Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Only Connect: On the Platonic Ideal of Friendship. And your computer monitor. And that damn cave.

Plato's Cave. Philosophy students - and their cynical semiotician cousins like me - have been studying it for a long time. Look here for a quickish explanation:

What's making me think of this today? I just saw on the cover of one of the trades today an ad exhorting Academy voters to vote for "The Social Network" for best picture. And all the other awards. At the bottom of all the voting commands is one of E.M. Forster's more famous quotes: "only connect". It's not attributed to him, but that seems thematically consistent somehow with the subject matter of the movie, i.e. a kid who made billions by supposedly stealing ideas from others. I'm not really concerned with that at this point. I do think it's interesting that everyone now thinks that Zuckerberg looks like Eisenberg, and will continue to do so for the rest of time, no matter how many twitchy interviews Zuckerberg gives.

How does this relate to The Cave? Facebook is something that millions upon millions of people now use every day, all day long. I am certainly one of those people. I have avoided seeing the movie because I don't want to know how awful the back-story of it is. Too many people I know have stopped using the site because of the movie. Well, only one person, but that's one too many. It's an indicator that something is amiss. Much like turning around in The Cave and seeing the fire and contraptions that cast the shadows on the walls of the cave that we misinterpret as reality, seeing the seedy underbelly of facebook would be a disillusionment. A word I picked for all of its connotation. If we indeed choose to "connect" in this day and age, it's something that has become synonymous for many with the website and its version of friendship. I've mentioned before that I think facebook's success is indebted greatly to our currently disjointed and "disconnected" world. It's one of the ironies of the information age. If you have a lot of information available to you without leaving your home, you don't have to seek it out from other people. Even going to the library and quietly asking a librarian questions is mostly done; Google has become our librarian. Wikipedia is acknowledged to be at least as accurate as Brittanica, the former standard-bearer of factual accuracy of information. Everything is brought to us by The Monitor, without ever having to actually interact with another human being.

Also gone are the days of being born, living and dying in the same small town, or insular urban community. We move around, we lose touch. The metaphor of communication as actual physical sensation/connection, something doctors have shown for decades infants will become ill without, is not an accident of language. We need the continuity of experience, because other people hold memories of us that we ourselves have forgotten, and when they remind of us of those experiences in communication, our own sense of self and identity is bolstered. Cohesion/Coherence is health. Without the physical presence of these people who have known us since kindergarten, their virtual contact through an electronic ether brings solace and a sense of stability. Even if those memories are perhaps traumatic, they are proof that things actually happened, that "you" actually happened, and continue to do so. The "feed" becomes a narrative, constantly unfolding, and even back-filled as you add more people from your past to your network. Your life as a Wiki. Memories of you become the projections on the Cave Wall/Computer Monitor. You can look at them and remember who you supposedly are.

Personal Stories and histories are the framework of the Self. If you don't have pleasant stories in your head (I raise my hand) about who you are and what has happened to you in your life so far, it can lead to neurosis. If you have nice ones, you are more likely to be "well-adjusted", i.e. societaly (socially) normative. The perverted version would be how certain personal improvement movements exhort you to "change your inner stories" or whatever permutation of that to achieve a sense of happiness or well-being. In those cases, it's bastardized psychotherapy, promising emotional healing with none of the work. In our current instant-gratification world, that's a tempting offer. But facebook provides a curious service that could aid in this or undermine it: forensic evidence of the Self. These pieces of informational/historical detritus that others "tag" us in (note the physical touch/children's game metaphor - the original non-familial "community" we formed in) are the smoking guns of our existence. We can no longer misplace these moments since others have held them for us. Like it or not, evidence of our past crimes are now discoverable.The images are shadows of memory.

I, like many others, have re-connected through facebook with legions of people I have met throughout my life, and some I haven't spoken to in decades. People from early childhood and high school are the most special and surprising. What's also surprising is how they are posting pictures of events and times I barely remember, if at all. Class pictures from first grade. Backstage moments from high school musicals. Wearing a silly hat in the dining hall. Parties attended and forgotten. Even people that have been forgotten. That's something that has struck me repeatedly: how many people have come in and out of my life, but require a photo to jog my memory of their relatively momentary presence in my life. These are moments that I had misplaced, but others had kept. They point to a larger, much more expansive idea/history of my Self, and my hair. Blade Runner, the sine qua non of post-modernity in film for quite a few people, goes for broke with the photo/self/memory game; Replicants - simulated people - hold on to photos as evidence of their (very short) existence. These images become totems against the fear of annihilation.

This in itself is interesting, since this fear of annihilation of the Self (death, physical) fuels a need for a constant infusion of belief in our existence. Photos of birthday parties long gone by help,  but for many of us still to live is to dwell in an ontologically suspicious isolation. How many of us have been shocked into a vivid memory by an image of a spring day twenty years past? And, in the opposite corner, how many of us have discovered that some people we have always remembered need a reminder to know exactly who we are? Just because you remember someone doesn't mean they remember you. It's a momentarily humiliation then mollified by the reply of "Oh, yeah! How the hell are you??? You look great." If you play your cards right, you can become great online friends with the person you were most terrified of talking to in junior high. Of course, there may be an incredibly awkward silence when you meet at the reunion IRL (in real life). Great Loves long dormant will spring back to life with a ferocity imagined only by Austen. We all know people who have had flings with people from high school thanks to facebook. Long standing grudges have been let go and misunderstandings clarified, so it's not all bad.

I need to eat lunch. I'm typing this with a new friendship bracelet on, something a friend of mine tied onto my wrist yesterday morning before she left for the airport. The bracelet itself is a reminder of the past - an adolescent trend of my generation. It's a lovely reminder of continuance, and even the act of her tying it on was fun for the nostalgia it produced. I got into a minor altercation on the phone last night with a high school friend (although not directly brought back into my life by facebook, the internet Was Involved) after he made a shitty comment to me, leading me to make a passive aggressive status update this morning. He had had a bad day, and is sending me a Christmas Ornament. I have discovered that I am not the only one who is deriving a sense of community, however virtual, after years of separation measured in children and time zones. But even tiffs point to connection. I find you only fight with the people you trust to come back. And in the coming back comes reassurance of life. At some point, we will be able to join hands and walk away from the monitor, and stumble out into the daylight, blinking at the sun after another all-nighter searching facebook for people we once knew. And knew us.

Tag. You're It.

Side note: if anyone can easily convert a pdf to a jpeg for me, that would be great so I can post the cover here.


Blogger Chaz Zachler said...

Nice one, Tony.

3:06 PM  

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