Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Internet's Vast Wasteland

It is nearly impossible to avoid hearing about Facebook in the news these days. The popular social media website’s much anticipated public offering is expected to be one of the most lucrative ever.

But not everyone is buying the hype, it turns out. A recent Associated Press-CNBC survey indicates half of Americans view Facebook as a fad, rather than the “revolutionary” communication site it has been championed as. The Portland Press Herald conducted an online poll asking how often users log in to the site. Forty-three percent responded “Never. I’m not on it.”

Facebook is admittedly infantile. As a member of the “Millennial” generation, I’m supposed to embrace the website (along with Twitter, YouTube and the like) as my peers do. I will be honest: I was initially excited about Facebook, a few years back. I thought social networking would allow me an additional vehicle (as if I really need another one) to sound off on my personal politics, or share relevant news stories with friends.

Yeah…I quickly discovered Facebook is not really meant for such civic-minded ambitions. Or rather, the majority of Facebook users do not particularly care to use the site for such ends. Facebook, like so much on the Internet, primarily caters to mainstream, low-brow tastes and sensibilities. Move over TV—the Internet is the new “vast wasteland.”

Alas, here is a sampling of what passes for insight on Facebook: (All postings, including grammatical mistakes, are reprinted verbatim.)

USER “D”: See that kite, yeah I’m flyin it.

USER “J”: I cried a little bit at the end of Community. But only a little bit.

USER “C”: Waking up from a nap w/ two adorable labs jumping on you, priceless #relaxing

You get the idea.

At least the Egyptians have found more productive uses for Facebook. Americans, unfortunately, prefer to drown in the inane minutia of insipid factoids and “hey!-look-at-me!” narcissism. All brought to you by an antisocial, 28-year-old college dropout. I guess I am glad someone in my generation is doing well.

And it is not just Facebook. The entire Internet serves as one giant distraction. The Internet was supposed to herald an “Age of Information,”—a new Enlightenment era in which the traditional gatekeepers of information would be rendered irrelevant. (And where journalists, writers and musicians would see their work given away free of charge.) Information would finally be “free,” we were told by the techie utopists. No doubt there is a great deal of useful, educational value to the Internet, but it is routinely drowned out by celebrity news, time-wasting video-games, and the banal banter of social networking websites like Facebook.

Where earlier centuries were marked by information scarcity, Neil Postman explains in his prescient, though often overlooked, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, the twenty-first century is quickly being defined by information glut—and, as a result, information meaninglessness.

Postman labels the United States a “technopoly,” because he fears we have developed a one-sided, utopian view of all technology as a form of progress. We believe, naively according to Postman, that technology will be our savior—that there is no issue, or problem technology (be it the printing press, the steel mill, the personal computer or the iPhone) cannot solve for us. Technology, Postman fears, has become our new religion.

Yet has the progression of technology—the advent of television, computers and the Internet, in particular--made us more knowledgeable, informed citizens? Postman believes otherwise. He writes in regard to the invention of the telegraph:

“Here was information that rejected the necessity of interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued for instancy against historical continuity, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence.”

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys,” Henry David Thoreau famously observed, “which distract our attention from serious things…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”     

Substitute Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, or “Snookie” for Princess Adelaide and it is clear just how prescient Thoreau’s warning was.

The Internet is already changing us in subtle though rapid ways. Already the point, click, and scan environment of the Internet has led to a significant decrease in reading for pleasure. Perhaps even more worrisome, Facebook has decimated the very concept of privacy. The government no longer needs to surveil us illegally. We willingly give up all our personal information ourselves. We have become a culture lost in screens.

There is a price to pay for all this addiction to technology. According to Greek mythology, the self-absorbed, Narcissus was so infatuated with himself he failed to recognize his own reflection in a pond. Narcissus became transfixed by the image, which, in a bit of homoeroticism not unusual to these tales, he believed to be another, beautiful man. In an attempt to reach out and touch his reflection, Narcissus plunged into the water and drowned. Narcissus’s name is believed to be derived from the Greek word “narke,” meaning “sleep,” or “numbness.”

Something to keep in mind the next time you log in to Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. I was doing some looking around for media/technology issues and came across your article. Well put. Thank you for writing this. I'd "like" it but there's no button for that. I'll just put a bird on it instead. Cheers.