When I sat down to write this installment of “The Rambler,” I intended to write about the recent documentary Waiting for “Superman.” It’s a subject about which I have a variety of opinions, since most of the time I teach literature for money. Notice I didn’t say, “I’m a teacher,” because, really, I consider myself a writer and a father and a soon-to-be-husband before I think of myself as a teacher. Teaching is a way to fund all of those priorities in an environment that suits me. I’m pretty sure none of that means I’m a bad teacher. On the whole, I enjoy teaching; at least at the college level, where I get to talk about the books and ideas that excite me: how to live well, account for suffering, find some friends, remember our inventory is on consignment and will have to be returned pretty damn soon, account for suffering, live well, friends…. Nothing new, really, no innovations–the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the same sort of things we’ve been dealing with for at least the last 5,000 years, and probably the last 50,000, although nobody was taking notes back then. I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m able to connect with my students: because I don’t have answers to any of those things, and so, other than teaching MLA formatting, thesis statements, reading strategies, and a form of writing called the “the academic paper,” which is essentially useless to everyone but academics, I spend most of my time riffing on the questions. All that is to say, I get paid to teach, I like it, I’m good at it, but it’s not my vocation; I’m not going to win teacher of the year, but I also care about my students and what they get out of my classes, which means it’s a job, which is exactly relevant to what I have to say about Waiting for “Superman,” but I’m going to table that topic until some other time.
It’s a long digression to get to my point, I know, but in the middle of procrastinating about writing, I was rooting around someone’s Facebook profile that I’m not “friends” with, and who has no privacy settings–which the voyeur inside of me always appreciates–and I found this article by Zaydie Smith called “Generation Why?”, in which she reviews The Social Network, and wonders about Facebook more generally. It’s a good read, not the least of which is because Smith writes like a world-class surgeon–clean cuts through tangled issues. Still, it’s long, and you may not have the time to read it, so let me summarize: Facebook was “invented” by a 20-year-old college sophomore, and the accidental preoccupations of that sophomore have become the preoccupations of an emerging generation. To be clear, Smith’s point has nothing to do with criticizing Zuckerberg the person, whose motives are probably ill-suited to cinematic story telling–he’s been dating the same woman, now a med student, since 2003, for example; rather, she’s concerned that the spartan aesthetics and puerile absorptions of the young Zuckerberg will become this generation’s aesthetics and absorptions.
It’s a good question. One of the great questions, actually. The same sort of question that Tolstoy was struggling with in War and Peace. Do individuals, Napoleon, for example, shape history, or are they shaped by history? Tolstoy thought the latter. The end of War and Peace is a long digression about the impossibility of a single man shaping something as chaotic and polycephalic as a battle. Essentially, it’s an argument against “the great man” theory of history, an argument against the John Waynes of the world riding in on their horses and leading us into the great wide open. It’s a story we don’t like to hear. I’m not saying Tolstoy is right; I’m just saying it’s an idea we don’t much like in this culture. Watch any action movie, Die Hard, The Matrix, every police serial drama in television history, and you’ll see one or two men, usually men–though women get their turn every so often–restoring order, setting things right, bringing all the cows home. Smith’s point isn’t that Zuckerberg is “a great man” of history, not at all, but it is that the particulars of our digital life might be accidental, as in not essential, as in “poke” and “like” and “relationship status” are just Zuckerberg’s quirks, rather than expressions of the zeitgeist. She spends time with the idea, bolstering it with arguments from Jaron Lanier, that seem to borrow from Marshall McLuhan, whose famous maxim, “The medium is the message,” inspired an entire generation of media theorists.
In fact, her argument is the Janis of “the great man” argument; essentially, it’s an argument for “the great fool” of history. I’m open to the idea. Clearly, an individual’s choices can have large-scale consequences for the masses–Steve Jobs’ apparent hatred of buttons, for example–but I’m not sure that 1/12 of the population of the planet Earth jumps on something by accident. There are now more people on Facebook than there are people living in the United States. I’m not sure I’m with Tolstoy on this one though, either–not that Tolstoy is with Tolstoy on this one, since I’m pretty sure turning his genius to a foil for Facebook is tantamount to using Plato to sell Jello molds–so let’s leave him out of this.
Yes, Facebook may not be aesthetically pleasing. Yes, there are too many games, and “friends,” and attempts to prove how much fun we’re having, and how smart, spiritual, funny, edgy, and unique we are, but it’s also a lot of people saying, “I miss you,” and “Congratulations,” and “Happy Birthday,” and “I remember when.” I’m not sure Facebook is the historical moment, but it is a moment, like a lot of other moments before, and presumably after, and just like the Tibetans believe that every time a prayer flag snaps in the wind, the prayer written upon it is carried out over the world, I believe that the medium isn’t always the message; sometimes the message is the message–for good and ill.