December 1, 2013

Facing Facebook -- The New Intersubjectivity

Recently commenting on the headspinning rate of change in the world today I mentioned Facebook and said that no one really knows how much it is changing the world. Facebook in particular, and a multitude of other rapidly evolving technologies, are changing the world and the possibilities faster than the human mind is equipped to process it. It will take a very long time to ascertain what changes are taking place in human life and the human species. By then the whole frame of reference may be so different that this question will be turned upside down. What on earth were we? the people of the future will ask.

Facebook has been with us a number of years already. Many changes have taken place already, and we will evolve along a different trajectory now. And few of us even pretend or attempt to understand what the differences are in life pre-Facebook and now, in the times of Facebook, now and forever more! But we feel big changes. We just don't quite know what they are.

There's been quite a bit written about how to use social media for marketing, or to grow your business. And some of the people who have been working on that for years are beginning to distill some principles about effective marketing using social media. This is all very worthwhile, but in the midst of the collective mad scramble to earn a living, who has time to give a lot of thought into how Facebook is changing us, not as consumers but just as human beings. We know it is changing us. But we don't know how and we assume we are stuck with it, whatever it is, so why worry about it?

I recently started noticing how often now in conversation I refer to something I saw on Facebook. I was hearing these words come out of my mouth, referring to something I saw on Facebook so often I became concerned. Am I becoming a halfwit? Has the media system finally succeeded in capturing me and neutralizing my brain? Has it turned me into the willing slave/citizen of Huxley's Brave New World? TV could never capture me and turn me into a couch potato watching repetitious sitcoms and game shows. But with Facebook have I finally met my Waterloo? I'm I at long last vanquished by the foe? A subservient serf, hypnotized into an inert state.

I pondered this. While I pondered it, I did not reduce my consumption of Facebook. I thought about it. Most of the most interesting news stories I see these days come to me through Facebook friends. So if someone says, "He doesn't read newspapers anymore, he gets his news from Facebook," it sounds like it very well might refer to someone who has been reduced to the level of an imbecile. But Facebook is not the source of the news. It's only a referral system. Previously I would go to Google News and see an aggregate of newslinks that would take me to various news organizations around the world. Or I might go to a news gathering site like to get news via a source that shares my general point of view on the news. Occasionally I would go directly to the newspaper's site itself, like the New York Times. But I would see the Times' stories on the other sites anyway.

Now I find that I do that much less. Much of my news comes to me by personal referral via Facebook. That often starts a ball rolling that I may follow up by doing some browsing around. But the original tip comes from Facebook. Actually not from, but through Facebook, from someone more or less known to me. Marketing people tell me that personal referral is the strongest influence on people making the decision to buy. I realize now that I am applying that to my news, somewhat. I see a lot of cool things on Facebook. It's coming through a network that I have personally fashioned, not just a random sampling of the masses.

I heard that Zuckerberg conceived Facebook as a utility, not as entertainment. And actually I have found it to be a very effective utility. So whatever other evils it may bring with it, it is not the equivalent of zoning in front of a sitcom on TV.

But forget about privacy. You can still have a measure of privacy in some ways if you want. But in general your life is now open to be examined by almost anyone who wants to. That could be a little scary. We really are living out many of the Philip K. Dick sci fi fantasies. Yes, one must adapt to that.

Facebook is the perfect, total surveillance instrument. And as in "Brave New World" the subjects not only do not resist, they flock eagerly to it. People say, "Well, the only people who are complaining must be criminals." Perhaps there are those who are so squeaky clean and built to prescription that they would not mind at all having their entire lives splashed across TV screens around the world. There are few who have no secrets, no areas of personal discretion. When everything is in the open, there can hardly be such areas. No one yet knows the implications of all these things. We've never experienced these conditions before.

