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Rethinking Reconnection

Oh, and only a few short days after I mentioned I was aggressively digging into my email archive, I’m at virtually Inbox Zero™. The only mail in the inbox is left there as reminders of upcoming interviews (and one piece of writing I need to edit and send out for a deadline), and the other tabs have ten or fewer emails in them. Even with the responses to emails I’ve sent out this week trickling in, it hasn’t been all that difficult to keep on top of it so far.

And, to my utter shock, I only have 40 unfinished/unsent draft emails waiting to go out. (There were something like 300 a few days ago, but a lot of those were empty drafts, or half-finished duplicates of mails that got completed in a second draft and sent out.)

At this point, what I have to ask myself is how and why it reached that point. There’s a few possible answers:

  1. I just learned to think of it as normal to have a bunch of old email sitting in my Inbox. I didn’t see it as an issue.
  2. Most of those emails didn’t need answering anyway, and there’s no real penalty to having a sloppy inbox. (I mean, it’s not like a crammed Inbox ruined my life or anything.)
  3. I got busy with other things.

That last one is as likely an explanation as any other, but it’s worth pausing to ask: what other things?

One thing I noticed that was interesting is that my email inbox went into complete disarray about 2008… which is about the time I really started publishing a lot of fiction, pursuing academic research, and taking my teaching more seriously. It was also around the time when the wheels started coming off my previous relationship, and that took a lot of time and energy.

But it’s also not so very long after I joined Facebook… which happened, if my Facebook logs are to be believed, sometime in 2007, and I can’t help but think that’s also an important part of it. This is not exactly to say that Facebook is the root of all evil, as one of my friends has quipped in the past, but, well, my misgivings have grown beyond just feeling that it’s a machine made to profit from (and generate an autocatalytic cycle of) pointless outrage, as I expressed in An Open Poem To Facebook (After Ginsberg).

The reason I say this is because when I first joined Facebook, I thought, “Cool, an easier way to stay in touch with people!”

Yeah, we all know better now, right? I mean, sure: I’m in touch with way more people–way more great, wonderful people whom I’ve met along the way–than I might be without Facebook. But somehow I’m not as in touch with people I used to know really well, and who still matter a lot to me.

Part of me thinks that this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since staying in touch with people is really hard when you’re on the other side of the planet. (Yes, even when there’s an internet, over a long enough span of time.) I mean, it’s “hard” in that it demands effort, and when you fail at it things happen like what I mentioned recently on Facebook: you find out that a gentle, kind, wonderful friend who made your first year overseas just a little saner, and with whom you’d fallen out of touch, passed away years ago. (Alone. In a foreign country. And your last email to him never got sent until after the fact, and bounced, and then that failed email simply sat in your Outbox until a couple of years after he passed away, despite occasional attempts to track him down online.)

Rest in Peace, Hadden Williamson. You were a wonderful person, and you’re missed.

What was I saying? Ah, yes, staying in touch takes actual work. I mean, if you want authentic contact.

Sure, Facebook looks like the kind of thing that ought to facilitate that, that ought to make it easier to do that, in the same way schools look like places that ought to facilitate serious learning and intellectual growth. And yet neither really seems to work that way on the ground, does it?

This makes me think of John Taylor Gatto’s comments about “networks” in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling:

We live in a time of great school crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing and arithmetic. At the very bottom. The world’s narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of the commodity, if we didn’t buy so many powdered dreams the business would collapse – and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor. In Manhattan fifty per cent of all new marriages last less than five years. So something is wrong for sure.

Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent – nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the name “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some strange way school is a major actor in this tragedy just as it is a major actor in the widening guilt among social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism we appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through subway trains begging and sleep on the streets.

I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching – that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.

“The institution is psychopathic…” is a comment that maps well to Facebook, though for our purposes, Gatto’s most interesting argument is that networks are, basically, the replacement for what he posits as the natural, organic human relationship-structure: community. He discusses this in more depth in his excellent, short book Dumbing Us Down, but the analogy pretty much makes the point for me: Facebook here is the “network” replacement for authentic contact. We see what links our friends read, we see what they ate and where they checked in. Sure, you are the product, on Facebook, and you are, in another sense, both the medium and the message–but not really. A shallow, surface version of you is the medium, the message, and the product. Quantity pummels quality until quality is a long-forgotten dimension. Meaningless life details and the impotent outrage and baby pictures and snaps of your cat are the fundamental building blocks of this super-flattened version of your life and your community, to invoke some technical lingo from Japanese SF criticism I read a few years back.

A wallpaper image found online: click to visit the source page.

