A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with a friend—via Facebook message, of course—about the pros and cons of social media. We have all of the basic conservative, intellectually inclined, Christian, rooted-in-Western-civilization stuff in common, so in general the conversation proceeded along fairly predictable lines.
Social media are problematic because they tend to replace genuine human relationships, which grow out of common experiences and life lived together, with virtual ones, maintained through wall posts and status updates. On the other hand, networking websites like Facebook and Twitter can foster already existing relationships, helping friends and family separated by geography communicate with each other in real time. So social media can be helpful tools, but they need to be used properly; it’s okay to be friends with your mom on Facebook, but it’s not okay if that’s your only interaction with her, et cetera et cetera and so forth. It was an interesting intellectual exercise, but for the most part, we’ve heard this all before.
In the course of the conversation, however, my friend made an almost offhand observation that made me think about the whole problem in a new context. The best reason for using platforms like Facebook, he pointed out, is to buttress the communal and familial bonds that have been weakened, not by neglect, but by the novel but now universally accepted fact of geographical separation.
How completely right is that? Sure, people have always traveled (cf. Marco Polo and that Odysseus guy), and at times entire populations have moved from one place to another. All the same, the practice of spending one’s entire adult life at a significant distance from one’s birthplace has certainly not been the norm for most of human history. I’m not sure whether to blame the train, the automobile, or the airplane, but somewhere along the line, modernity brought Facebook upon itself.
So the unavoidable maxim of philosophy—the one about going back to first principles—strikes again. The problem isn’t that social media corrodes human relationships; the problem is that humans live so far away from one another. I am as guilty of this as the next person, and probably more so. After living for eighteen years in the same town—in the same house, actually—I chose a college 1500 miles away from home, went abroad for a semester, and will move, in a couple of weeks, for the third time since graduation. I fly home to visit as often as possible, but doesn’t that just emphasize my point? I have to get on a plane to see my family. I don’t live there anymore.
Before you stone me, tell me this: what else was I supposed to do? I love my roots; it’s not like I was trying to run from them. But I could not possibly have obtained the kind of education I did if I had stayed close to my parents, and now that I’ve got it, I couldn’t possibly use my education if I were to go back there. Actually, since they live in southeast Michigan, I might not be able to get a job at all.
At the risk of balancing an entire argument on extrapolations from my personal experience, I think it’s fair to say that a decent chunk of my generation finds itself in circumstances not very different from mine. We move—across the state, across the country, around the world—not because we hate our roots, but because we need something that our birthplaces can’t provide. I’m trying to think of a truly educated twenty-something who has never had to leave his hometown to pursue that education. I’m sure such people exist, but at the moment I’m not sure I know any of them.
Aristotle says that the best human life requires the city: a complete association of associations, in which men share life together for the sake of their common good. As long as the city can provide everything each citizen needs for the fulfillment of his telos, it’s doing its job. The problem with this in the twenty-first century is that very often a man’s birthplace cannot even afford him employment, much less the education required to live a life of intellectual and moral virtue. At some level, the city is failing us.
So here’s the dilemma: The existence of the city entails life lived together, which implies some limit on the geographical size of the city; slapping a label on the continental United States that says “The City” won’t wash. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be a way for an Aristotle-sized human settlement to provide its residents with all the elements of a fully human life—education, for example, or even employment.
I might be missing something, but as far as I can see, there are only two possibilities from here. Option one: human progress has brought us to a point the kind of city envisioned by Aristotle is impossible in contemporary circumstances. Life is too complex and the world is too large for us to live in communities, and advances in communications and transportation technology are the only means by which we can cling to our roots. Option two: we’re wrong, at least partially, about what is really required for a fully human life. Cultural consensus to the contrary notwithstanding, perhaps some parts of the great body of change we have embraced as progress are in fact not progress, and instead of moving us closer to our end they have led us off the right track completely. At which point, as Lewis so sensibly points out, the shortest and best way to the real goal is to turn around and go back until we are once again on the path to true human fulfillment.
I can’t be sure which alternative is closer to the truth, but I’ve got my money—and my hope—pinned on the second.
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.