This morning Facebook selected for my news feed a link from my girlfriend, who has been 12 times zones away for far too long, to a Jonathan Franzen piece making the argument that love and consumer culture are antithetical to one another. There’s a line in it that may be more true than Mr Franzen realizes. This line was referenced by my girlfriend in a bit of irony as she posted the link: “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”
Yesterday I wrote my column for Plaza de Armas on a topic closely related to this. Although I’ve realized for a while that Facebook and Google (and many other information portals) have been filtering search results and news feeds based on their algorithmic interpretation of personal preferences (search history, click history, etc), I’ve only in the last couple of weeks started to think about how truly radical this idea is.
The thing that got me thinking more critically about the implications of personalized information filtering was this TED talk by Eli Pariser on what he calls the “filter bubble.” The idea is simply that if Facebook chooses to show you only what it has calculated that you already like, you won’t be exposed to new ideas. This has been a problem that tech companies like Amazon and Netflix have wrestled with for a while: how do you make “suggestions” that actually expose people to something new?
So, this isn’t particularly revelatory, but important to think about as the problem extends from “you might also like…” to actually, in effect, hiding ideas and information from people. And it becomes particularly acute as we start to move real communities online. So, in the case of Facebook, the authority that deems a particular piece of news relevant is not a newspaper editor, or the collective opinion of my peers, but simply the links that I have clicked on, or liked, in the past.
The media echo chamber idea has been codified to create implicitly closed communities. But what exists on Facebook could hardly be called community, because it is based to a significant extent on what Franzen rightly refers to as a narcissistic hall of mirrors. And so many of the vital functions of natural, face-to-face social networking actually cease to function in this environment.
One example I bring up in the Plaza de Armas piece is related to Iran’s ‘Green Revolution,’ and the current wave of ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Stratfor released an interested report on the role of social media in contemporary political uprisings. Contrary to some uncritical discussions, they found that social media presents a real liability for these protest groups. Part of the reason is that these information networks are relatively easy for authoritarian governments to monitor. But the report also notes that on networks like Facebook, the protestors have a hard time coming into contact with potential allies that may have different values, but shared strategic goals. The social network then fails to serve the needs of the oppressed, because of an over-reliance on a social media that actually separates people into small, homogeneous groups.
The “openness” that Mark Zuckerberg loves to tout comes with some significant caveats. And this is where I come back to Franzen. If this social media is built on likeability rather than love, superficial openness rather than real honesty, then it does not serve a social good, but is merely narcissism dressed up to look like community.
Just a quick follow-up on my Facebook post from earlier this week. The problem here isn’t just one of moving existing social circles online. It’s the fact that they all get lumped together. We each maintain overlapping identities that come into play in different social situations; we show a slightly different face to our family, our drinking buddies, our coworkers, or our neighbors (or our rock-climbing friends vs our car enthusiast friends). The very idea of privacy means different things in each context. But while Facebook allows grouping of friends, it’s sufficiently awkward that people rarely limit their messages to a particular social sphere. So I think this leads inevitably to a sort of uniformly bland online identity, and ultimately stifles creativity. We all become politicians trying to keep multiple constituencies happy. To be fair, this is a problem that pre-dates Facebook. But the external identity control inherent in a service like Facebook makes the problem much more pressing. As Anil Dash said a few months ago:
Perhaps by engaging more with its users in an honest way about its radical stance on public sharing, and by clearly articulating the social costs that can arise from that stance, Facebook can become as truly inclusive as it strives to be.
In 2008, Anjali Gupta, then editor of Art Lies, asked me to write a feature on the relationship between John Cage and Buckminster Fuller. I certainly wasn’t an expert on Cage, and hardly knew anything about Fuller. I dug through what I had, bought some books, and sent many queries to Google. I ended up writing Silence and Void: Cage, Fuller, and Urban Space, tracking the two thinkers’ similar philosophical foundations and ultimate divergence, concluding with:
[Cage] had come to believe that harmonically structured, emotionally fraught music could live alongside formless, chance-based compositions. Meanwhile, at the time that Cage gave this interview, Fuller was still railing against the failings of Bauhaus architects. With this in mind, we can see why Fuller’s vision of the future, in some ways, missed the mark. While the increasing availability of inexpensive travel and communication has certainly changed the way our society functions, it has not changed the human need for shared social space. Fuller’s Dymaxion house disregarded the socioeconomic and emotional aspects of urban architecture in favor of lightness, portability and conservation of materials. The idea of rootedness might have had little interest to a man who constantly moved about the world. But the ability to move freely and communicate over long distances has never displaced our need for stable social space any more than the ability to appreciate chance sounds has diminished the enjoyment of structured music.
While I was writing this essay, I was also exploring the south side of downtown San Antonio, riding my bike by vacant buildings transforming into architecture offices and condos. Living among these developments while reading about urban space and structural principles sparked an interest that I haven’t been able to shake.
Later, reading Jane Jacobs, I became more deeply aware of the importance of “stable social space.” While criticizing New York’s destruction of “blighted” neighborhoods in the 50s, Jacobs eloquently demonstrates the value of social networks for promoting safety, well-being, and general civic responsibility. When the neighborhood is destroyed, and the inhabitants scattered, the social fabric is disrupted with far-reaching consequences. This is the familiar argument against gentrification. In San Antonio, we’ve seen this happen with the construction the Victoria Courts in the 1940s, HemisFair in 1968, and the Alamodome in 1993, to name a few of the most well-known displacement projects.
Jacobs spilled a lot of ink railing against government intervention in neighborhoods that, though perhaps poor, are safe and functional. Certainly some of this displacement had a racist motivation, as the black community was pushed steadily to the east side, in the case of San Antonio (although San Antonio is less segregated than many cities, as can be seen in these fascinating “race maps” of American cities). Despite all this, city planners are, of course, capable of doing good things.
So the question becomes: How can we, as a city, allow the aleatory to live alongside the structured? Or better, how can we create structures, like Cage did, that allow us to see the beauty in the unstructured decisions of each individual?
Research (my Evernote clips)
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