Intersubjectivity That great word "intersubjectivity" has a newly enhanced meaning in the age of Facebook. defines "intersubjective" as "comprehensible to, relating to, or used by a number of persons, as a concept or language." In essence intersubjectivity is a subjective experience shared by more than one person. Subjective refers to something existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought

In "The Electric Koolaid Acid Test" Tom Wolfe used the word "intersubjectivity" to refer to what happens to groups when they took LSD together. Groups who took acid together developed an intensified insight into one another that resulted in more immediate and nonverbal thought transfer among the group. The inner world of the individual is brought into the group. Some might call it an intensified level of mental telepathy, but those who don't believe in the existence of any such thing would still surely acknowledge that there are nonverbal forms of communication, facial expressions, gestures, a slap in the face.

With intersubjectivity, in inner world is brought outward into the shared space. What used to happen to tribes of acid heads is now happening to all of us who are on the Web. Our private lives are virtually gone now. Our private spaces and refuges are diminishing. Our way of life is increasingly resembling the technology-enabled totalitarian dystopias of Orwell and Huxley.

Now there are all these media beckoning for engagement, pulling me into them, creating the motivation to produce messages for Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc., leading to putting what used to be private thoughts out into the common space. "I'm feeding my dog now..." And everything else.

So what if I turn some of the time I usually spend writing in a notebook over to blogging, or posting on social media? What has changed? If I introduce my most personal, subjective ideas into the public, objective space, what is the change that has taken place?

I can speculate, but I do not know the answer to that question. These are questions whose answers may well manifest before we've had time to think about them and understand what is happening. Marshall McLuhan where are you now that we need you? McLuhan himself, a very Shakespearean-minded person himself, was driven frantic by the technological changes that were taking place. He just wished it would stop, he said. He wished people would just stop creating all these new technological realities. But given that that was not an option, he observed, it was a good idea to pay attention and see if you can get an idea what is happening before it is too late to matter.

We are still in the throes of the kind of social upheaval that McLuhan spoke about. McLuhan amazingly predicted much of the technological and social changes that would take place. He predicted this world, but now we are rapidly evolving beyond it.

Dear McLuhan did offer this hope, which I understand so much better now than when I first saw it. "There is absolutely no inevitability, as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening."

It was a sentence that struck me hard when I first read it in the '60s. Now I realize what it means in a way I couldn't grapple with then. I was so thrilled with all the fun countercultural developments that I had no sense of the horror McLuhan himself thought he was evoking. People thought he was celebrating the changes he referred to. But he said at the time that he was issuing warnings, not celebrating pop culture. He predicted the implosion of world culture and the danger of the resulting cultural collisions might bring.

The New Intersubjectivity

Intersubjectivity. If you are letting your personal space blend with the public space you are also letting the public space into your private life. It is becoming a question whether such a thing of privacy will have any meaning in the future.

Every time I get moved by a song, do I need to tweet it or Facebook it? Should I photograph all my meals? Are there any moments left when I would just want to be in my own space?

Facebook and the New Intersubjectivity

When I used to post every night -- literally every night, compulsively -- I was just in that flow of posting every night, letting it rip and not worrying too much about whether people thought my ideas were far out, because I knew they were. I knew I was far out of the mainstream of popular culture and it didn't seem like your views should be something you should hide and suppress. I did try to be persuasive. I tried to appeal to people with reason and compassion, though often I was enraged and I made it my business to express that. I was not particularly concerned about people being upset about my views.

Now in the age of Facebook, all the separate compartments of our lives merge. Our work life and our personal life are no longer separate, not nearly as much as a few years ago. It is a stark contrast to the way it was before Facebook in a very fundamental sense of what we do as human beings socially.

Now one must accommodate all those separate realities. Mark Zuckerburg, the prophet of Facebook, has decreed that privacy is no longer a relevant issue, it's obsolete -- I forget his precise verbiage.

But I disagree with him and believe that some privacy is an important part of a healthy society, and it is relative. It may only be that people go to the bathroom alone sometimes. Maybe it's only a private thought. Or maybe that is obliterated too. But what is a matter of concern now is how little privacy one does seem to have in contemporary America.

The possibility of having any privacy to speak of is greatly diminished in the Facebook era, but the essential principle of privacy is relative and cannot possibly cease to exist entirely. We know that the prince and the princess had sex because they have produced a child. We did not see them in the act. Not yet. That may well come to pass. But the fact that it has not yet been seen in full color on TV is the measure of their privacy.

