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Tag Archives: Social Networking

The Machine Stops

Readings from E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909). Created for the ALCStudies project on Technology in Literature & Popular Culture.


Voodoo ToDo

 Our age of social networking compels us to devote time, effort and attention more into promoting what we are doing than doing it. Add to this the sense that what we have done never quite measures up to the accomplishments of others1, never mind our own hopes and dreams. There be dragons, and a recipe for craziness.

My friends and acquaintances and I interact almost entirely via text and email. We seem always distracted and busy with work, undefined obligations and idolatrous demands. Our conversations – such as they are – are reduced to monosyllabic, abstract exchanges like those between dyslexic telegraph operators.2 Notwithstanding the efficiency this mode of communication offers, indulged in exclusively it shortchanges the ephemeral, non-algorithmic serendipitous aspects of fun, humor, intimacy and creativity that make human life worthwhile. What are we selling to each other and ourselves, to choose such a simulacrum3 of living?

Anyone who knows me can hear me quoting Thoreau: ‘We have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage .‘ Or perhaps, Do we run on the railway, or does the railway run on us?

Let me take a step back from this harried, hypnotic, delusional state we allow ourselves to become heir to. I spent the past few months doing fun, creative and worthwhile activities with those same friends and acquaintances. I helped organize and participated in Lawrenceville’s Art All Night event in April, and serve as education lead for a non-profit engineering group conducting a water project in Ecuador. I play harmonica with a local music group. In May I lectured on the depiction of technology in film, literature and popular culture to a science fiction and fantasy group. And I start a local arts residency this week that includes a canoe trip on the Youghiogheny River.

So why do I feel inadequate for (until now) not sharing these activities on a public forum with people who may not care to give a damn? Why do I feel constantly that there is something else I need to do? (Oh, wait. My laundry needs to go in the dryer.).

I’ll admit these activities sometimes offer displacement from the anxious, frustrating, lacking or painful aspects of my life. They tend to cost money, effort and time without any obvious or immediate financial gain. They do not advance what is euphemistically termed my career path, at least at present. They might be regarded merely as Quixotic, fanciful pursuits. Except that they represent a choice to connect to human aspects of myself and others and direct my energy in purposeful ways, if only in fits and starts. To me that beats the hell out of getting a fidget bit. HDT again:  All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.

Just say ‘No’.

I recently had a birthday. I am more aware than ever of the time and energy we devote to vain tasks masquerading as productivity in our lives and work.4 There is dignity and sacredness in chopping wood and carrying water: Trash does not take itself out. Dishes must be washed. Bills must be paid (don’t they?). But when we program ourselves to press a virtual pressbar as the chief end of our humanity, who profits?5

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1 See also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

2 Note that our texts often leave out names and personal pronouns – just saying. I cannot claim this comparison as original. Read Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet

3 A representation or imitation of a person or thing that becomes accepted as real. (Thanks to artist buddy Chris McGinnis for pointing me to this reference by Jean Baudrillard.)

5For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?, Mark 8:36, KJV

Me, Meyers-Briggs and I

In a recent CNN article  Susan Cain highlights the unappreciated accomplishments and value of introverts. She quotes from her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

In his New Yorker article in 2004 Malcolm Gladwell cites Cult of Personality by Annie Murphy Paul and examines the Meyers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) and other personality tests widely used as a way of measuring introversion vs. extroversion and other personality traits in people.

For being an loosely-validated testing instrument created by a housewife and her daughter in the 1940s,  Meyers-Briggs exerts a lot of influence still. Inspired by Carl Jung’s notion of personality types, it is based on the assumption that these can be extrapolated from our responses to questions indicating our preferences in certain situations.

Businesses use personality tests such as Meyers-Briggs to evaluate (and exclude) job candidates. Psychologists use them to provide clients with insight. Children are classified with them. Our culture accepts the notion of inherent personality types. People love categories. It’s somehow comforting to measure and know where we stand in relation to others. So we are judged and judge ourselves by our conformity to these labels. But of course, what we use as convenient shorthand can become either limiting or self-fulfilling.

In college after reading David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, I was sure I was inner-directed . (How do Riesman’s and his co-author’s Glazer and Denney’s notion of inner-, outer- and traditionally-directed relate to Myers-Briggs definitions of introverted and extroverted?)

I present public lectures and performances. At professional and social gatherings I am happy to introduce myself and talk to strangers. I enjoy getting to know people and having conversations with them. You might decide based on this that I am an extrovert.

As a kid I could read for hours and shut the world out. I still like solitude and happily do activities like camping and canoing by myself. So am I an introvert?

The answer, as Gladwell points out, is that it depends. We change, adapt, grow. (Well, some of us.)

Ironically, Kenneth Gergen has written not uncritically about the chameleon-like personality that the Internet and technology of social networking supposedly promote. Virtual relationships favor a certain adaptability, if not plasticity, of character. If we are only what we perceive others (employers, friends, frenemies, relatives, acquaintances) require us to be, what is left at the center of our (selves? soul?), assuming we have one?  Or have we become like T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men?

What do you think (assuming you’re not too introverted to share)? ; – )


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