Social media and the human experience
The Kansas City Star
Sprint recently rolled out a new advertising campaign touting the company’s unlimited data plan for the iPhone 5. The campaign, no doubt, reflects a well-researched judgment about what will resonate with the iPhone’s technology-savvy consumers. And what will resonate, it appears, is the desire (or temptation) to live one’s entire life online.
A particularly striking television commercial begins with flashes of beauty—a leaf, a neuron, a cityscape, a boy greeting his mother in a scenic mountain setting—as the narrator explains that “the miraculous is everywhere: in our homes, our minds.” Yet simply appreciating and living with this pervading beauty is not enough: “We can share ever second in data dressed in pixels.”
Private life and private pursuits are things of the past. There are “a billion photojournalists uploading the human experience, and it is spectacular.” In the vision offered by the commercial, the “human experience” is essentially communal and public. Every aspect of life is shared with others. “I need,” the narrator insists, “to upload all of me.” For this public sharing of our total self we also need—no, even “have the right—to be unlimited.”
The commercial is eerie and moving at the same time, and it taps into a deep human need to live for something outside of ourselves, to be vulnerable and open in front of others. But a central illusion—of the commercial and of our time—is that “data dressed as pixels” can somehow capture our lives. They don’t, because they can’t.
Pixels cannot approximate real friendships, real beauty, real life. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the “savage” (a man who has discovered Shakespeare and all that Shakespeare represents) protests against the comfortable but inhuman life offered to him. “I don’t want comfort,” he explains. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” What he wants (and what is lost in Huxley’s not-so-distant future dystopia) is, in short, a distinctively human life.
Digital technology can certainly enrich the human experience and serve useful functions. But innovations and labor saving devices have always come with a cost. Like the free market that spurs technological innovation, each novel gadget destroys—by rendering superfluous or undesirable—a previous way of life. As Michael Aeschliman notes in a quaint little book titled The Restitution of Man, “television discourages reading and thus literacy, the telephone discourages letter-writing, the automobile discourages walking, the contraceptive discourages chastity, planned obsolescence discourages thrift and permanence.”
Social media, we might add, discourages real sociability. And if I could truly “upload all of me,” I would be left with nothing of my own.