Yesterday, as I was sitting in class, the young lady sitting next to me was unable to focus on the lecturer for a solid minute – a mere 60 seconds – at a time. Instead, her attention was absorbed by the steady stream of messages, images, videos and emojis emanating from her phone.
Dutifully, every 30 seconds or so, she would open her phone and be rewarded with the latest cache of correspondences from various apps, often firing off a surreptitious reply or an obligatory photo. I’ll admit I felt a bit jealous; my phone stubbornly refused to light up with even the vaguest sign of communication.
However, I began to feel genuinely uneasy the longer this went on.
Before I go any further, I know what you’re probably thinking: Who is this old fogey, and how did he register an opinion in a student newspaper?
I’ll be the first to admit I’m technologically retrograde. I don’t have Facebook, I’m averse to Twitter and Snapchat and I loathe Instagram. I hold no illusions that I am anything more than a digital Luddite.
It gives my life a simplicity that is worth sacrificing low-resolution photos of others’ desserts. But before you put down this paper, hear me out: There’s a bigger point underlying my concerns.
You see, the impetus behind this relentless inhabitance of digital space is older than you might think. The goal, whether we realize it or not, is to narrate and give meaning to our behaviors and actions, revealing a hidden or interior truth that we each want to expose regarding ourselves.
In a very real way, this drive has motivated artists, musicians and poets for millennia.
The late French philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault dubbed this phenomenon “confessional,” comparing it to the sacrament of reconciliation, in which a person confesses his or her sins. In doing so, an individual gives a voluntary and complete expurgation of the soul. Eventually, Foucault argued, the dynamic of confession sept into almost every interaction of our daily lives.
Though he died before the social media era, Foucault would likely consider its development to be the utmost extension of this notion of confession and self-revelation.
However, in modern times, we no longer look to a priest for validation of our self-disclosure but instead to our friends and colleagues.
So what? What’s so bad about a few selfies or a volley of tweets? Well, for that, we have to look to Guy Debord, a contemporary of Foucault. In his work “The Society of the Spectacle,” Debord argues that the ubiquity of self-expression has sublimated our ability to designate the proper time and place for self-exposition.
In a sea of people clamoring for each other’s attention and validation, the average person must do increasingly greater things to attract notice. Were he alive today, Debord would likely point to violent films, squabbling talk shows, a corrosive political landscape that thrives on controversy and backbiting and even the Kardashians as fevered symptoms of this disintegration.
So let’s bring it back to you and me. Should we throw away our rectangles and give up on social media? Not necessarily. Like it or not, it’s the ecosystem in which we now live, and good things definitely happen there. But let’s check ourselves, before we log on again, to make sure we are using these networks for communication, not validation.
Andrew Hayes is a senior international studies major from Tupelo.