Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Facebook, Technology, and the Nature of Friendship

They tell me I’m better on the Internet. Funnier on Facebook, more oomph than “IRL.” I’m not sure how to feel about this. I suppose my avatar is something of an improvement, a jovially connected version of myself, my greatest hits, quickest comebacks, and most “likeable” observations. Version 2.0 as Zadie Smith says in her controversial essay, “Generation Why?”

Smith is one of many writers who have taken to “struggling against” Facebook lately, worrying how a generation whose umbilical cords are on display in their parents’ profile pictures will fare over time. Not to spoil the surprise, but she isn’t terribly enthusiastic about their future. Unwilling to go gentle into Smith’s dark night, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal followed with a considerably more optimistic, less end-times approach, defending social media while targeting the motives of literary writers who moonlight as Facebook critics. Most recently, Jonathan Franzen explored the limitations of Facebook in his New York Times essay, citing technology as an impediment to love and an enabler of narcissism.

Franzen’s essay, excerpted from a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College, details his transformation from BlackBerry devotee to birder as if describing a path to redemption. Jesus in the form of a rufous-sided towhee. It’s a brilliant piece – as are all three of these – and his celebration of hard earned love is undeniably admirable, if a tad easy. In making his point, Franzen designates technology (special mention goes to Facebook) as the bogeyman to his more authentic, love-filled existence.

“The ultimate goal of technology,” Franzen writes, “is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes…with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” In other words, the idea that Facebook and its software kin have allowed us to abandon the real world to escape into a world of our own design, and thus our own vanity... To read the rest of this essay at The Nervous Breakdown, click here.

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