THE BLOG

Walden in a Wired World

11/13/2012 03:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 13, 2013

Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail

In Ben Marcus's most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, people are dying of language. For a while it is believed that only the speech of children and adolescents is toxic. Then, that certain types of speech, such as first person statements, are more toxic than others. Eventually, it becomes clear that language--spoken, written, or recorded--is killing its users. According to the logic of Flame Alphabet, modern society's constant talking will not only cease to function as a vehicle for intimacy, it will also become the primary apparatus of alienation.

The story is a stark warning to us, a culture that can't seem to stop its constant chatter. It suggests that tweeting about brunch isn't just stupid, it's toxic; that communicating with several hundred "friends" via Facebook, LinkedIn, or Badoo doesn't simply cheapen individual relationships, it erodes relationships in general. The compulsive messaging encouraged by mobile, social networks not only de-personalizes specific messages, it corrodes intimacy's primary instrument--communication--through over use.

Our culture has developed a dangerous communication fetish. Consider the widespread use of portable networked devices that make it possible to communicate all the time and almost everywhere. The Internet plus social networking, plus mobile devices such as smart phones, have made communication a virtual idol. We can tweet, post, blog, talk, and chat ubiquitously and constantly, and this has created something akin to a religious belief in communication, not as a means, but as an end in itself. And, in a self-reinforcing fashion, it is the promise of constant communication that sells this technology. It is the excuse we give ourselves for buying it, and our justification for using it. This is understandable because communication is a key part of what makes us human. It is commonly believed that language is what separates us from animals, and so it is easy to believe that more of it will make us better people.

It is a flawless sales pitch, but in reality the fetishization of communication brought about by this new mobile-social-web is far from humanizing. Instead, it amounts to a major assault on our autonomy; that is, upon the few scraps of time and space left to us. In the name of communication, we have accepted a radical enclosure of private, leisure time by the constant surveillance and increasingly commercial logic of the Internet.

Many will disagree and defend online culture as free, open, horizontal ,and efficient. To some extent all of that is true. What is the constant chatter of linked up tweets if not wildly open? Perversely, this "freedom" to communicate, facilitates unprecedented levels of social control, through digital record keeping, data-mining, i.e. de facto surveillance of evermore aspects of life.

Online culture succeeds in the systematic implementation of surveillance and control by capturing massive amounts of our time. To this extent, the Internet simply represents the newest phase in a process that has been going on since the industrial revolution. When Henry David Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond, part of what drove him was a sense that his time was being stolen. He observed that in the modern world, time is even consumed in the effort to save time. He gives as an example, the amount of time that he has to work to buy a train ticket to save the time of walking. And notes that an "unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work."

Modernity, he is not alone in arguing, produces an endless cycle of production and consumption that forces us to lead "mean and sneaking lives." All time is "borrowed or stolen" and he thanks his reader for "robbing your creditors of an hour."

Thoreau suggests that modern living sets off a cycle of debt--"a very ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, [literally] another's brass"--which denies people "the leisure for a true integrity day by day" and makes it impossible to "sustain the manliest relations to men."1 For all of his anti-development naïveté, and unselfconsciously privileged privation, Thoreau's observations are valuable and he was right to identify time as a central modern problem linked to movement, communication, and technology.

Just as in Thoreau's era, we are experiencing a radical contraction of space and an acceleration of time. The rise of mobile online communications could be as culturally and ontologically significant as the arrival of the telegraph and the railroad.

Handheld devices and the Internet's increased demand for our time and attention have not only stolen free time from us, they have completely reformed our notion of time. We expect many things to happen at once, yet we are burdened by this hyper-simultaneity. We conceive of time as expanded yet scarce. And we increasingly conceive of all space as a single seamless portal to the network.

And much of this "time-space compression," as David Harvey put it, hinges on communication. No longer just a matter of workdays, lunch breaks, and vacations, time is now divided up according to the sending and receiving of messages. The combination of freedom and control offered by portable communication devices has proven to be so seductive that the long fought for weekend has disappeared without much notice. We no longer rest on Sunday. Instead, we rest when all of our email has been answered. Which is to say, never. Even if we don't actually spend all of our time online, real time is increasingly configured in terms of the Internet's demand that we communicate. And in looting our time, the online life denies us the ability to be alone.

This final phase of technological encroachment, brought about by portable networked devices, signifies the total enclosure of leisure by the logic of work. And this is profoundly alienating and oppressive.

