclination to ‘process.’ This situation should also be familiar to us: for instance, we do not rise to the bait at a family gathering when a relative says something offensive (every family has, I suppose, a list of topics that must not be broached on such occasions.) Or sometimes, even more interestingly, we sense the opinion we express will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, taken out of context, its ‘subtleties’ ignored–all resulting in a cascade of vituperative condemnation directed our way. We despair over ever being able to ‘explain’ the thesis we would proffer, and sense the dispute that would arise as we navigated the various discursive obstacles that would be placed in the way of such clarification would be insuperable. Perhaps we would dig a deeper hole for ourselves as we attempted to ‘clarify’ what we meant to say. (These are, of course, indications that we should consider whether we should wait a while to see if we can revise a draft of what we want to say to see if its content can be made sharper; such considerations apply equally to verbal and written opinions.)
Such self-censorship is, I think, more prevalent in the online context. The infamous ‘tweet storms’ that result when an inexpertly written and inarticulate tweet–begging for emendation and clarificatory follow-up on a ‘sensitive’ subject makes the rounds–can easily overwhelm the hapless offender. So can the vitriol on a Facebook status commentary space. Writing one comment–or tweet–after another in a desperate attempt to patch the leaks in the dyke is all too often a losing cause. Better to suck it up and retreat to lick your wounds, bruised but considerably wiser, forewarned and forearmed for your next foray online.
It is a situation that leads to…an intensification of conformity, people falling over themselves to be approved of….Announce an article…on Facebook and you can count, as the hours go by, how many people have looked at it, clicked on it, liked it, etc….Everything conspires to have us obsessively attached to the world’s response to whatever we do.
Franzen [suggests] that, simply by offering us the chance to check constantly whether people are talking about us, the Internet heightens a fear of losing whatever popularity we may have achieved: “the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness….the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”
Is it really possible, then, to be free as a writer? Free from an immediate need for money, free from the need to be praised, free from the concern of how those close to you will respond to what you write….Perhaps the best one can ever achieve is a measure of freedom, in line with your personal circumstances….So long as it’s compatible with regular writing, the day job is never to be disdained. A steady income allows you to take risks.
Many of my blog posts here–indeed, a significant percentage–evoke not even a single ‘Like’ on Facebook. They ‘generate’ a few views here–mostly from people who have found them through search engines. They have, as it were, ‘fallen stillborn from the press.’ This does me little economic or professional damage–but it often does a number on my ego. In that dimension, I sometimes find myself infected with that most damaging of thoughts: Perhaps I should write something people will read? Like the kind of stuff that people ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ on Facebook or pass around on Twitter? On topics that articles like those were concerned with?
Phew. The temptation is great; the abyss lurks close by, only a step or two away. I’m saved–in the economic and professional sense–by the fact that, as Parks recommends, I have a day job. I do not have to sell myself too much. (I do descend into some groveling when I’m trying to get the word out about pieces that I think, for political reasons, deserve wider circulation.) Moreover, as I have to often remind myself, I always intended this blog as a space in which to ‘stay in touch’ with writing, to tentatively approach some ideas and write them down, to ‘try things out.’ (It also functions as a bit of a diary, a journal, which, when you come to think about it, doesn’t really need any readers.) Perhaps the most positive side-effect of my writing here has been that some of the posts here suggest themselves as starting points for further exploration, and yet others have found themselves–suitably modified–integrated into other works of mine. Indeed, that fact alone could suggest my blog has been a ‘success.’ Even if this post gets no ‘Likes’ and no RTs.