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.
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,