For tomorrow's weekly column in Eastern Mirror newspaper
‘Is facebook making us stupid?’ What kind of question is this? Isn’t this a more appropriate question for those who are not in facebook? For those who don’t know that there’s a whole new world in the social networking site? Facebook is the place where news breaks faster than satellite TV and it makes newspapers look ancient. From a war erupting in the Middle East, to the college buddy announcing his engagement, to the earthquake in Phek, to that pretty face who is having a boring day; facebook gets you all the latest updates. How can something which is as informative as facebook make anyone more stupid?
Governments, universities, international and local organizations, common interest groups, top honchos, babus and netas, celebrities, aunty next door are all in facebook that it is becoming indispensable to have an account. Facebook is something that cannot be ignored as a time pass fun that young folks indulge in. Some good tangible things that have come out of facebook in our context are: creating a platform for debate and social awareness, the humanitarian works carried out by a Naga facebook group, and re-connecting long lost friends. There are skeptics who are not in facebook, and some others who simply don’t feel the need to be there. Then there are those people who live in facebook and don’t have much of a life beyond it.
As with any technology, either we make good use of facebook, or let it derail our lives. One primary concern that I have is the sheer duration: the number of minutes/hours that we spend in it every day. I have personally suffered the consequences of having spent God-knows-how-many-hours in it doing (on hindsight) nothing. It felt good, and it was fun. But that was it. And only later have I realized that I’ve missed the boat on many other areas. Thankfully, I have completed college before facebook was born. But it is worrying to think how many college students are hooked to facebook, and how many really know how to balance it with studies and classes. I have personally experienced that the number one adverse effect that facebook had on me was that my reading time was severely shortened. I had a small plan that I’d reserve some amount of my salary each month to buy books. Books were bought while the reading fell behind.
At a deeper level, online social networking can have grave consequences that are not easily discerned. Jaron Lanier, philosopher and computer scientist who is attributed with coining the term ‘virtual reality’ and creating the first immersive avatars, has warnings for us in his book, ‘You are not a gadget’. What goes on in facebook like Comments, Likes, Pokes, Games, Video and Photo tags, etc may seem harmless and trivial, but they have a way of changing the meaning and value of interpersonal communication. We say that facebook has brought people together. We may also say that we have made many friends in facebook. But Lanier says that such so-called virtual ‘friends’ can truly be called ‘friends’ only if the meaning of friendship is reduced. Real friendship involves all the complexities and weirdness that we experience in each other through genuine interactions. But the idea of friendship is reduced if interactions are all through database-filtered social networks. There is a joke that people are always better-looking in facebook profile pictures than in real life. Research shows that this has the power to play with our self-esteem and social self-perception. Lanier explains that digital programs that require humans to interact with computers as if they are persons also entails that humans are also conceived of as a program. And a small tinkering of the program can have profound unforeseen effects on humans using them. Therefore, online social networking has the danger of reducing the meaning and value of human relationships, or even the way we perceive ourselves and others as human beings. It’s shocking to think that with online social networking, there’s a new generation of kids who has a much lower expectation of what a human being should be.
In facebook, I feel the dilemma of wanting to share my concerns and thoughts with others on the one hand, and the fear of being a show-off on the other. It’s a place where I enjoy and learn from the status updates, link posts, pictures, debates, jokes, etc. But facebook also has its share of self-obsessed megalomaniacs who are so full of themselves. Attention-mongering narcissists who cry day and night, ‘Look at me, see how cool I am. See, I’ve been there, done that’. As Chris Hedges put it, ‘We build pages on social networking sites devoted to presenting our image to the world. We seek to control how others think of us. We define our worth solely by our visibility. We live in a world where not to be seen, in some sense, is to not exist’.
Also, the quality of comments in various discussion forums make me wonder about the depth of what we young people know. Many young Nagas today are much more open-minded than before. They are not afraid to speak their minds. But we see in online discussions that many of the comments are more of emotional responses, comments typed right off the top of their heads or simply ‘googled’ information. Why is it so? I’d like to argue that it’s because we read (books) too less and don’t take time to think before we speak. And facebook may be responsible for that as in my case. If we spend too much time in facebook, we aren’t going to get too much time to read, sit quietly and think, or go out and see what’s real. Facebook, newspaper, and TV, no matter how useful are no substitute to reading books. But kids don’t read comic books anymore. Fewer college students read magazines, novels and other books. It is shocking that our church youths these days have such poor Bible knowledge. And we know it’s difficult to read long stuffs online. A worrying trend is that in the universities, students ‘google’ or quote secondary sources in the internet for their assignments more than real books or primary sources. Baptist Minister and Sociology professor Dr. Tony Campolo in one of his talks quoted about the state of spirituality in America. It’s said that American spirituality is ‘miles wide and knee deep’. To me, that is a very poignant illustration of our state of education. With increased interconnectedness, we now have information overload and there are so many things we know from across the globe that boggles the mind. We know so much more than the earlier generations. But even as our knowledge is miles wide, how deep is our knowledge? We know a little of so much; but we know so little of anything.
Our knowledge of the world is concentrated on filtered news, chatter, gossips, TV serials, infotainment, scandals, sports news, etc. And what we call ‘knowledge’ simply becomes ‘accumulation of information’ and we can’t make head and tail of what fits in where, and there is no such sense of a big picture of life and where the different jigsaw pieces fit in. Chris Hedges says that our generation is ‘addicted to nonsense’, that our ‘obsessions revolve around the trivial and the absurd’ while we are blind to our society’s and life’s big issues. That, Os Guinness says, is ‘Diversion’, a disease that our generation is suffering from. We need to be entertained all day long, and we cannot sit quietly for once. And the devil makes sure that we are always entertained, making sure that we are always ‘diverted’ from what’s real.
Facebook is something that we need to use and not the other way round. Facebook has its uses. But it should not be a substitute for genuine human relations. It should not kill our time to read a good book, reflect, or do a good deed in the real world. If it is too much to say facebook is making us stupid, I think it’s safe to say that it’s making us shallow.