A few minutes ago, Roger Scruton and Tyler Cowen debated the question of whether social media represent the end of friendship. There was, however, an important point that was not touched, and that older adults do not seem to realize—that social media are not primarily a technological phenomenon. They are an attempt to use technology to adapt to a sociopolitical phenomenon. And debating the merits of social media–or closing your Facebook account in moralistic horror–sidesteps the more important conversation.
At today’s debate (hosted by the American Enterprise Institute), the two obvious (not necessarily opposing) points were made—that social media present an opportunity to enrich lives, and that they represent a risk to the depth of relationships if treated lightly or used as a substitute for real relationships (both, of course, true).
However, most conversations about social media follow this track—they question the effect social media (a technological issue) have on relationships (a sociopolitical issue). The conversation that should be had is the opposite; how precisely sociopolitical issues created a perceived need for such a technological response, and what (if anything) should be done in light of this information.
The easiest way to explain this is by using a story of a kid who grew up in the suburbs. I’ve changed his name, but this is the true story of a teenager I know, and is more or less the story of nearly every teenager and 20-something I know, to varying extents:
Chris, 18, has just left for college. He couldn’t wait to leave, though he couldn’t fully articulate why. He knew he felt isolated growing up. The master-planned middle-class suburb (row upon row of identical houses) he grew up in prevented him from being part of a community—after all, anything from church to politics to work to most of his friends existed miles away. He was a second-class citizen, effectively locked in a house, until he could drive (his grandparents, now too old to drive, have become second-class citizens again). Chris’s parents appreciated the safety offered by the socioeconomic segregation (no poor people could afford to live near them), but their child spent most of his childhood informing them that he was bored. He drove them crazy with his addiction to Facebook and his iPhone. Because of these technologies, they considered him a techie–but in reality, those media were (as he saw it) his only way to connect to anything resembling a community; the only way to escape the isolated, categorized, rationally planned lifestyle he lived.
Chris’s story illustrates a point Scruton made in the debate about how technology, created to serve us, can wind up our master. The car was invented to make transportation easier. But we ended up creating a lifestyle built around the car, with the result that we don’t live (i.e. sleep) near where we conduct our lives (particularly our political lives)—and now, study after study argues that that lifestyle is empirically unsustainable, and more and more young people who grew up with it dislike it and want to get out of it.
In this narrative, social media do not represent Technology, the great evil. They represent an attempt to recreate (in a limited form) a desirable way of life previous technologies made nearly impossible. Scruton explained the principle of Chris’s story in an essay for The New Atlantis; namely that the problem is not fundamentally technology but a way of life that predated this particular technology: “But take away the healthy ways of growing up through relationships,” he noted, “and the addictive pleasures will automatically take over, even where there is no culture industry to exploit them.”
Cowen referenced another example in the debate: staying in touch with family and close friends who are far away. Localists might blame technology for the fact that we move around a lot and live far away from the communities and relationships that created us—and perhaps rightly so. But in that larger narrative, social media are not the cause of living far away from family—on the contrary, they represent an attempt to adapt to the fact that we live far away, to maintain relationships that might otherwise wither.
We have all, of course, seen the kids (and adults) who are addicted to Facebook or their phones—seen the ridiculous sight of a girl in conversation with two friends who interrupts herself every 45 seconds to respond to texts from other friends who are not present. And Adam Keiper, moderating the Scruton-Cowen debate, was right to raise the question of what happens to hypothetical kids who never learn how to conduct relationships deeper than these technological ones. This is a question worth considering (though again, perhaps the better question is what parents are doing while their kids spend 18 years under their roof learning zero social and moral skills).
But as a phenomenon, social media are an attempt (perhaps an unconscious one, as far as its original creators went) to reconnect in a world that was socially disconnected—an attempt to use technology to mitigate a problem technology had helped create. And different forms of social media do it in different ways, some better, some worse. A conversation about the evils of social media should really be a conversation about deeper social problems. The problem of far-away family isn’t solved by destroying one’s phone.