Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Our Ridiculous Intellectuals

This is the second in a series of posts that clarify, for the moment, what I do and why. I realize this is exciting for all of you.

I have to admit that I was quite disturbed by the positive press the movie The Social Network received. While it may well have been excellent film-making, its story, purporting to chronicle the rise of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, it is rooted in some fundamental untruths regarding our favorite whipping boy. In the movie, Zuckerberg is portrayed as a sexually and socially frustrated young man, incapable of serious, long term attachments, who creates Facebook as a way for fellow losers to share information on hot women. The problem, of course, is that while FB was, indeed, designed for this purpose, at least in a limited way, Zuckerberg himself has been in a healthy, steady, long-term relationship with the same young woman since early in his years at Harvard. The entire premise of the film is rooted not only in a lie, but a far more general perception of people interested in computers and social networks as somehow socially and psychologically malformed. Were I Zukerberg, who was reportedly worried over the impact the film's release would have on the public's perception of him, I would have laughed all the way through.

I read or heard a review of the film when it was released that cast the writer and directors as, in essence, changing some very basic facts concerning Mark Zuckerberg because they are uncomfortable with the reality that he is, by and large, a well adjusted, intelligent, thoughtful young man who also happens to be an extremely wealthy, powerful media presence. In other words, they envy Zuckerberg's success, and figure the best way to bring him down a peg or two is to make him out to be some kind of socially awkward nerd who can't get laid, alienates all those without whom he never could have created Facebook in the first place, and winds up, rich and powerful, yet alone, sending a friend request to the (non-existent) young woman who dumped him years before.

The landscape of our social life is changing rapidly. Over the past five years we have gone from the largely adolescent-dominated MySpace to the far more adult-friendly Facebook and Twitter. Trying to understand these phenomena is difficult enough, considering they are a constantly shifting platform. For those whose interest in them runs more toward their use as a medium of communication and the relationship between social networking and the creation of actual social groups, movements, and other real, as opposed to virtual, social networks, it is difficult to escape the influence of social network skeptic Malcom Gladwell. An article he published last October in The New Yorker has been subject to serious criticism, yet it seems no one can write intelligently about the reality of social networks without moving through Gladwell's article.
The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
These two snippets from a very long article should be evidence enough that Gladwell's piece is garbage. Yet, it is too often treated with utmost seriousness.
There was a stage set for Remnick and Gladwell. … When they came out, Remnick immediately brought up the Gladwell’s social media article from a few weeks ago, where Gladwell wrote that social media only created weak ties and wasn’t sufficient to push a people to form a social movement. He took a lot of heat in the past few weeks, since social media may have played some role in the uprisings in Egypt. Gladwell was pretty hostile to his critics. He scoffed that his critic was some blogger from Huffington Post. Why should we listen to some pajama-wearing blogger, he asked? Some pajama-wearing blogger who lives in Brooklyn, he added for extra laughs.

Well, I’m not sure why we should listen to a journalist who doesn’t like to travel north of 14h Street. Look, it was a very entertaining evening. Those guys were funny and witty and shared lots of amusing stories. But they didn’t know anything about revolutions or social media or Egypt. That’s okay. Journalists don’t have know be experts in their field. But they have to acknowledge that they aren’t experts and they really have an obligation to talk to people who spend their lives studying those subjects. … Why should anyone care what Malcolm Gladwell thinks about Egypt and Facebook, when there are people who have travelled to the Mid East, are fluent in Arabic, and spend most of their waking hours learning about this subject.
I should note that the Crooked Timber piece is a meta-critique of the whole notion that Gladwell's piece has any serious merit, and the "debate" in question having any merit as an intellectual exercise.

There are serious inquiries in to the place and role of social media, in particular in light of their important role in the on-going revolutions in the Muslim world. For example, Scott McLemee, writing at Inside Higher Education, notes the following criticism of another social media skeptic, Evgeny Morozov:
Cory Doctorow, the novelist and a co-editor of the website Boingboing, has published an extensive critique of The Net Delusion -- arguing that its broadsides against net activism are misdirected. “Where Morozov describes people who see the internet as a ‘deterministic one-directional force for either global liberation or oppression,’ or ‘refusing to acknowledge that the web can either strengthen rather than undermine authoritarian regimes,’ I see only straw-men, cartoons drawn from CNN headlines, talking head sound bites from the US administrative branch, and quips from press conferences.”
Far more balanced and nuanced that Gladwell's dismissal of pajama-wearing bloggers, McLemee's piece notes that social media had and will continue to have a role in the revolutions in the Middle East, while skeptical of all the claims that they are, indeed, "Twitter (or Facebook) Revolutions." A healthy skepticism of any such claims is always a good thing.

