mobile update: full disclosure

mobile update: full disclosure

I think that this whole thing, this whole twitter, last.fm, myspace, xanga, podcast, youtube, meebo, friendster, del.icio.us, icq, instant messenger, wordpress, flickr, mobile blogging, stickam, facebook thing is all really just about one thing.

The search for social connection is the search for meaning.

Pick a person 15 to 25 years old. Anywhere in the country, any city, any school. It doesn’t matter if you know them or not. You can find their favorite movies, what books they’ve read, who they’re dating, where they live, what music they’re listening to, how they did in their classes this semester, what major they’re thinking of taking next, what they did over spring break (with pictures!) their room number, their cell-phone number, and most of the time, exactly where they are and what they’re doing right now. Right. Now. Does that sound creepy? It should sound creepy.

You don’t have to go looking; they’re already broadcasting it for you. They’ve put it all down in easily scannable, pre-formatted columns. You can get it delivered to your morning email. It’s a flood of full disclosure, a blow by blow account of every single thing that happens, every single day.

They update facebook every 15 minutes with accounts of what they’re doing. They text their twitter account with book titles and bowel movements. They stare into a tiny webcam, and openly divulge the intimate details of friends and lovers. Then they upload it to a server, where the link gets passed around faster than a business card and a fake lunch invitation at NAMM.

The flood of self-disclosure is epic.

This is what I think. We took away the meta-narratives, the structures that gave significance to the mundane actions of life. We told them that there was no reliable test for truth, and they believed us. We told them that good and bad had no meaning apart from what we decided they should mean, and they believed us. We told them that the dust between their fingers was the end of the world, the full substance of reality, and even though they knew it had to be a lie, they believed it. We stripped away everything that gave purpose, structure, dignity, and value to life, and left them nothing but doubt. They are grasping for meaning in a world where we have left them none.

And they, and we, all of us, found ourselves on Descartes stoop, listening to him lecture on the one true thing; if everything else is false, if the world and its tenants are the elaborate deceits of a cruel demon, then one true thing would still remain. Cogito ergo sum,

“I ponder. I exist.”

And we fling this one true thing out into the world, to listen for echoes. We strain to hear the shouts of others in this dark wood, to find comfort in the fact that, if we are lost, we are at least lost together. We spit out the running dialog of our ponderings, because they are the only evidence we have that something real exists.

And every time someone hears, and responds, that ephemeral tendril is drawn between us, between the thinker and the listener, and it gives meaning to both. The connection is meaning. We may not know what is true, or good, or real, we may doubt everything and anything, we may doubt even the words that we hear from the person we listen to, but the meaning isn’t in the words. It’s in the speaking and hearing. The connection is the meaning. The validation of existence is the meaning. Thin, fleeting, fragile, impossible to parse, yet it is still meaning.

Because it is so thin, and so fleeting, it takes quite a lot of it to matter.

William H. Auden was one of the great poets of the last century, maybe one of the greatest poets of the English language who ever wrote. In his poem “September 1, 1939“, written on the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Auden writes about the futility of modern life, in its relentless and ever-failing pursuit of meaning.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

In this same poem, Auden asperses love as a great deceit, saying that it is not enough for a person to be loved; what a person really wants it to be the only person loved. To be at the center of the connecting tendrils of meaning. To fling every act of disclosure out into the world, and to have it lauded and embraced, and not only that, but to be lauded and embraced while everyone else is ignored. If love is the escape from the meaningless existence, then it cannot be the kind of vacuous, self-embracing love borne out by massive self-disclosure.

What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

But Auden holds out some hope. He hangs it on two words. The search for meaning ends in despair if the the goal is to be “loved alone”. If existence is to have meaning, it can’t be because of a flood of disclosure, or the apoplectic grasping of echoes to the exclusion of others. Instead,

We must love one another, or die.

10 thoughts on “mobile update: full disclosure

  1. aly hawkins

    You can’t possibly know how relieved I am that you had this in your back pocket the whole time. Ninety percent of me was sure something like this was coming, but the other 10-percent was thinking, “Those damn 19-year-olds have finally gotten to him. My God, I’m watching the decline of the human race in one person.”

