In working on this conference paper, I’ve revisited some of Wendell Berry’s work. In my browsing I came across this quote about technology,
“We only do what humans can do, and our machines, however they may appear to enlarge our possibilities, are invariably infected with our limitations. Sometimes, in enlarging our possibilities, they narrow our limits and leave us more powerful but less content, less safe and less free. The mechanical means by which we propose to escape the human condition only extend it; thinking to transcend our definition as fallen creatures, we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.” (Home Economics)
As usual, Berry’s reflection is heavily pessimistic but overall it is an apt observation. It reminded me of the debates about social media.
It always strikes me as a little ridiculous that researchers feel a need to prove that you can’t have quality, intimate relationships with hundreds or thousands of people. Really, who thought facebook and twitter could actually extend this capacity, particularly with the flippant kind of communication they primarily foster? Are there actually that many of us who assume the majority of these relationships are anything more than casual connections?
Then there are the articles pointing out that a majority of people are phony or shallow on facebook and twitter and the consequences that can have. Isn’t this true of all public spaces? Facebook and Twitter are as public a space as a civic center or high school (let’s be honest, it’s a lot like high school). Similarly, these environments are open to a somewhat limited community but host a wide range of people with varying relational dynamics from acquaintances to best friends. In public, people usually try to put on what they believe to be their best face and reserve seriousness for more private communication. We all know how dysfunctional any community that’s based upon image can be (at least those of us who went to a high school know about this).
No one can argue with the fact that technology and social media have expanded our definitions of community. Now we are able to participate in national and international communities, and to connect with people around the world. But while our communities have broadened, we are the same. It is a shame when we allow the enlargement of our possibilities to limit the quality of our connections. I do not think this is a necessary consequence.
Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of Spanx, recently made a comment about wealth that I think is applicable. She said, “I feel like money makes you more of who you already are…If you’re an asshole, you become a bigger asshole. If you’re nice, you become nicer.” I think that technology functions in a similar way. It is most dangerous to those already tending toward dysfunction.
For those of us who put a high value on quality relationships, social networks aren’t detrimental. They’re a simple amusement and an avenue through which we can reconnect with old friends or make new ones by initiating more intimate communication that extends outside of the platform. Those of us content with our lives, are not threatened by our friends and acquaintances pictures of their adventures, instead we share in their joy. Recognizing that technology shares in our limitations and faults reminds us that we have power over it, not vice versa.