One thing Andrew Keen said near the end of that video gave me pause. He said something similar in his book, and it is something I have been thinking about, idly, for years. It is that the Internet is making us more selfish, or more self-centered. I have thought for a long time that we don’t talk together face-to-face so much anymore — or, I am honest enough to admit that I don’t. I don’t see my friends as much. Partly I’m sure that’s because I’ve gotten busier, and now we have a baby. But I think we are becoming more self-centered as a society. While I am an individualist in many ways, I also believe we are social and political animals, and as another gentleman said in the video, we are not fully human if we are cut off from others.
And I have to say that my talking to you on this blog does not count as full-blooded social relations! Should I be telling this to a friend? Well, I can speak to more people this way, and have a bigger impact. But in doing so am I ignoring a subtle negative impact that the medium has on me?
Our lives would be very sad and weak indeed if all of our social relations were mediated by the Internet. I think perhaps we are already seeing what this might look like among young people, whose social lives are mediated by FaceBook (or the social networking website du jour) and texting, who complain that there isn’t dating any longer, who more often “hook up” rather than develop serious relationships.
In our radical new digital world, who or what will teach us again how to spend and enjoy time together face to face –especially those of us who do not go to church, or are not in school, and otherwise have few opportunities for truly meaningful social interaction?
I have absolutely loved the PBS Jane Austen series. (Anybody agree? I’m so disappointed that it’s over. That Pride and Prejudice miniseries, from the 1990s, is absolutely magnificent.) While I have little romantic nostalgia for early 19th century manners and society — well, it would be nice if some of that politeness were back in style – I was struck by how people would pass the time, hours of it, in conversation with friends and family. That is charming. I suspect that serious face-to-face conversation makes us better and more human. It seems to me that we are now much more perfunctory in our communication.
Of course, there is an old complaint that television is ruining the arts of conversation and friendship. But the participatory Internet makes the problem worse, because it gives us an outlet for social relations, but it is by its nature a self-centered and self-directed outlet, and it is not fully embodied. This is a problem.
Now, I love self-determination and self-actualization as much as anyone. I come from nonconformist Protestant stock, but I’m a free-thinking philosopher; I’m also a Reedie, an Alaskan, and an American. I remember my old 11th grade chemistry teacher telling me the platitude, “Be true to yourself for you are your own best friend.” I was already taking that seriously. This is why it is easy for me to work online for small, risky companies, buck prevailing Internet trends, not use my Ph.D. in philosophy to get an academic job, leave trendy Silicon Valley for a small Ohio town, etc. I am so far off the beaten track, I don’t even know where the track is anymore. I say all that to establish my credentials as a nonconformist and iconoclast. My life has been extremely self-directed, and perhaps that is why I am drawn to the Internet: you can do what you want, when you want. Freedom and independence are prized online.
I don’t pretend to be terribly unusual in my independence. There are many other people, especially online, who are equally independent, in all sorts of ways. They too are very self-directed. The problem for us is that in being so self-directed, when we converse online, we choose the topics we’re interested in, we choose who to listen to, we often choose who hears us — and this all happens without the many benefits of being there in real time, situated and embodied with other people.
Can we still have friendships, real friendships, if we spend so much of our free time this way?
Especially those of us who work online (and increasingly, I suspect, all of us will, one way or another), and who want to keep conversation and face-to-face, full-bodied friendship alive, will have to choose to maintain friendships offline.
Perhaps we should start 21st century salons, offline, where many different people come together, physically, to talk, with our mouths, where we do not all necessarily agree, but where we practice the virtues of civility that make it possible for people who disagree to remain friends.