Outsourcing the self

If social networking is creating a new ecology of communication, how is it doing so? It is effectively a way of outsourcing our connections with other people, whereby we no longer need to worry about doing anything so vulgar as actually having to remember birthdays, or ages, or where you met them, or…in certain cases, what their name is. The upside to this should be that by outsourcing our memory in this manner, then we should have more time free to do more things with these people. We don’t need to write a letter, or even an email. Perhaps we think we can just send a message, and all is well. The problem is that this theoretical free time is a black hole. Most have had that that experience of trawling Facebook for what we think is just a few minutes, then *snap* you’re back in the room and two hours have passed. How is this? Well, as with all technologies, there are benefits and there are drawbacks. This form of communication is low-grade, and labour-intensive. We may get more connected, but this means more active effort is needed maintain these connections.

Network theory in the context of neuronal activity gives us what is termed “Hebb’s rule“, which is sometimes encapsulated with the phrase “cells that fire together, wire together”. According to this, connections between different areas of the brain grow stronger the more that these connections are activated. Analogous with this is the image of all the possible routes across uneven terrain. If many people over a long period need to get from point A to point B, then over time efficiencies will present themselves. People will begin to avoid a certain rock, or a marshy area. They may note that taking an oblique approach to a hill may be longer as the crow flies, but it takes less effort. The result is an emergent solution, emergent because it is the result of multiple actors over a long period of time, and with no over-arching co-ordinating strategy. The path is, in the barest sense, an example of Hebb’s rule being applied as general principle. What does this have to do with social networks, you might well ask. The point with this example is that it is emergent, it is contingent, it is effectively passive. It creates something that we think must have been goal-directed (this appearance is the cause of much confusion in discussing emergent and self-organizing phenomena), but it was anything but. In terms of the network of friends on something like Facebook, stronger connections that we have with people in Real Life are a result of actual contact – or even contact via means of communication which we somehow regard as less ephemeral, such as the telephone.

Adam Ferguson, a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, described emergent phenomena in society as the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design“. The problem with social networks is that the owner of the network takes away the accidental aspect of human action which might allow us to strengthen some connections more than others, and instead the task is taken over by an algorithm, which edits our experience. I can see how a radical critique of this situation then becomes possible, whereby because an element of our autonomy has been eroded in this manner, we have not only outsourced memory – we have outsourced our will, our volition, our thought. We are zombies, in all senses. We are co-managing the shitpile. Every utterance we make is spam. But I am enjoying myself too much, and so have run away with the argument. The ideology surrounding social networking does not allow us to consider it dispassionately. It is another mode of communication. It is not evil – this argument is as old as Plato, and continues up to Morozov – , but nor is it the saviour of humanity. We must be pragmatic, but we must commit to a radical pragmatism.

Hello, can I help me?

We must attempt to analyse our behaviour down to the very root, and attempt to foresee just what the unknown results of our actions may be. Every new technology presents new possibilities, and these are amoral. They are without intentionality. They know nothing of ethics. Technology allegedly frees us from every manner of banality, with the promise of allowing us to do what we like. The practice is rather different. With each new example of cognitive outsourcing we no longer think as we once did. What once were basic skills and abilities become degraded out of a lack of use. Hebb’s rule applies in the negative just as it does in the positive. What once were well worn synaptic paths become overgrown with laziness and inactivity. This has more than personal implications. Algorithmic editing seems to make life easier for us, by giving that sickly sheen of “tailor made” to our inter-personal relations, but it can give us over to a philosophy of futility – we become ever more passive, given over to ephemera. We have no thoughts, we have a ‘like’ button. We have no awareness, we have updates. Our being is voided and wiped clean, only to be time-stamped, location-stamped, and finally branded.

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