Facebook and the search for meaning

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg © Robert Galbraith
Do we look to social media to fill the hole left by society’s rejection of fixed values and existential meaning?

Facebook shares data about us with corporations and marketers. We all know it. We let this fact glance off us, and tell ourselves that targeted ads aren’t going to kill us.

But Facebook also shares data about us with government agencies like the NSA and the CIA. Since America forgot that it is a republic and became a democracy, legality has become a liquid asset in the sense that it will fit whatever container you pour it into. This means we are giving those who torture and kill others today the information they can use to justify torturing and killing us tomorrow – once they have signed the requisite bills into law.

We all know the narrative: Facebook began life as a pimple on a geeky frat boy’s face. It boiled, became a pustule and took on a life of its own, growing both creepier and yet more fascinating in the process. A new equilibrium was achieved – both for the zit bearer himself but also for everyone who had to look at it – when this festering adolescent outgrowth finally burst, gushing face-tracking technologies, potential terrorist-profiling algorithms, and personalised marketing onto the bathroom mirror of our brave new world.

It was always going to happen. But somehow we still don’t care. My question is: why not?

Facebook – and the broader social media phenomenon it is the poster boy for – is more than Satan’s management tool of choice for monitoring the useless eaters and identifying those who do not – or potentially might not – comply with the ever-changing requirements of Tolerance. Its power lies in the fact that it gives those it is ranged against hope – hope that meaning might be generated in what is increasingly perceived as a meaningless world.

In the ancient world, meaning derived from two sources: the gods and the rulers. There was a pantheon: an assortment of gods who tricked, blessed, raped, stole from and interfered with the mortals they lorded it over and laughed at. And there were rulers – who did much the same. While there could be some overlap between gods and rulers, there was always a clear division between gods and rulers on the one hand and everyone else on the other.

A man had a place, and his wisest course was to learn to be the master of it. If he was philosophically minded, he could – with Epictetus – remember that should the ruler chain his leg to a post, his liberty lay finally in the fact that the ruler had no power to make him hate having his leg chained up. Epictetus never argued that the ruler was in the wrong job or begrudged him his excesses. Rulers chained up legs and philosophers sought virtue. Everything was as it should be.

The early Christians – who took much from the Stoics – regarded God’s witness to events as sufficient, and waited for the judgment of God to right all injustice. The early Muslims regarded life in the same general terms.

The Roman Empire under Constantine sought cost-effective ways of maintaining power and consolidating the disparate faiths held among its nobility, peasantry and foreign subjects. An important feature of that project was the institution of the Confession. (It is true that the Church did not mandate the Confession until the Council of Trent in 1551, but it is implied in Canon 13 of the First Council of Nicaea of 325 – and so, in practice, the Confession is as old as Catholicism.)

The inculcation of the idea that God requires a man to spill his guts to an ordained member of the Church was a stroke of genius on the part of the ruling elite. Given a pre-industrial age in which literacy was rare among the masses, data collection was a problem. Once literacy became common and spawned a postal service – and later with the invention of the telephone – managing and measuring trends among the populace could be conducted at one step removed. Absent those developments, data collection had to be done face to face.

The Confession was the raw-data dump into the knowledge-base which provided intelligence to the Roman Empire. It was implemented on the ground by a network of trained information gatherers, themselves embedded into the broader society – the members of which they taught, generation after generation, to believe that informing on themselves and those they knew was an act of piety.

The Greek or Roman polytheist saw the hand of the gods in the details of his circumstances. Though the gods might be spiteful or fickle, he could try to get right with them by recourse to his own wits. The philosopher could hold to virtue for its own sake be he the slave Epictetus or the mighty Caesar Marcus Aurelius. The early Christian and later the Muslim could take refuge from the buffets of life in their own privately held knowledge and fear of the Lord. But with the institution of the Confession by the Catholic Church man lost to some degree his natural resourcefulness, virtue and piety because he now needed a human interface to achieve absolution. If we want to identify the essential philosophical origin of the Facebook phenomenon, I say this is it.

