by Jacob Warn
We live in an age of liberation; an age in which the individual has autonomy. Travel, entertainment and technologies have never been so cheap, relatively speaking. The economy has matured so that it broadly works in our favour: if wages rise higher than inflation, rejoice! – more capital is free to be spent exactly as the consumer wants. But God forbid inflation to rise faster than wages (as has been the case from 2009 to just a couple of months ago). That suits nobody. Economic, political and familial turmoil ensues. So as we enter 2015, we can be thankful that finally, we’re back on the straight and narrow. As the BBC proclaimed on 12th November: ‘Pay Growth Beats Inflation as Jobless Total Falls’. What a thoroughly heart-warming message.
But without meaning to burst this bubble (and I’m not talking about an economic one), why are we employing this militarized language of conquest? I want to suggest it may be that our very definition of liberty is an economic one. Therefore, after the turmoil of the recent past, and with more money left to us to do with as we wish, 2015 is surely set to be the year of the emancipated human. Three cheers to Cameron, Huzzah to Osborne.
But the truth is that liberation – true freedom – is not economic, even if that is what contemporary society would have us believe. Evidence for this fallacy survives in the vestiges of old adages such as ‘Money can’t buy you happiness’ or, in a reworking of the phrase by Marx, ‘Whilst money can’t buy you happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery’.
But what am I trying to get at here and how is this linked to the phenomenon of social media? I quite simply want to suggest, at this horologically significant time of the year, that we should take awareness of individual ‘freedom’, and not be slaves to whatever this calendric, commercial, and most recently virtual society attempts to anaesthetise us with.
To this end, here are 4 ways in which Facebook restricts my freedom. The confession of someone who very much wants to disappear, if only it were possible, from this particular platform.
I joined Facebook in 2008. Leaving school, it seemed like the best way of keeping in contact with all those people with whom I’m now no longer in contact. Henceforth, Facebook has become an imprint of my own bildungsroman. It wishes me Happy Birthday along with all my friends – in fact, it itself marshals all my friends with a notification to wish me Happy Birthday. Throughout those long years, I have endless threads of conversations, album after album or shared holiday photos, exchanges sometimes long, sometimes short, sometimes witty, sometimes ireful.
Now I want to pull the plug. But to do that would, in many respects, be a form of self-effacement. Facebook, after a while, becomes not so much an extension of life – a means of ameliorating modes of contact, organisation, sharing – but rather a very part of me. Facebook is now, undoubtedly, a horcrux. I have entrusted the site with such intimate knowledge that it is not so much a shadow, but has a heart of its own. It imposes itself in the stead of aspects of the non-virtual world, such as conversations (keyboard-speak which, with the very symbols of 🙂 and 😦 that we use, visibly cry out for the presence of a physical face rather than the ambiguous, emotionless yh, kk, brb which have haunted our language daily since the now-obsolete teenage tyranny of MSN). And this leads me to my second point:
- Instant Messaging
I became infuriated about this time last year when, to my horror, the Facebook app on my phone insisted I download the separate Facebook messenger app. How dare they force me to clutter up my foldered, minimalist, anti-Apple-app screen with another application. How dare Facebook suck up more of my time by forcing me to load up and check twice as many interfaces? But let’s face it: no one texts anymore. The forlorn hope of MSN may not have broken through, but it at least cleared the breach for the later advances of Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. And who in their right mind wouldn’t abandon text – this way’s cheaper, more flexible and rendered free of national constrictions. The problem comes from it being bound up in these same social media platforms. To have one is to have the other; both necessitate the existence of the other. The Death of the Text only shifts virtuality’s centre of gravity all the more definitely within the confines of social media and, as with so much today, like a huge, gluttonous black hole, with an ever increasing pull, more and more is sucked in.
- The Internet Cloud
And here I risk mixing my metaphors. To be clear, let’s readjust our notion of the ‘cloud’, for the purposes of this article, to become a very dark, very ominous, very huge, invisible and nebulous structure. Actually, let’s abandon the cloud altogether and try again: 3. The Internet Blackhole. Along with the text message, so too have photography, news, event organisation and epistolary correspondence, to name but a few, all been mercilessly sucked into the black hole of social media. Gone is the fluffy, harmless lie of the somehow intangible, angelically white cumulonimbus. With so much uploaded not on our own hard drives but rather on a shared one, we in fact forfeit a huge proportion of ownership. We become shareholders in Facebook without any confirmation of fair-play or recompense in the case of disaster. The problem is pictorially simple and vicious: the more we rely on Facebook, the larger Facebook grows; the greater mass of our property and life-span it receives, the bigger gravitational pull it exerts on our lives. All this leads to a plutonian spiralling circle, heading fire-ward, which, like a real yet twisted underworld, ends not with our lives, but keeps us going, artificially alive, lying on a bed rotten with our past and sucking on a drip of photographic, virtual immortality
All those years ago, philosophers, Plato among the first, came up with what is now referred to as Dualism – the notion of a mind-body split. Now, ladies and gentleman, I would like to propose that, for the first time since the beginning of human existence, we are faced the phenomenon a third split. Whilst the body withers and dies, and the soul (or the thinking mind) continues either in some other plane or in the minds of those still living, social media, in the 21st century, steals a third. It is one which we have and will continue to work upon, at every moment creating a form of alter-ego which exists independently within quite a different system or plane; a copy of ourselves that is anything but a copy: it is us, airbrushed, toned, perfected, polished and then exhibited. Nor is this ‘copy’ purely an extension of the mind’s greatest, selfish desires. Even if it is this at first, like a clay pot first moulded by the maker’s hands and subsequently placed in the furnace, so too are our virtual selves formed then enamelled. As Barthes famously said of the text, ‘It is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intent about it or to control it.’ We need only adjust the significations of Barthes’ use of ‘birth’ to expose the truth of the social networking phenomenon. On one count, this ‘birth’ is our body’s death. For with physical death comes not virtual death. In the future, no one will quite die or leave the internet. There is no Royal Mail to contact to register a deceased person. After death, friends will still follow you, pictures will still tag you, Google will still find you. But even before death we have our hands washed of autonomy. From the moment we engage in Facebook, from the moment we put ourselves into virtual orbit around the black hole of social networking and the internet, we are lost. And as the virtual world comes closer and closer and more inextricable from the ‘real’ world, this gravitational pull will exert its influence over everyone. The freedom to choose which we currently have will end. No longer will one simply subscribe to social media as we have all done, but all will be subscribed from birth.
It is now, as the last vestiges of freedom fade on the horizon, like Phoebus who, weary of the long toils of the day, begins to stable his raging horses and their ruddy manes paint the final swathes of colour on the sky, that we must make a stand. If it is not already too late.