Another way of looking at it is this: Facebook is a simulacrum of community, which means that it’s a the simulation of a thing that doesn’t actually exist. (A simulation of a nonexistent thing, like the imaginary digital world featured in The Matrix (hence the references to Baudrillard and his book on simulacra in the film). Well, so is school: it’s an artificial environment we clearly don’t think of as “Real Life”  but which doesn’t actually simulate anything outside of itself.

These kinds of simulacra have overgrown the world like kudzu in the Southern US, in the past century or so, a point Gatto makes as well: most of the simulacra are stand-ins for community of some sort. Networks are like kudzu, and community is like, well… like those houses that can’t stay standing under the weight of all that kudzu:

One of the more interesting pieces of writing online about networks is here. (And yes, it’s on a blog titled “The Art of Manliness”; there’s some cheese there but I don’t see much Mammoth-Hunting or MRMing.)

The thing is, I think we’ve all long known this, on some level. I mean, it’s kind of obvious. It’s precisely the experience we have on Facebook. I struggle with Facebook in part because I don’t like being flattened, so I wade into conversations, try to make them discussions when the rest of the planet seems to have adapted to the cultural pressures of the medium–to quipping instead of discussing, to snarking instead of listening and debating. This is why people get so much out of playing in small bands, groups where they can know everyone by name. This is why people join clubs, and lose interest when the club gets too big.

But while I knew it, I kind of just took it for granted that this was the way of things: that there were two kinds of people in the world, and the split wasn’t whether you’d read The Lord of the Rings but whether you’d joined Zuckerberg’s Empire. I figured people who didn’t sign up were odd, and, well, I’ve only had two friends actually fully quit using Facebook since I joined in 2008.


If Empire Zuckerberg isn’t going to fall to Ello, and it obviously isn’t — my Ello feed is 100% Bruce Sterling and Jack William Bell, with just a light drizzle of Nick Mamatas here and there — then it’s not going to fall to a campaign for emailing your friends, I know. Hell, I’m not even quitting Facebook myself, though I have cut my usage down significantly. Even that kinda feels like going against the flow…

Image by Thomas Leuthard. CC Licensed, click for source.

And truth be told, that’s a flow that has implications far beyond the effect on our own little personal lives, as Umair Haque explained back in late 2012:

Imagine that I pioneer a wondrous nanomaterials startup that offers everyone a blindingly awesome new technology. What’s likely to happen, without institutional innovation — without better building blocks for markets, corporations, and economies, in this case?

Well, the first thing that’s likely to happen is…nothing. Wall St and Sand Hill Rd probably won’t bat an eyelid at my startup, choosing, instead, to do what they’ve been doing for the last decade or so: allocating capital to Groupon, Zynga, Facebook, and their ilk. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that by some miracle of virtue, that they do invest in my amazing nanomaterials startup. What happens next? Well, without political innovation, I’ll get rich, and my backers will get rich — but the middle class is likely to continue its long, slow slide into oblivion. The benefits of technological innovation, in other words, without institutional innovation, are likely to remain hyperconcentrated at the top — with all the attendant problems that stem therefrom: regulatory capture, political gridlock, mega-lobbying, middle class implosion, planetary destruction, and finally, more of the same: real economic stagnation. Think I’m kidding? See this chart, from Amir Sufi, professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School.

We’ve never needed Big New Ideas — fundamentally transformative ideas about how to organize the economy, society, and polity — more.

Though Haque suggests that Facebook is only a drain on capital, there’s another connection here: if you’re busy logging in and arguing about scandals and outrages, you’re probably too preoccupied to step back and think about big picture stuff. I mean, you don’t need to be a genius to see an (open source!) way out of the dominance of single use plastics, for example. All you need is some mental space, and to be living in a time when the right materials are available.

And that time is now, really, isn’t it?

Sure, I won’t be quitting Facebook: it’s likely that more people will see that link to the Sillibagz project fundraiser sooner if I share it there, than through this post. But I’ve also decided I’m going to stop pretending that Facebook lets me stay in touch. And I think that’s important, and different, from knowing it doesn’t do that. By now we all know that Facebook doesn’t keep us in touch, but we’ve all sort of accepted the idea that we should play along in pretending that it does. Note, I have friends who use Facebook messenger instead of email, just as I have friends who use Kakao (a Korean messenger app) as a kind of replacement for email or SMS messaging. For those friends, it’s a bit different… but they’re the minority. For most of my friends, my old and beloved friends, I know what they think about Ferguson, or about the Charlie Hebdo attack, or about global warming, but the story that burns in their breasts, illuminating their days and their nights and lighting their path? I haven’t glimpsed that, in many cases, for far too long.

