The Virtual Wall

The Virtual Wall

I hap­pen to have a soft addic­tion to social media. Alright, may­be that is an under­state­ment. I have been the mem­ber of a long his­to­ry of social media exploits and sites since I was in my young teens. My first net­work­ing expe­ri­ences were found impa­tient­ly wait­ing for the arti­fi­cial­ly crunchy sound of the dial-up modem to end so that I could log on to a Bul­let­in Board Ser­vice (BBS) to chat and play games with friends. Sure, an alter­na­tive sto­ry is that I was busy down­load­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing the Anar­chist Cook­book and ani­me comic book pornog­ra­phy, which I would print off on the old noisy dot matrix print­er in the base­ment late at night snuff­ing out the sound with a thick blan­ket as to not wake my par­ents. I would lat­er hide my dot matrix erot­i­ca on the reverse side of the ceil­ing pan­els in my tiny dun­geon-like room. Fond mem­o­ries. I was an ear­ly dig­i­tal explor­er fol­low­ing the bread­crumbs of the dig­i­tal pio­neers. Won­der­ful.

Fast-for­ward from the ear­ly 90’s until now. Sev­er­al social media sites lat­er. I had expe­ri­enced the utter great­ness of the dig­i­tal age ear­ly. I had expe­ri­enced falling in love online. I had expe­ri­enced the vast flows of infor­ma­tion and the result­ing con­fu­sion and bewil­der­ment. I had expe­ri­enced Y2K. I had expe­ri­enced the mor­phol­o­gy of my behav­ior as a teen and as an adult as I evolved with the­se machi­nes that sup­port the vir­tu­al world. I expe­ri­enced the free­dom the Inter­net had gift­ed me. Yet, it wasn’t until much lat­er, until recent years I real­ized that may­be with all this social media, I wasn’t free at all. I was being con­trolled and coerced by a hyper­con­sumerism so appar­ent it was invis­i­ble, or at the very least I was being told where I should be and how I should act. A wall was build­ing around me brick by vir­tu­al brick. It was a wall of cement­ed togeth­er by my peers, col­leagues, and friends. I felt stuck.

It took a very strict and con­scious effort to begin explor­ing the nether regions and dusty cor­ners of the Inter­net in order to escape my social media con­fine­ment. I began sim­ply by spend­ing more time seek­ing out things that I am inter­est­ed in. Read­ing most­ly unread blogs and aca­d­e­mic forums. Explor­ing libraries and gal­leries. Employ­ing a gen­uine effort to enroll and work and learn with free uni­ver­si­ties and edu­ca­tion sites. Yet still, I find myself mov­ing in cir­cles. The Face­book plat­form has enveloped much of the dig­i­tal world. It has become a par­a­sitic enti­ty. It is strange as we are each it’s host. It has worked from the out­side in. Or may­be the inside-out? It is a par­a­site that we wear and at the same time one that we have ingest­ed.

Enough par­a­sitic the­o­riz­ing and phi­los­o­phy! My wor­ry is more sociopo­lit­i­cal than philo­soph­i­cal. How­ev­er, I do also wor­ry what Face­book is teach­ing us, that is, its ped­a­gog­i­cal effect. We should all now be well aware of the prob­lem­at­ic of the ide­ol­o­gy trap social media has cre­at­ed for us. We know the fil­ter bub­ble phe­nom­e­non in which algo­rithms cre­ate per­fect clean and white worlds for us, we know about con­fir­ma­tion bias. Yet we are all so on edge, like inmates in a pris­on, wait­ing to be offend­ed so that we might strike the offend­er down. I’ve had lib­er­al and con­ser­v­a­tive friends alike delete me from face­book so that they might retreat back into their bub­ble of com­fort. I try not to take offense, they have been taught and trained by the algo­rithm and con­fir­ma­tion bias­es to behave in con­stant flight-mode. Always on defense, yet always strik­ing out with a sac­cha­rine sense of jus­tice and self-right­eous­ness.

This, of course, leaks from the vir­tu­al world into the con­crete. Peo­ple are not as open mind­ed as they would like to think them­selves to be. We have fos­tered and rein­forced an online com­mu­nal intol­er­ance to dif­fer­ence. In due course, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics respond­ed and the glob­al egal­i­tar­i­an move­ments slow­ly ran out of gas.

A pris­on of thought is what we are left with. A dig­i­tal panop­ti­con in which we police our own image through edit­ing it down and cre­at­ing a plas­tic and false per­sona, and then through the moral polic­ing and dig­i­tal bul­ly­ing of oth­ers. I would like to go back and find the youth­ful opti­mism I had for the egal­i­tar­i­an project of the Inter­net. But it seems that our own sheep­ish stu­pid­i­ty has cor­nered us off with­in the world of a social media that is high­ly coer­cive and social­ly prob­lem­at­ic.

Face­book has sub­sumed the social world. The wall has been built. Some of us have found ways to dig under it or fly above it. Oth­ers are plan­ning their own Shaw­shank-style escapes, but per­haps it is too late. We need to rethink the social and we need to start with inclu­siv­i­ty, an ethics of moral par­tic­u­lar­ism based on patience and tol­er­ance. And, final­ly, we need to think about what Face­book and social media teach us … decon­struct the ped­a­gogies of oppres­sion and then the wall. Let us find the dig­i­tal utopi­an and egal­i­tar­i­an com­mu­ni­ty we were look­ing for in the eight­ies and nineties.

I urge you to get lost in those dark and dusty cor­ners of the Inter­net. Build new dig­i­tal worlds and com­mu­ni­ties. Dig under the Face­book wall, or bet­ter yet fly over it. Kick holes in it. Explore beau­ti­ful dar­ling peo­ple. There is so much to see, expe­ri­ence and think about. Explo­ration is edu­ca­tion, sit­ting on Face­book … it ain’t an edu­ca­tion in any sense. Dig­i­tal nomads hide behind no wall!