Technology & its discontents: it’s my life in a box

By:
10/16/2008

It’s easy to hate on new Facebook. The layout is stupid, you can’t see the bumper stickers people send you, and I don’t know how I feel about having all my status updates next to my wall posts. But the real thing I have a problem with is actually one of the best new features—that new little box under your profile picture.

That box is a blank slate, a little piece of the “infinite canvass” that the internet is supposed to promise. It doesn’t show up as “recently updated,” so you can change it whenever you want without looking like you spend too much time on Facebook (which you do). And it’s just the right size for a pithy phrase about yourself, a statement of purpose, a catchy greeting, some clever song lyrics—basically, the usual things a person puts on their personal internet space, but now in a handy box that everyone will see immediately.

This box is so thrilling and perfect that I find myself changing it all the time. With a box that could say anything, how does one pick the perfect phrase? New and better ideas hit me all the time, and I change with impunity, substituting song lyrics for things people said, switching from quotes to emoticons. In fact, every time I hear a particularly witty phrase, an especially apt description, I find myself thinking, “That could go in that little box! That’ll be perfect.” Phrases become tailor-made for dissemination; anything noteworthy demands to be shared with the viewing public. I now see the words that flow through the world around me in a little white box, analyzing how they would look and what people would think.

It’s hardly a new problem, this constant mediation of experience into information and information into broadcasts. We take pictures just to tag them, have exciting adventures that immediately become emails or blog notes, distill our day-to-day life into status updates and Twitter shout-outs. The Facebook profile box is just the latest way to process the world through processes. Rather than experience itself, we have the experiencing of the experiencing, thinking about how we’ll tell other people about what we’re doing right now. It’s a meta-existence—thinking about what we’re doing rather than doing it.

In our technological world, nothing is ever lost. Every experience can be found and repeated: every song, every television show, and even every conversation. That amazing Decemberists concert you saw is already on YouTube when you get home, and there are four or five albums of your trip to Spain in case you forget what things look like. There’s no reason to spend too long in any one moment, because as soon as you want it you can access it again. Any piece of information is immediately accessible—how many Catholics are there in the world? what’s Jennifer Connelly’s favorite song? where is my preschool friend going to college? Ten clicks later, there’s the answer, alongside other information about the same topic. It’s all instantly knowable.

Google’s current mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and they’re doing a pretty good job at it. But to make all information searchable, organized, and accessible means digitizing every aspect of our lives, from Gchat conversations to great works of literature. We seem to be embarking on a new way of using our brains. Some social scientists think of our generation as the “creolization” of technology. In the same way that it takes a generation raised on a pidgin language to really give it grammar and structure, to make it necessary to their lives, we are the generation raised on technology, and we understand it and integrate it into our lives in a way that no one else has yet.

I’m trying to “be here now,” to live in the moment and not in tomorrow’s blog update. Call me old-fashioned, but maybe no one needs to be able to search for this experience. Maybe a moment really is fleeting and irretrievable, no matter how carefully we noted the relevant information that composed it. I appreciate what you’re doing, Mark Zuckerberg, but sometimes I wonder what my world would be like if I wasn’t fluent in internet. What if I had hours that went by that I would never get back, never have a record of? Humans didn’t used to have Recently Viewed Histories. Maybe there’s something precious in time experienced but not processed, felt but not categorized.

You can put that in the box under your profile picture.

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