Finally reading this Jonathan Franzen essay, and like so, so many people, he almost brushes his real point with the tips of his fingers and then loses it, moves on. Were this an essay I had turned in to an editor, my name not being Jonathan Franzen and my books still theoretical, I would be asked what the link between loving birds and having a smartphone actually is, and why having a smartphone or Facebook prevents one from loving birds, or humans.
Facebook almost certainly functions mostly as a human stamp collection. Franzen is right. He’s also right about the commodification of love, something too that Cristina Nehring spoke of in A Vindication of Love and railed against as well.
What he’s not right about is that technology inherently distances us, makes us only “like” things. What is Tumblr, after all, but a field of people’s obsessions and loves? We click the little “heart” on lots of things, but we reblog and post and gush about and argue about the ones that matter. Or the ones that feel good that day.
I just returned from England, from visiting some people I love with all my heart—as Franzen says:
Friends like that. Friends I turn to, over the last couple of years, more and more when I have a real, terrifying problem to deal with. Friends who I keep in touch with largely on the Internet. Friends who, without the Internet, I would never have had.
I stopped in Dublin to see another friend, a girl I knew a little through work and frankly thought didn’t like me for a while. Then she added me on Facebook. Then she invited me to a party using Facebook Events. Then I invited her to my Thursday night drinks using Facebook events. Then we got to be real friends.
Whenever I read one of these, as Franzen says, “cranky 51-year-olds” rambling about the problems with social media, I want to sneak up behind them and whisper in their ear, “Say capitalism. Come on, you can do it! You can, I know it. You’re a smart boy, you know lots of big words.”
Because they never, ever do, do they? I tried to make Jeff Jarvis say Capitalism in his pro-tech talk at South By Southwest, and I want Franzen to say it here. What does “techno-consumerist” mean? It means nothing. The tech, by itself, isn’t the engine of commodification. The Internet was created with state funding and first used for the military and then for scientific research. For things that don’t function well in a market (OK, except for Erik Prince and the Blackwater crowd, who are marketizing our military quite nicely).
The Internet is a communication machine.
The commodification of everything, that’s a different problem. The toss-and-replace society, that didn’t start with a BlackBerry. The boiling down of humans to a list of categories to be “liked” or disliked didn’t start with Facebook.
I am a creature of the Internet, it’s true. From my earliest experiments with it to now, when I make my living on it. And from my earliest experiments with it, I have also used it to connect with people. From my lumbering Dell desktop to my sleek MacBook and smartphone, in cafes in London and dorm rooms in New Orleans and my parents’ office in Massachusetts as a 14-year-old sneaking online after she’s been booted off spending too much money when America Online still charged by the minute.
I was talking to people. To strangers, to friends, to people who I love and who love me. People I’ve had to leave behind or have never lived near, people I’d have lost otherwise.
Say capitalism when you mean capitalism, Mr. Franzen. I’ll make you a deal: if you do that, I might even be arsed to read one of your books.