The unifying narrative in ancient Greece was the works of Homer. In the Dark Ages it was the homily of the priest and the morality play. The advent of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into languages other than Latin provided the narrative for Protestantism – which was primarily a revolt against Rome. All these unifying stories are now supplanted by a new cultural narrative, one shaped by Hollywood and popular music. It contains very clear moral imperatives and we all know what they are. But they are encrypted in such a way when we download them that few of us could – or would – come out and state them openly.

The greatest single change-agent in the move from the old morality to the new, to my mind, was the Beatles. They were not the first stars, of course. There had been many movie stars before them. And as David Bowie said, Hitler was the first rock star. Then there was Elvis. But the young Elvis was as beautiful as a god and Hitler behaved very much like a god.

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The Beatles were different.

Whereas the old gods and those who controlled them had been better than us, Beatle-worship – or Beatlemania as it was called – was entirely new. This was not crowds chanting for Diana at Ephesus, Hitler at Nuremberg or Caesar in Rome. It was not even a solitary man lowering his voice in deference to the black-clad Jesuit. For the first time adulation – or worship – was directed towards the kind of blokes we used to share a cigarette with at break time in school.

Pandora ’s Box was now open; the door barring the way to godhood for all had been kicked off its hinges. Georgie Best swiftly became the fifth Beatle because he – like us – was good with a ball. And 40 years later millions have embraced Kim Kardashian, the fifty-thousandth Beatle, who – like us – is not much good at anything, and whose general lack of ability is a large part of her appeal.

The Beatles did not end the division between the gods and mortals, but they certainly blurred the lines. They had been born into obscurity and had greatness thrust upon them. With their rise and insertion into the cultural narrative a generalized, popular solipsism seemed warranted – even necessary. If John Lennon with his crooked teeth and Liverpudlian drawl could be a god, then so could we all.

Today, the upscale end of the pantheon is still functioning. We still have real stars, and we still want to get close to them and have their magic fairy dust rub off on us and make us special, too. But because the technology which creates stars is now ubiquitous in cheap forms, stars can be relegated to Perdition by anyone with a mobile device if they get caught without their clothes on, kissing the wrong person, or scratching their bottoms. George Clooney says that is restricting. Few would sympathize with Mr Clooney, but he has a point.

To feed his soul – deprived as he is of a heroic narrative which includes eternity – the bewildered consumer of popular culture does not seek significance by evoking the gods above him, or attending Mass, or even screaming at the Beatles. He seeks it the same way George Clooney seeks it: by having other people give him their attention.

By maintaining an online shrine to himself a man feels his life to be imbued with meaning because he is observed. The fact that the US military may one day use social media to connect him with his friends and make drone-strike decisions on that basis is no deterrent. Better that than to be cast into the outer darkness of being completely ignored.

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Whereas the bread and circuses of former tyrants were provided by them to us, we have now become our own circus, and the show we put on provides those who rule us with the data they need to do it better.

Andy Warhol is credited with foreseeing a time when everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. That was nearly right, but not fully – at least not yet. What everyone can have now is 15 minutes’ worth of fame spread out very thinly like a very small amount of butter on a large slice of bread. And they can have it because Facebook can make you a star across a demographic as narrow as a cigarette paper.

In the post-Beatles world, the pantheon reaches from the sky right down to the ground, from Mount Olympus to the bedroom of any 12-year-old with a smartphone and an Internet connection. And the ubiquity of observation – real or potential – has led to a new and quiet psychosis which sits in the mind in the place once reserved for holy vigil.

One of the few first-hand spiritual occupations of the old morality left to us is the obituary. A good obituary lets us brush up against the veil of the sanctuary and see our erstwhile contemporaries off in a short-lived flurry of curiosity and schadenfreude. But this unction is only for the famous – and the more famous you are, the more print inches you can expect. If you have committed the sin of obscurity, there will be no one to observe your demise and thus give it significance.

Here again, Facebook is your salvation. Since with Facebook you are in effect writing your own obituary as you go that whole problem is taken care of. And when you die you can have yourself put in the equivalent of an eternal open online casket by being memorialized.

Naturally, all this will be mirrored on NSA servers.

Whether the NSA will then opt to pursue you into the afterlife if laws are passed in the future which you broke while you were alive is yet to be seen.

Sam Gerrans, for RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.