Occasional blogger abc41 on a momentous decision of cultural resistance:
At age 68 and counting, it’s fair to say that I’ve left much behind over time. In addition to the obvious (youth, employment, a svelte body, the ability to stay up past 9:00), I’ve called 17 states home and now live in that most rootless of all of them, California. Rarely have I felt the desire to explain any of my many leave-takings, at least until now. But given all the public commentary lately about the exploding digital universe, it has seemed a useful exercise to reflect on the decision for my most recent farewell, to the so-called social network Facebook.
It’s not the various privacy concerns that are moving me toward the door. I figure if a seeker is determined enough, there’s no way these days to preserve privacy in any event. The amount of unsolicited email and postal mail that arrives daily is testimony to that. I came to the decision to put Facebook in my past by an entirely different route. Here’s the story.
I joined Facebook with the encouragement of my son. We live 2000 miles apart, and I thought it might provide another means of keeping in touch with him: something that’s extremely important to me. I opened my account and started acquiring Facebook “friends,” most of whom also live in some of those places I’d left behind. It was pleasing to reconnect with divinity school classmates and other folks from my past that I didn’t keep up with after all those moves.
Pretty soon I found myself spending lots of time reading the posts of my friends, and responses from their friends known to me only by their pictures and comments. Facebook started to feel more like eavesdropping than like real connection. Still it might be better than nothing, even if I was learning more about friends (and friends of friends) than I really needed or even wanted to know.
I began to wonder whether this was a good use of my day. After all, my son and I talk a couple of times a week, and we email whenever we want to share something gleaned from our (online) reading that might be of interest. So why am I bothering with the rest of Facebook?
While I’ve been mulling all this over, others with much more experience and knowledge than mine have been waxing rhapsodic about our “bold new digital world” (to quote a headline from the San Francisco Chronicle of June 13). According to the writer of an approving story about Facebook, “the company wants to turn the entire Internet into one interconnected ‘social graph.’” Hmm…the notion of being a dot on a graph doesn’t strike me as very appealing. What’s interesting to me about others isn’t their capacity for being “interconnected”; it’s their capacity for being differentiated from me and all others.
In the same issue of the Chronicle, there appeared a review of a new book on Facebook (The Facebook Effect, by David Kirkpatrick). The reviewer observed that Facebook “seems like entertainment, a way of passing time.” I began to think about all those unread books on my shelves. Maybe there are better ways of “passing time” than sitting in front of a pixelated monitor for hours on end.
But the alarm bell rang loud when I read this sentence from the new book: “Some have gone so far as to say it could evolve toward a crude global brain.” Think what you like about evolution and its mechanisms, or whether the term “evolve” is accurately applied here. For me, this is an image of the future that holds no charm whatsoever. 1984, anyone? Or the Borg of Star Trek lore, about which it was said, “Resistance is futile”? No thanks!
Ironically enough, the final nails in the Facebook coffin came from two decidedly old-fashioned ways of “interconnecting”: a book group, and a conversation with an actual flesh-and-blood person. The day after the Chronicle articles appeared, I was sitting in a group that meets biweekly to learn together about ways of communicating that engender compassion. We read together and talk about how to work toward this goal. That day, in a little book called Compassion by D.P. McNeill, D.A. Morrison, and H.J.M. Nouwen, we read about this practice of Thomas Merton. A Trappist monk, “he read very few newspapers and never watched television or listened to the radio.” Yet “he was one of the most influential social critics of the sixties.” How did Merton come by his knowledge of the world’s suffering? It was “from letters written by friends for whom particular events had personal significance.” I tried to remember, and couldn’t, the last time I had written a personal letter. Might it be a better use of time than reading about what someone had for breakfast?
As it happened, on the day after this meeting, I got together with a friend who is also a pastor. He is generous with his time for conversation about my continuing quest toward understanding the traditions of my faith. Somehow we got on the topic of digital communications, and he told me that he writes his sermons in longhand – no neatly typed pages of manuscript, just his handwritten words. He’s been doing it this way for more than 30 years. Yet another example of a time-honored practice, and maybe it accounts in part for the thoughtful nature of his preaching. In tribute to him, I’ve written this piece in longhand and notice how it helps me focus on what I’m saying right now. The “global brain” would never stand for such inefficiency!
So, taking all of this together, I’ve decided to say goodbye to Facebook. I’m far from being an anarchist, but like Emma Goldman, “I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” I’m trading in this multimillion member faux community, that to me remains abstract and fleshless, an idea rather than a reality. Give me instead the genuine, messy, imperfect community that consists of real, whole people – people with actual bodies I can put my arms around if they need a hug. (I might need one too, but I don’t think my laptop is going to sprout arms any time soon.)
I haven’t totally given up the digital world, and I’ll be glad to hear from any of my old Facebook “friends” who want to stay in touch. I wish all of you well. Email still works (abcarey41 — comcast.net), I have a telephone, and the truly adventurous could try writing me a letter (email me for address and phone number). As the authors of Compassion wrote, “Letters bring life back to a human dimension.” God knows, the world might need restoration of the human dimension even more than “universal connectivity,” whatever that is. Some of us could even get together for coffee sometime. When two or three are gathered together, who knows what might happen?