Communication via social networking sites is not alienating because physical presence is inherently valuable (you can certainly write or receive a letter that is more meaningful than many face-to-face conversations) it is alienating because it is actually alienated labor. It is the compulsion to communicate that generates the data that feeds the databases that can be mined by anyone from law enforcement to marketers; it is the digital residue of our constant "play" and socializing that does the work of building the files that are the valuable stuff of firms like the ridiculous Facebook.

When you update your Facebook page you are, after all, creating intellectual property that legally belongs to a giant corporation. It was the leisure time of the users communicating and seeking intimacy with other users that built Facebook--otherwise a simple web platform--into a record setting 104 billion-dollar IPO. And more importantly--because the stock turned out to be junk and quickly lost almost half its value--it was the work of an estimated 1 billion Facebook users that made Mark Zuckerberg his 12.1 billion dollar fortune. In "updating your status" you were also, unknowingly, in effect, "working" to make Mr. Zuckerberg rich.

It isn't just Facebook, the ubiquitous practice of data-mining means that just about everything that you communicate online, constitutes work done for someone else. Capitalism has finally discovered a way to extract surplus value from the love letters that you write to your boyfriend--and those love letters tend to get shorter and more frequent as the information factory increases in efficiency. Thus the form imposed by the social network is able to shape the content of intimacy. To borrow a phrase from Friedrich Kittler, what you get from it is the "pleasurable by-product" of your own alienated labor.

At one level, this is an old observation about media audiences being the product, which advertisers buy. But now the audience is also the labor force in an updated, unpaid version of the early industrial, home-based style of work called the "putting-out system," which now being digital is everywhere all the time. Leisure no longer comes after work, as Thoreau lamented, it is work.

The work of leisure is not a new phenomenon. We do the work of consumption on weekends at shopping malls and in movie theaters and all of this translates our pleasure into someone else's profit. But Facebook presents a slightly different and arguably more problematic situation because it is so intimately bound up in our subjectivity--in what makes us human and defines us as something other than productive machines. Not only does proudly posting pictures and recordings of your daughter's piano recital contribute to some asshole's net worth, it reframes your interpersonal relationships in the terms proscribed by a platform designed to generate income for its stockholders.

Qualities such as efficiency shouldn't have anything at all to do with friendships but in an environment that is constantly generating new relationships, a need for managerial order seems to organically arise. Management is, in large part, about building controlled, structured, and instrumentalized relationships. And that is the essence of networked social life. Workplace management is the effort to control workers, prevent solidarity, and promulgate the Boss worldview. The managerial ethic promotes competition among workers, breeds suspicion, and thrives on surveillance. These are not healthy paradigms to import into our personal lives.

The commercial-managerial logic of the social network is clear in the aesthetics of a Facebook page, which is essentially a well-managed advertisement for you--its user. In order to create this page, the user is compelled to engage in an act of self-instrumentalization--to determine precisely which of their traits will most effectively produce friend requests. Conversely, they have to decide what type of information is going to discourage people from "liking" them. No one is entirely honest in his or her relationships, but engaging all of them simultaneously requires serious and broad acts of self-censorship. The things that you would tell your mom and not your friend, or things that you would share with one friend but not another, all need to be absent from your profile. Think of everything that you have ever hidden from everyone. Now combine those things and remove them from your identity. Who are you now?

Your Facebook page can't be anything but the generic version of yourself, because the "you" of Facebook is, as discussed earlier, literally a commodity. Unsurprisingly, what we present to our actual friends and loved ones is a watered down, instrumentalist version of ourselves. The totally public you is a sad shadow of your actual, complex self. The online life is, despite the assumption that communication makes us human, de-humanizing. This is a lesser you. Yet this is the "you" that people spend increasing amounts of time with.

Those who think that social networking is an acceptable replacement for other forms of communication are probably in the minority. Most people conceive of these virtual spaces, consciously at least, as supplemental to "real life." But to imagine that something so thoroughly integrated into nearly everything that we do is superficial and somehow detachable, is an act of willful ignorance. Habits formed on social networking sites do, in fact, influence our expectations for "real" relationships--which have never been separate from our means of communication.

The Internet is not, as Thoreau said of the telegraph, "an improved means to an unimproved end." In this case, the means, directly affect the ends. Whether this represents an improvement or not is up to you to decide, but one thing is absolutely clear: communication online has a very specific form that no one is exempt from. When you use it, you accept its terms and conditions. You are not actually empowered to use it any differently than anyone else and if these terms are unacceptable to you, then you just have to use it less. We cannot have our cake and tweet it too.