I can’t say that I’m a big consumer of social media. I use Twitter to promote this website but I have no Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media accounts. I tried Clubhouse for a month, but it hadn’t turned out very well.
However, many people clearly love social media. All you have to do is “google” up the statistics, or just notice the cries of crisis, and the front-page headlines, following the temporary downtime of Facebook and Instagram.
Social media is sometimes described as a new phenomenon, a form of pastime and disengagement as has never been seen before. But that is far from being accurate. Rather, social media is the latest spawn in a long line of mutants specializing in de-personification.
First came the ugly architecture of the middle of the 20th century. Instead of living in houses, or traditionally ornamented city buildings, people began cramming into faceless, gigantic, ant-hill-like “projects” inspired by the fervid musings of Le Corbusier.
Then came television, which is by now an organic, inseparable growth in every family room. Long gone are the game rooms, the sitting rooms, and the music rooms. A family room is now arrayed in a semi-circular lens with one focal point – the television screen.
It seems almost quaint to critique the television – it has been with us for such a long time. But the television has not been static: The one-channel reality of my childhood, where one had to patiently wait a whole week to watch another 30-minute episode, is now completely transformed. Our self-acknowledged “golden-age” of television, supported by streaming services, means that no patience at all is needed. One can sit and consume, binge indeed, without practicing any of the virtues required in what used to be the real world.
Indeed, before the ubiquity of passive entertainment, one had to cultivate a set of social virtues. To enjoy the rewards of fun and entertainment, one had to learn how to be fun and entertaining. That’s because the source of entertainment used to be engagement with others. They tell interesting stories, you tell interesting stories. They care about you, you care about them. They engage in a game of sports with you, you engage in a game of sports with them. Entertainment came as a reward through the virtue of being a person, a being engaging with other persons.
Television, like pornography, pumps into us the joys of entertainment, but without requiring any action of our part. We need not be a person. We sit there, and the titillation comes.
Social media is simply another step in our path of de-personification. The simulacrum is almost perfect: We “like,” we “laugh out loud,” we have “friends,” we have “followers.” We comment and debate, sometimes ferociously, but not with persons: With bodiless entities, faceless ghosts, with whom we never need to truly engage. It is almost as if we plant ourselves in a pornographic movie, where we may objectify and be objectified as we please, then disengage at will.
It is no wonder then that Covid lockdowns, and above all masking, have become such emblems of zeal and religious worship in our culture. Young people, long ago rebels and defiers of convention, support such measures. And why shouldn’t they? Masking is simply another adjustment along the path of becoming a non-person. If television once had but a single channel, we are now turning off the channels of real life.
The average young person feels comfortable behind the mask. It is an extension of the NPC (non-player character) existence behind the screen. The need to engage, converse, to judge and be judged is further eliminated.
And so it isn’t much of a surprise that all the forces of de-personification preach to us in unison the same things: Social media, television anchors, Covidians, lockdown enthusiasts. All are wraiths creeping about, gnawing at the traditional existence in which the person is at the center of things. It is no coincidence that their target is always that vestigial remnant of an almost forgotten past: traditional America.
This too had happened before. The communist regimes of Eastern Europe were highly efficient in extinguishing all that makes the homo sapiens into a person: Religious gatherings were forbidden, social clubs were eliminated, political parties were canceled, all of Burke’s “little platoons” were disbanded one after the other.
Oddly, while the East was de-personifying behind the Iron Curtain, the West has been de-personifying in its own way and continues to do so. Instead of through the Communist Party, we de-personify through imbecilic and passive entertainment. And here we are now, with masks on our faces and no little platoons.
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