    I think what you’ve nailed is what has bothered me from the beginning about the myspace/youtube/facebook/ad infinitum phenomenon: It’s all about me and how much I want you to love me. It’s so desperate and full of longing and tragic. I just want to take these kids aside, stare into their eyes and say tenderly, “I know I’m going to sound like your mom when I say this, or maybe even your grandma, but…To make a friend, be a friend.”

  2. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="94600"]You can’t possibly know how relieved I am that you had this in your back pocket the whole time. Ninety percent of me was sure something like this was coming, but the other 10-percent was thinking, “Those damn 19-year-olds have finally gotten to him. My God, I’m watching the decline of the human race in one person.”
    [/quote]

    Oh come on now, you have to admit, “mobile update” day was pretty damn funny all on it’s own, without needing to have any higher purpose.

  3. Daniel Semsen

    >>>Because it is so thin, and so fleeting, it takes quite a lot of it to matter.

    Word. Definitely hit the nail on the head. Most young people would rather just hang out with friends than do ANYTHING else. I love this post. And I’m with Aly–As I was reading through the bazillion other posts, I was thinking to myself “OH NO. He is NOT doing this…”

    Good work, Mike. I aspire to someday think as deeply as thee.

  4. June

    So well said Mike. I wonder/worry about this phenom a lot. I recently said to my strikingly-well-adjusted 17-year-old niece, “Doesn’t all this myspace stuff seem like one giant, self-absorbed, nonstop scrapbook all about oneself?!” (Which was my loving auntie version of what I was really thinking…saying something like “Knock it off!” or “Grow a brain!” or ” For the love of God do something more worthwhile with your time than tell your friends on the east coast what you’re having for lunch!” isn’t usually a good conversation starter.) I was relieved when she said “Oh yeah, totally.” She has her myspace page, she texts her friends, she ichats much, but overall, she’s headed in the right direction and I’m certain she would not only be able to cope but truly thrive if all her electronic communication devices were no more. I think she’s the exception vs. the rule though.

    Another aspect of the myspace/blog/instant messaging/etc.etc. etc. world that really chaps my nearing 40 hide is the huge increase in flirty talk (at best) and verbal porn (at worst) amongst the younger set. In one short generation, we’ve gone from “Matt said that John said that Todd thinks you’re cute” being whispered between classes at the lockers to kids spouting off what they’re thinking about what they’d like to do with/to anyone/everyone they “meet” online. I worry that today’s kids are even less equipped than previous generations in knowing how to truly relate to and care about others. I guess time will tell.

  5. Heidi Marshall

    I’ve been cruising around the facebook groups that all o the incoming freshmen at APU for ’07 have created, and I’m amazed. They have already made friends that are going to be in some of the same classes, learned a ton about their roommates, discussed different professors, majors, minors, dorms – everything. When they walk onto campus in the fall, the sea of faces they are immersed in will not be unfamiliar. They will find themselves thinking “hey, I saw that person on facebook.” Creepy? Can be. But what a great tool to connect people. That’s all that people want – to feel connected. (Well, maybe some select sociopaths want other things to, but that’s beside the point.) And I love that our students can connect by throwing sheep at each other and complaining about their 7:15 am piano class. Way to go, young’uns.

    I just hope that they will be able to throw sheep at each other in person once they get here in the fall. Because these connections will be meaningless otherwise.

  6. corey

    The thing that still scares me a bit about this kind of interaction is that there’s always a 3rd-Person-ness to it. I would treat you a little differently if we were standing face to face than if you were a jpeg and a bio on a social networking page. That one degree of separation allows our nature some greasy liberties.

  7. grammy

    How interesting…I was just this morning reading Dallas Willard’s “The Great Conspiracy” (written 10 years ago, mind you), and he warns against the pummeling fists of incoming demands on our attention from so many different sources.

    Michael, you are not just a professor and you are not just a musician. You are a philosopher at heart, aren’t you?

  8. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="96057"]You are a philosopher at heart, aren’t you?[/quote]

    It depends on the meaning of the word “are”. I mean, can anything truly BE, or is it just a perpetual becoming?

    Let’s smoke some hash and talk about it for 20 years, then publish a thick and inscrutable tome that undergraduates will pretend to understand.

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