We all have private thoughts, though we do sometimes seem to have fewer thoughts that are truly our own than ever before. And our private lives are now public, not just the celebrities. Increasingly it applies to all of us now. We are all stripped bare -- by Facebook. Our living room is brought to our office mates in living color. It's hard to know how far anyone has really thought this out and understands where it is going, what the effect of all this is going to be on people.

Certainly many people have spoken about it, speculated about it, and it's good that they do because we are hurtling in a trajectory to God knows where and it may be good to try to get some idea where we are headed, what we are becoming. Many speculate wisely on it, but it's hard to believe anyone is very sure where this all heads and how the current fundamental changes in human behavior will affect the ultimate destiny of humankind and the greater web of life.

But I digress... The point I am trying to make is that with Facebook and myriad other developments in this direction in our society we have pushed our insides outside. Our subjective worlds have been pushed into the public arena. In a practically literal sense, we now share subjective states through social networking.

We have turned ourselves inside out. We share large psychological territories that used to be private, and we share them with more people than ever before. What does this mean? What effect will it have on us as a species? A species that has more effect than any other on the survival of life on planet Earth.

So whatever happens, wherever we are headed with this meteoric social evolution, it ain't stopping. We are all on board for the ride.

Now it is all out front. Whatever you are to anyone, you are to everyone. Not quite in an absolute sense, but in a stronger sense perhaps than ever before. Certainly our lives are more out front today than ever before. Trying to look at it and understand it is not only a reaction of fear of the powerful change wrought by social media and Internet connectivity. It can have beneficial effects. To the extent that everyone's private lives and beliefs are in front of everyone else, it could force us to be consistent, to stand up for what we believe in.

Social networking puts pressure on us to be the same person to our boss as to our brother in law, for the most part. One hopes you are not the same person to your boss as to your spouse, but the fact that it can even be suggested is indicative of how far we have progressed toward this new kind of intersubjectivity. Will human beings become like a human hive animating the earth as bees animate a beehive. Will we be linked together as a single consciousness as the bees are? Will we become like pod people: We do not think or feel, we survive, we endure.

Or will it unlock the greatest potentials of human history? Who knows? It's not impossible. The massive structural changes the Internet has brought to the world economy are wreaking havoc on all of the institutions of the pre-Internet age. Print media is struggling. Print journalism is another relative value. To paraphrase Jim Marrs, we don't have journalism anymore, we don't have journals, we have corporate messaging media.

A media environment where a vast majority of major media are owned by a small handful of corporations creates the necessity for an underground balance and the Internet has provided a medium for that alternative media, and a great deal of it has risen. Much of the online media launched in recent years has taken over territory once monopolized by a small group of media. As the ownership of major media consolidated and diversity of ownership and point of view dwindled into practically nothing, it created the necessity for some kind of alternative. And that has emerged on the Internet with a proliferation of alternative voices.

The corporate powers are forever trying to strangle that medium too as they have practically every other new medium that has emerged historically. But alternative media at this moment continues to thrive. Now with Facebook, ad infinitum, it seems more than ever that no one is entirely in control of what is happening.

Each of us must figure out individually how to navigate the new environment. Each of us must manage our public and private profiles, figure out what they want to do and how to do it. As society becomes more interwoven and the individuals become more interlocked, each of us must reconcile each part of ourselves with the other parts at the same time that we reconcile ourselves with each other in our social networking universe.

Now that we are all in public on Facebook, prospective employers can peruse whatever part of your personal life you have posted for them. Anyone else who wants to research you for good or ill has many resources through which they can dig into your life. It may well force us all to be honest. But then, as George Carlin pointed out, that is not really possible. Society is built on layers of bullshit, and cannot stand without its adhesive qualities.

If I'm a birther or a Truther or a Ku Klux Klanner or a Liberal Commie Scum, I'm not going to be able to keep that much of a secret. That is, unless I am willing to totally suppress my individuality. And that prospect, of masses of people suppressing their own individual impulses to think their own thoughts, is too close for comfort.

Facebook and the New Intersubjectivity is a subject we have only begun to explore here. There is much to be said in follow up to these propositions. But now a word from our sponsor.

To be continued...

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