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The Ocean of Narcissus: Technology, Social Media, and Expression

By James Idsardi | Experience as Evidence Essays

Under the claxon call of the school-ending bell, my hand finally gave way. A long graphite streak was cut into the illegible gibberish of my English essay. As the rest of my fellow freshmen filed out to freedom, I remained behind to nurse my wounds. The problem lay not with the prompt, but with my palms. Even a writer with sublime rhetoric can be thwarted by the mutiny of peripheral neuropathy.

Primed with the enthusiasm of a man walking the green mile, I approached my teacher’s desk to deposit the accursed document. She gave it the briefest of glances, the look on her face enough to convey complete incomprehension. Even after enduring that glare for ten years from dozens of others, it still stung. Turning around, my mind fled to the greener pastures of escapism. Life would be so much better, my juvenility mused, without useless, agonizing conversation. It would be more valuable if I could just communicate with myself.

I never thought my Caulfieldian sentiment could gain traction in reality. Yet here I am, halcyon days behind me, imbedded in the age of the Internet. The arcane boons of social networking have allowed mankind to interface with others like never before, and we are loath to refuse its intimate embrace. Though neither is mutually exclusive, modern eyes have branded physical and virtual communication competing commodities, and social Darwinism has declared the latter the victor. Be it through blogs, forums or Facebook, people are aggressively expanding their social life to get more bang for their bitcoins. Paradoxically, as their social life expands outwards, their attention retreats inwards. Technology has enabled mankind to substitute objects for people, leading to self-centered discourse and the devaluation of expression.

But what is so great about expression, anyway? As my high school counselor explained to me on a warm autumn day, it is our method of informing others about the world around us and ourselves. It is equal parts empathy, respect, and struggle. I tended to have more of the last part. Cursed with brittle digits, attempting to transcribe my ideas into pages was an unwinnable war. However, even crippling struggle makes one stronger. Leaving those thoughts in cerebral stasis gave me ample time to polish them, and contributed to the development of my erudite vocabulary. Expression is fertile grounds for personal development, provided one is willing to search for it.

But that is no longer needed. In this post-industrial world where convenience is a click away, why develop what you can manufacture? In traditional forums of communication, there exists the speaker and the audience. The audience is known and immutable; the speaker bears the burden of making his argument palatable. The Internet has eroded that odious restraint away. Messages no longer need fine-tuning for a focused group; instead, they are screamed silently into the virtual sea, left adrift for the scavengers to harvest at their own digression. The speaker compensates for the dearth of immediate audience by manufacturing his own. Thus, social media gave birth to the “artificial audience,” the invisible entity to whom public posts are implicitly addressed. These constructs inherently lack human characteristics, serving as little more than sock puppets in their natural state.

The puppetry metaphor also applies adeptly to technology itself. It thinks not for itself, but influences others thoughts profoundly. It fosters intercommunication and isolation in equal measures, especially amongst those inhibited by forces outside humanity’s control. Steven Hawking, a theoretical physicist completely paralyzed from Lou Gehrig’s disease, simulates oration through a cheek-imbedded synthesizer. Prominent film critic Roger Ebert lost his voice after cancer surgery, and now communicates through the text-speech program on his computer. More personally, peripheral neuropathy limits my handwriting to the illegible, but using non-manual means circumvents my handicap. This example isn’t equivocal to its two predecessors; it just illustrates the validity of the principle on multiple levels.

But what makes me willing to compare minor neuropathy in a vainglorious college freshman to severe paralysis in two prominent, accomplished individuals? The same thing that allows an ambitious Youtube superstar to declare himself the second coming of Elvis: an environment of vanity. The aforementioned atmosphere triumphs on the Internet, and why should it not? Communicating with an artificial audience inevitably results in cognitive dissonance; we want the emotional subtext of others, even when speaking alone. The only emotions we can substitute are our own. By conflating self and audience, we enter a positive feedback loop where we tailor our rhetoric to appeal to ourselves, and ourselves alone. Over time, this denaturing creeps like cancer to other aspects of our lives. The self-projections crowd out our friends, our relatives, our community. In a modern society plagued by this antipathy, how much are we really worth to each other?

Much less than before.  This sad truth is best illustrated when contrasting letters with blogs. Before the rise of social networking, people communicated personal experience through individual correspondence. Each letter was tailor made for one, and trusting them with that information showed high value in a person’s thoughts. In present day, those same messages about trips abroad and personal affairs are posted on the public wall. The information is the same as before; the value has not changed. But it is now addressed to all, exorcising from it acknowledgement of the receiver. Sending information once meant that someone mattered to us. Now it only matters to ourselves.

Despite this pessimistic vision of communicative affairs, reality is not so stark. Just as social media has diluted the messages we send, technology has bequeathed voice to the voiceless. After being given typing accommodations by the school councilor, my self-esteem rocketed out of a rut. My teachers were finally able to comprehend my messages, and I could finally place myself alongside my peers. Technology can elevate expression just as easily as it can tear it down; what is important is identifying the conditions within which those effects exist.