These examples of the back-and-forth concerning the place of social media, how we perceive its architects and users, is an example of what I take to be the very real vapidity of our intellectual life. As the critic cited at Crooked Timber notes, Gladwell is a journalist, and not one particularly knowledgeable about the subject matter in question. Treating his take as a matter of intellectual seriousness is a symptom of a far deeper malaise - the paucity of our intellectual life at our current historical moment. Scott McLemee's piece is a rare bird, indeed; that it has received far less attention and discussion is another symptom of that same decay of our collective critical faculties.

Another example, again, drawn from the same general milieu of discussions in re social networking sites, is this piece from Rob Horning at The New Inquiry.
Facebook makes a market in friendly discourse and skews it so that it, as broker, always comes out ahead. But in other ways, the friend market functions like most others: it depersonalizes exchange and reduces transaction costs, thereby increasing the number of exchanges that occur. Accordingly, the volume of friend communication we consume thanks to Facebook has increased exponentially. But we have next to no ethical obligation with regard to any of it — that’s understood by all parties entering into Facebook’s market. We are obliged only to be rational maximizers, like we are in ordinary markets.

But what has radically changed is the nature of friendship, which once upon a time was something intended specifically as a bulwark against depersonalization, against market logic. With Facebook, the consumerist allure of “more, faster” fuses with a closely related moral cowardice about rejecting people to drive us en masse to the platform, bring the efficiencies of commercialization right into the heart of our social lives. With friendship in play as an alienated revenue stream, we must retreat even further into our private lives to find a haven from commercialization, to preserve the disappearing self. Soon we’ll have to seek refuge in that evocation of the “blissful isolation of intra-uterine life” as Freud called it — the “total narcissism” of sleep, where our gadgets can’t reach us.
Personally, I find the kind of angst-ridden apocalyptic warnings concerning the potential social disruption brought about by the anomie-inducing algorithms of Facebook to be not only overheated and overdetermined; they are the result of a certain kind of social status, a privileged position in which one has the time and means to worry about such things, rather than consider the very real possibility that, far less than the automatons goosestepping to our social-network overlord's every whim, users of social media might actually be aware of the pitfalls and limitations of the media they are using, understanding the contacts and communication of Facebook for what they are.

At our current historical moment, we no longer have the intellectual tools necessary for understanding the multi-variant phenomena that are impacting our lives. Our universities, homes to our official intellectuals, are really no more than farms where pens hold sociologists and philosophers and physicists and mathematicians who not only do not communicate with one another; they do not communicate to the general public, except in rare instances that usually lead to misunderstanding and more heat than light. The time-honored idea that understanding needs to be done across a variety of disciplines - the roots of liberal arts education - is honored in the names of various colleges, but usually in practice is dismissed as dilettantism of the worst sort.

At heart, we are in need of people who can grasp, in rudimentary outline, a variety of perspectives, and integrate these perspectives in to a far larger picture of our social and political life. Anything less isn't so much understanding as it is the marginalization of real understanding.

The enemy of this kind of real intellectual life is the expert, either self-professed, or generally declared. While there are kinds of expertise that earn the name, they are usually limited to crafts and skills, such as woodworking and welding. A philosopher who spends time and energy researching, say, the nature of scientific discourse is not "an expert", but rather a specialist. Familiar with a particular vocabulary that is limited to the very narrow field under study, any attempt to link this particular vocabulary to our general way of speaking would not only be nearly impossible; the attempt would be understood as watering down the specificity of the vocabulary in question. The worst epithet any academic can have tossed at his or her work is "popularizer".

This paucity of serious intellectual engagement, leaving the field open to pseudo-intellectuals like Gladwell (and marginalizing far better and more serious intellectual engagement like that done by Scott McLemee and others he covers in the linked article) is a central concern of mine. For a generation, our universities, lampooned by ignoramuses on the right as the home of tenured radicals, are in reality farms where the various pens are not just locked but walled shut. Real intellectual life centers on figuring out together the multi-leveled implications of everything from tax policy to social media to the new physics recently much discussed. The lack is serious intellectual heft in our common life is demonstrated most clearly by the success of climate skeptics. While the silliness of the ruminations on social media are less important intellectually, as an example of the defects of our intellectual life, it is the most visible.

We are not in need of experts or specialists. We need to return to an understanding of an intellectual as someone engaged across a multitude of disciplines, attempting to integrate an understanding of our world as it unfolds that treats the public as serious, intelligent, and thoughtful. This blog is my small contribution to this effort.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More