The platform is taking care of the problem of meaning in life by getting rid of any time to wonder.
By: Roberto Simanowski
What is easier than criticizing Facebook? It takes gossip for friendship, voyeurism for solidarity, and trivia for information. It has industrialized sharing and generates huge revenues from it. It is a permanent assessment center and an incredible waste of time. Yes, sure, of course. But, don’t people see the real benefit of Facebook? Don’t they realize how effectively it answers a basic social problem in a technical way? Does nobody remember the famous saying by Blaise Pascal? Or at least the popular song by John Lennon?
It was 1974 when Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” became a number one hit on the U.S. charts. The most important words in this song are “it’s alright.” This blank absolution is repeated with increasing emphasis: “Whatever Gets You Thru Your Life,” “Whatever Gets You to the Light”: “It’s alright, alright.” It remains unclear what the recurring “whatever” stands for, but we know where Lennon picked up the line: from a popular African-American evangelist during late-night TV channel surfing. Obviously Lennon hit a nerve. He sang away an old existential problem — the horror vacui — in joyful rhythms. How so?
The Horror of Quiet Chambers
About 300 years earlier the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” Alone, Pascal believes, everybody “feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness.” His being prone to death haunts every human, “so that if he be without what is called diversion, he is unhappy.” Which is why one doesn’t want to be given the hare one is hunting. As Pascal says: “The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.”
More important than killing the hare is killing time. A century after Pascal, the quiet chamber problem was solved: The book invited distraction into any empty room, the lamp even after dark, with television one made it through the night even without additional light.
And through life. Because getting through was more and more the issue in the 20th century. Pascal, it should be said, referred his readers to God. In God, being is meaning, the holy scripture replaces the fear of silence by the feeling of security. But what if God is dead, as Nietzsche announced at the end of the 19th century? How could we live after the end of philosophical and political narratives announced by Lyotard and after the fall of the socialist systems? And what of the end of utopia, optimism, history? There are three options: one accepts hopelessness, reanimates God, or looks for another narcotic that gets one through the night and life.
Let’s start with accepting hopelessness. It was in 1985 that the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo said that after the end of grand narratives that gave meaning to life and history, philosophers are no longer expected to show people where they are going but instead how to live with the condition of not going anywhere. That same year the rock band Talking Heads translated this philosophical insight into defiant fatalism: “We’re on a road to nowhere / Come on inside.”
Second, the reanimation of God: When Nietzsche said: “We have killed God” he also asked: Isn’t this murder too big for us? Don’t we now have to become gods ourselves? And indeed, it was too much — and the 20th century ended with the return of religion — although in spiritual rather than confessional form.
The third response to the metaphysical void of modernity was television, the most effective narcotic of the second half of the 20th century, particularly since the rise of private cable channels that didn’t comply with any educational mandate and aimed at sheer distraction. The results are reported in a famous essay by the German poet and intellectual Hans-Magnus Enzensberger in 1988 with the provocative title: “Absolute Emptiness: The Null-Medium, or Why All Complaints about Television Are Irrelevant.” Enzensberger’s emptiness is the opposite of Pascal’s quietness. It is a hypnotic immersion into the flashy cycle of images devoid of any messages. Enzensberger’s main witness is a six-month-old baby in front of the screen. The baby is not yet cognitively capable of understanding — but nevertheless sits magnetized and happy; a symbol of an intensive moment liberated from any meaning.
Many will be able to subscribe to Enzensberger’s model. However, if you think about it, the baby is not really a good example since the author overestimates the appeal of nonsense to those whose cognitive skills are more developed. To adults, distraction without the alibi of meaning would not conceal the human dilemma but underline it. Therefore, adults need a story between the flashy images no matter how hollow, incoherent, or interchangeable. This, at least, is how it has worked thus far. Nowadays we need stronger measures.
For digital natives, perfect distraction lies in permanent communication combined with interaction. It needs other people. This has led some observers to consider Facebook as the fitting technology for neuroscientific theories of empathy. Some have even celebrated Facebook as a medium of love, as a utopia of communication beyond the principles of hierarchical and utilitarian thinking. Such a defense of Facebook against its shortsighted critics is brave but still misleading. It entertains the illusion that humans are on the road to a better world.
Let’s assume the following: Interaction on social networks is more or less what in linguistics is called phatic communication and in common parlance small talk. A kind of placebo conversation referring to nothing but itself and the immediate moment. More precisely, the aim is to avoid the moment that, like Pascal’s quiet chamber, would leave one alone with oneself.
Permanent communication has become the ruling principle of contemporary culture. Sometimes, it may feel like a burden. But in moments when life forces idleness upon us (in the waiting room, on the bus) we feel the fear of death once more and rush to our smartphones. New media guarantee that you will never be alone with yourself. Their promise: to keep you busy, to take care of your downtime. No room for horror vacui.
Remember Pascal’s hare hunting? In the 21st century it takes place on Facebook, and Twitter, and mobile media. The alternative to God is new media; the priest is replaced by the programmer. The project of modernity — which would otherwise be challenged by a return to God — can continue by way of the turn to technology. Technology translates religion — from ligare: to bind, connect — as link and makes online networks, rather than the pulpit, the medium of salvation.
On online networks, social encounters occur with the frequency and speed of the “update,” celebrating an eternal recurrence of the same. The philosophical punch line of this translation: As long as they keep the carousel of communication alive, Facebook users cannot escape a Weltanschauung of cheerfulness. It is the metaphysics of aimlessness; the bliss of every communication junkie.
Against all the talk about the capitalization of private data and the evil of Facebook, one needs to see the bigger picture. It is time to understand the enormous opportunity Facebook is giving humankind. It is time to acknowledge that Zuckerberg’s invention has made the social not only measurable but also sustainable. It is taking care of the problem of meaning in life by getting rid of any time to wonder. Whatever the “Whatever” was in Lennon’s famous song, these days we know: It’s Facebook.
Roberto Simanowski is a scholar of media and cultural studies and the author of several books, including “Facebook Society: Losing Ourselves in Sharing Ourselves,” “The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas,” and “Waste,” from which this essay is excerpted.