Saturday, July 2, 2011
Another Ramble on Digital Media and Mental Hygiene
[I'd previously assayed something here. - OG]
There's been some interesting research and discussion lately on the topic of solitude, and "alone time," and not "loneliness as a social problem." One thing that strikes me when I read this stuff: Yep, I am one of those who loves to/can "tolerate" much more time alone than most people. And yet I'm a social animal too; furthermore, I am not usually one to cite Aristotle, but I think he was probably fairly close to being "right" in his Nicomachean Ethics when he asserted that we are inherently social beings, and we need friends, but that true friends are rare indeed and we probably can't have that many. If you have three you're doing well; if you're doing inordinately well at having true friends, you might have seven, but that's rare.
Rather than give Aristotle's or my own definition of a "true friend" I will leave it to The Reader to ponder; no doubt you have 4000 "friends" at Facebook...so Aristotle is a complete moron! (And the OG too!)
Or: could it be that maybe we need to think about what "friend" means?
So, I go back to the recent research on being alone. Do you do it well? Being alone, I mean. Do you flip out after two minutes and grab for the connection to the outside "social" world? A lot of the research shows that learning to enjoy your alone time enhances the time when you are with others, including acquaintances and your 3, 7, or 4000 friends. Your ability to be alone has much to do with your feeling of personal integration, which semantically harmonizes with one sense of the term "integrity."
The great schoolteacher and critic of schooling John Taylor Gatto writes about the manufacture of a restless anti-solitude in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th. In Dumbing Us Down Gatto saw the schoolchild's "mastery" of individual solitude as an essential goal. Morris Berman writes in his Twilight of American Culture of rampant cultural consumerism and quotes the literary critic George Steiner on a "systematic suppression of silence." In Dark Ages America Berman says "We ache for silence [Well, some of us do] because our environment is saturated with fatuous commercial noise." William S. Burroughs thought silence was only terrifying "to compulsive verbalizers."
Are some of us literally scared to be alone with our own thoughts?
I confess I've had it up to here with all of the books that evangelize how the Internet is going to change everything for the better, especially now with Net 3.0 (or whatever the PR people have us saying/believing about it), the "crowd-sourcing" and "social networking" that, really, seems to only have upsides. But I see lots of downsides. Yes, ironically, I'm saying this on "my" own blog.
So yes: Egypt and how Facebook and Twitter supposedly enabled the downfall of tyrannical Mubarak. But totalitarian governments gravitate to this stuff too. Dig this, from a book review by Chris Lehmann, in the March 21st edition of The Nation:
Tomaar, a Saudi website promoting philosophical inquiry outside the confines of Muslim orthodoxy, attracted a mass following soon after it was launched, especially as its discussion boards expanded to include the question of politics and culture in the Arab world. In short order, though, the Saudi government denied access to the site on all servers used by its citizens. When Tomaar’s webmasters devised a straightforward workaround via a third-party Internet connection, that stopped working as well—and the US-based service provider abruptly canceled the site’s contract, condemning it to a series of improvised connectivity patches. Even so, it still suffers regular denial-of-service attacks—the same tools that have been used to disable the site for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks operation. Nothing in the battery of attacks on Tomaar points directly back to the Saudi government—another sign, in all likelihood, that authoritarian webmasters have grown as adept in covering their tracks as they are in disrupting web service. As Morozov notes, “cases like Tomaar’s are increasingly common, especially among activist and human rights organizations. Burma’s exiled media—Irrawaddy, Mizzima, and the Democratic Voice of Burma—all experienced major cyber-attacks…; ditto the Belarussian oppositional site Charter97, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta (the one that employed the slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya), the Kazakh oppositional newspaper Respublika, and even various local branches of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.”
* * *
It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents. Yet one never encounters these uses of digital technologies in Shirky-style broadsides on cyber-liberation; in them, digital technology by definition unleashes and pools human creativity and generosity, because that’s what we Western progenitors of these technologies like to imagine them doing.
As the Tomaar episode also shows, American Net companies—hailed in State Department speeches as the vanguard of the freedom revolution—are often fleet of foot when political controversy threatens to roil their plans for overseas market expansion. It’s not hard to see why that should be the case: their shareholders expect them to be profitable, and in many stops along the global marketplace, freedom and democratization stand directly athwart that prime directive. To take just one example, last year Facebook pulled the plug on a group maintained by an activist in Morocco named Kacem El Ghazzali, which promoted discussion about secular education in the theocratic country. When El Ghazzali e-mailed Facebook engineers in Palo Alto requesting an explanation, they deleted his profile on the site for good measure. Eventually, Facebook relented and restored the education site, once the episode got press attention in the West, but El Ghazzali was left to rebuild his Facebook profile on his own. In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Facebook shut down Wael Ghonim’s page because he had violated the company’s terms of service by using a pseudonym to create a profile as one of the page’s administrators. Hence, as Morozov observes, “contrary to the expectations of many Western policymakers, Facebook is hardly ideal for promoting democracy; its own logic, driven by profits or ignorance of the increasingly global context in which it operates, is, at times, extremely antidemocratic.”
The trenchant review of books by Net-evangel Clay Shirky and the more sober-minded Evgeny Morozov is here.
I'm not trying to argue that social networking is all bovine excreta, clearly it is not; what I am merely suggesting is that there ought to be some sort of meta-level of discussion between you and - let's face it - your three to seven (or I'll be charitable) twenty friends about how this technology can better be used to express your own values. I think we desperately need discussions - not led by a celebrity on TV - about our values and all this incredible potential communication power at our disposal. I see - literally - far, far too many variations of this on the Internet: "I'm bored. Someone text me?" Now, if this isn't pathetic in at least nine ways I don't know what is...I thought that part of becoming an adult was learning how to manage your own nervous system so that boredom would be a rare occurrence?
It also seems obvious to me there are times when the palpable anxiety of silence probably ought to send us fleeing for the social connection, someone. But that moment? I hope the reflection upon it can become instructive. There's a line in the poet Mari L'Esperance's book The Darkened Temple that I found striking: "silence ticking like something alive." The kind of silence amidst a period of personal anxiety that gives one night sweats. Reach for a loved one! Anyone!
If you've fallen into something like what Catherine Deneuve's character faces in Polanski's Repulsion then I'm afraid you've gone too far. Ditto John Turturro's writer in Barton Fink. Move along! The jury's still out - way out - on Teshigahara's Woman In The Dunes.
But overall, I can't think of a better place to start with this Project of thinking about our new magickal tools and our values than when you're by yourself, alone, solitary, in (relative) silence, tranquility, stillness, quietude, whatever you wanna call it. I'm not talking about imitating a Tibetan monk and going silent in meditation for three months - that's clearly off the charts - but how about 15 minutes?
If I've sounded some notes of the Scold in this post it's because I'm clearly troubled by this mad world and have merely proffered my thoughts on steps towards a meliorism; if I took you away from some valuable Dancing With The Stars or Twitter or Facebook or World or Warcraft time I truly apologize: this was three minutes you'll never get back!