So I’ve decided I’m not going to pretend that I am in touch with friends because I know what they ate for lunch yesterday, or because I am witness to their personal internet life-narrative theater, as they are to mine. What happens when you’re actually, authentically in touch with friends is another thing, weirder and older than whatever we get out of Facebook: you “catch up,” we say, but I think we also “get caught up” in one anothers’ narratives, and in a good way. Which means, you listen to the story your friend tells you about how his or her life has progressed; you participate in that making-sense-out-of-everything process that I suspect is fundamental to how we human beings function. You participate in one anothers’ stories. There’s an organic constructiveness to it, a creativity. It’s a slower kind of dance, but much more ancient and I think it fulfills a deep human need… and, I strongly suspect, trying to fulfill that on Facebook is a bit like trying to live on rabbit meat alone. Certainly I do feel like a curious and almost-unrecognized poverty I’d come to take for granted has just been alleviated as I’ve reconnected with friends whose lives I haven’t heard about for years, who were out there living far away, and whose connection to my past remained, but somehow didn’t connect to my own present existence.

Now, it does take time. It takes energy, because it involves telling your own story, and not the story of what you had for lunch, or how awesome such-and-such concert was, or how great this podcast wasn’t, or your amusing photograph. It feels a bit like blogging did in the early days, when people were pouring out their hearts and reflecting on their lives because they somehow felt richer and more alive when they did so: when the story of one’s being was the product, and not the story of one’s expertise, propped up by clever SEO and clever web design and the perfect tags and at least one photo for every 300 words.

Being connected with people also takes listening or reading with care, as people tell you their stories, and ruminate, and try to explain things that they can’t, and ask you questions that don’t have simple answers and you need to decide how much explaining is necessary. Facebook tells us no explaining is necessary; it tell us that our life stories can be told in a short video assembled by an AI in late December, to be shared with the world.1 But it cannot, because forging a meaningful story out of your own life takes more effort and energy than logging all the stuff you did. It takes work, and sharing in your friends’ stories takes even more work. (And even more still when you live twelve or thirteen time zones away, and have done so for almost a decade and a half.)

All of that takes patience, and energy.

But then, cutting back radically on Facebook, I’ve saved myself oodles of time spent being outraged at the Awful Thing of the Week, not to mention all the time saved in not arguing with internet morons. And, well, if you want relationships, it takes effort.

So I’m writing emails. Yes, like in the days when we started out. Okay, sure, it gets a bit tiresome writing updates about the same events over and over. Sometimes I cut and paste some bit, like explaining how crazy November 2012 to March 2013 was (shot a film, final exams, gave notice, got married, helped host a film festival, honeymoon, sorted eleven years of accumulated crap, moved out after seven years in the same building, left the country, whew). But I’m spending actual time on each email, thinking about the story I’m telling, thinking of it as sharing. I’m telling that story to one person, one specific person. I think that may well be a dying art, the letter of reconnection and news. I was inspired by a couple of friends’ newsletters, one Maureen McHugh is doing, and another that Sanko Lewis sends out occasionally. I may shift to that method, later — sending occasional updates to people. I stopped doing it in 2003, when I started my blog, and there was a kind of disconnection that came then, too. At the moment, though, I want to pry off the dust-laden lid of neglected friendships–because that’s what they are, neglected–and reach out one on one. Maybe not everyone will reach out back, and that’s fine. Time has passed, people grow apart, it happens.

But I’m writing these letters anyway, as an effort against the void into which things slip when they fade or are lost. And I really do think of them as letters. Letters, possibly, into the void. Maybe I’ll get a reply. I hope I don’t get any more bounces or message delivery failures.

Maybe you, dear reader, are slated for an email yourself. Maybe not. But if you don’t get one, and you feel like you would like one, I’ll tell you what: I’ll be more than happy to hear from you, and will email you back as soon as I can. Tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine.

And maybe it’s not me you want to email first, butI’m sure there’s someone you haven’t spoken with in far too long. Someone you want to reach out to, hoping they’re still there. Someone who, if they’re gone and you never reconnected, it would break you up inside a bit, for a while, if you just let yourself be vulnerable to the reality that someday it probably will happen, but it’ll happen more if you let it. There’s a way to rage against the dying of all those lights, you know. It’s to behold the spark while it burns, and not just dimly reflected on some social network site.

Go on, then. You know what to do.

  1. Funnily enough, a friend of mine shared her Facebook yearly review video. I was in about half of the pictures, and yet I spent less than a week with her, including one day during our visit to Korea in March, and less than a week when she visited in November. Her husband wasn’t in as many pictures as me… because she doesn’t post pictures of him that much. Facebook put together a story, but it’s not her story, that’s for sure.

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