But by whatever combination of factors, Facebook has, for now, achieved an unprecedented level of influence in societies across the globe, as Vaidhyanathan documents so well. Could it have been otherwise? Certainly. But that is irrelevant. If we live our lives through Facebook, our lives will be shaped by Facebook. If Facebook mediates our public discourse, then that discourse will be shaped by the formal properties of the platform. The critical point to register is that we will be worked over by the medium, as McLuhan has put it. We will conform to its image. And this will happen regardless of how judiciously and responsibly we post.
As some doggerelist once said of Nietzsche, He might say, were he here today, of media old and new: Give a book a face and it will gaze back into you. The moral of the story here, in a review of a new book, amounts to “count the costs and pay the price,” though without the concision. If you feel that social media is detrimental to your personal happiness and to civic health, then delete your account and walk away. Learn from the example of the Amish, Sacasas says. Earlier, though, he sounds a deterministic note in suggesting that Facebook’s engineers have learned too well from casinos and junk food how to make their product “addictive,” which, as far as I can tell, is just a more concise way of saying “Lord, grant me analog contentment, but not yet.” He criticizes Vaidhyanathan for urging us to strengthen our social institutions and firm up our moral norms in response to the deleterious effects of social media, preferring to emphasize the need for creating new, robust practices in a post-SocMed age rather than seeking to recover older ones, which strikes me as a distinction with only a 4,000-word academic difference. But then what makes the Amish immune to the supposed “addictiveness” of modern technology? How are we supposed to take inspiration from them if the superstructure and the demiurge and our own traitorous nucleus accumbens are all conspiring against us to eliminate whatever free will the philosophers and neuroscientists still allow us to cling to?
I don’t mean to be harsh. I just feel like I’ve read this article a hundred times already, though thank God for small favors, this one didn’t cite Nicholas Carr. Invoking Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes in a discussion of why we say one thing about Facebook and do another is just the rustling of academic plumage, when the salient point is, as always, that human beings frequently desire mutually exclusive things. Our reasoning processes, such as they are, are frequently too weak and easily exhausted to resolve those contradictions. We often experience agency and responsibility as a burden and seek to give it away cheaply, only to complain of all these cumbersome restraints preventing us from being our best selves. Like the guy who’s brave and anxious for the fight so long as some strong men are holding him back, we talk a good game about all the refined pursuits we so wish we had time for, but when the opportunity repeatedly presents itself, we find ourselves keeping up with the Kardashians while living shallowly and sucking the marrow out of a KFC bucket meal. That vacillation, that incoherence, that popular dance known as the bad-faith shuffle — that’s not an anomaly in need of explanation. That’s the human condition.