Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On the unbearable closeness of others

Originally published at Overland.

We live in literal times. Far too literal. Hell’s vestibule in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was supposed to be a metaphorical, metaphysical place. Now we’ve gone and invented it. A virtual space. An enormous room. We share it with throngs of strangers. Hell is other people, and we are other people’s Hell.

I think I have, in general, a good relationship with social media. I value the ways it has helped me stay in touch with friends and family overseas, plug into activist political networks, find an audience for my writing and vastly expand my range of readings. All of these things are important to me.

I also suspect I am more comfortable than most with the other side of the bargain: the demand for continuous presence, both implicit and explicit. The noise of that incessant conversation finding its way into daily routines, competing with the parallel demands of people with whom I am physically close – demands that are no less urgent but altogether more justifiable.

There is, of course, an even darker side: the subtle and not so subtle surveillance imposed on those who depend in any way on state support, or who must project a docile image in order to find work, or who can be fired on a whim. Then there is the vile abuse that speaking one’s mind can attract. Abuse that, for some more than for others, mirrors wider and less novel patterns of discrimination. I am a man, and I am white, so my direct experience of this side is limited. But this also underscores the degree to which this place of places differs depending on one’s viewpoint and circumstances.

The neutral nature of the Net is one of the great ideological illusions of our times. A text is a text is a text: our online communication may be broken down into ones and zeros and then split into data packets which are sent on their separate ways, always reconfiguring itself upon reaching its destination. But where is the end of the line? And who is watching?

Social media networks both embody and exemplify the illusion. We often speak of Facebook or Twitter as if they were recognisable places with fixed coordinates and characteristics. Yet every timeline, every stream, is unique. Two people may only have each other in common. When they talk, feeling like they are sharing the same space, they are in the company of completely different people. The enormous room is not a room at all. It’s more like a funhouse, a maze of mirrors.

Sartre dramatised Hell – that is to say, French society – as the experience of sharing an enclosed space with strangers, for all eternity. The sardonic twist in the play is that the door of Sartre’s small room was never locked, leaving the audience to ponder if the prisoners could have chosen to leave at any time.

Belonging to a social network is, on the face of it, also entirely optional. But then so is owning a telephone. Ask yourself: is it really a field you can leave blank and still hope to find work or have a normal social life?

As long ago as 2012, Time magazine mused, ‘Does Not Having a Facebook Page Make You “Suspicious” to Employers?’ This and other articles like it were in response to reported attitudes of HR departments across the United States. According to Forbes, people who left the networks aroused particular suspicion. What could they possibly have to hide? At around the same time, German magazine Der Taggspiegel noted that not having a Facebook profile was one thing Aurora theatre shooter James Holmes and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik had in common. The two stories quickly intersected, leading to dozens of articles declaring that not being on Facebook makes you unemployable and possibly a psychopath.

Facile hysteria aside, how meaningful is the choice not to be on social media? And what are the costs – both personal and professional – of leaving social networks for those who feel that their returns are steadily diminishing?

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones, a reasonably well-adjusted denizen of the networks. Yet even I confess to experiencing those feelings, sometimes. The spurious need for validation. The subtle sense of claustrophobia. Above all, the intolerable and downright unnatural closeness of people. The room is so large. Do I really know the location of the doors? Could I step through them, if I felt I needed to?

This is all so new: never before have humans had the capability to be constantly in contact. It is hubris to think we could possibly be in control. Allowing users to modulate the distance between one another goes directly against the commercial needs of the owners of the networks, which is how we know that the solution won’t come from them. And perhaps there isn’t one, save for looking – somewhere, somehow – for new circuits of solidarity and for new ways to make room for silence.

My colum for the latest issue of Overland, 'On the books I kept', is up now.