Friday, May 13th, 2011

A Simulacrum for Action

A Simulacrum for Action
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Stephen Harper has just been elected Prime Minister of Canada, for yet another term. I have mixed feelings about this. He’s a suspicious fellow, and with a majority government, his presence becomes more dubious than ever. Many fear that this increased impunity will allow him to act on some of his more concerning perspectives. He’s publicly noted an anti-gay-marriage bias, has cut social programs, and has shut down parliament on two separate occasions, to further his agenda.

On the other hand, Canada is economically stable, and it would be unfair to not attribute some of this to his involvement. Some argue that this achievement only occurred as a result of the actions of previous administrations. In my mind, this isn’t entirely fair, as these same critics would be quick to level blame on Harper should the economic tides change. (Such accolades/accusations need to go both ways, or neither.) Meanwhile, the official opposition, which won record numbers, is not yet prepared to lead. In spite of good intentions, they need time to mature and learn how to make use of their new found power. Should they have been thrust into the driver’s seat at this time, their lack of experience could have been disastrous for both the NDP and the nation.

It’s important to note that Stephen Harper and the Conservative party do not embody the characteristics I believe suitable for the leadership of Canada. Harper’s manipulative actions, open hostility to the press (which directly handicaps the public’s awareness and understanding of the actions of those they elected), and abysmal behavior as it relates to policies like the environment are deeply concerning. In spite of my opinions on this matter, however, his appointment was democratic. It was (surprisingly) what the Canadian people wanted.

My Facebook Friends

I’m connected to a number of fine people on Facebook, and I appreciate how this utility has allowed me remain in touch with them in a fashion that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. I’m also quite amazed that more of them don’t hit the “unfriend” button, given how I seem almost completely unable to resist the desire to comment on every bit of minutiae related to my existence.

On election night, and in the days following, I recognized that I (figuratively) reside amongst a rather distinct segment of the Canadian populace. While Canada at large voted Harper into office, very few of my friends and colleagues would have done the same. In fact, my Facebook newsfeed was abuzz with shock and dismay at this Conservative majority. Some were disappointed, a few feared some kind of political apocalypse, and others spoke of moving to Finland (because Finland has absolutely no problems and Canada has apparently become some sort of unsurvivable ghetto or police state in the making).

In my role as provocateur (or dick, should you prefer) I was quick to make a slightly snide remark related to the level of hyperbole related to the topic. While I’m all for dialogue in such forums–in fact, I argue that most critical discussion is, for the most part, absent on Facebook–the level of discourse found (sorry, friends) was more akin to that of sports banter than real discussion. Teams were selected, sides were chosen, and most everything rapidly became overwhelmingly black and white.

The Facebook Generation

I’m not particularly well informed when it comes to politics. My time at smashLAB, coupled with my desire to be at least somewhat present in my children’s lives, leaves painfully little time for self-education on such topics. This is not an excuse, rather, it’s an embarrassing admission I feel must be made. Still, as I examine the political landscape, I find no single party truly representative of my beliefs, nor, is anything as simple or clear as many are apt to claim.

While I was in college, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X was widely discussed. Those in business and media raced to understand this part of the population, and explore how they might profit from it. Subsequently, we watched varying research groups and authors concentrated in the social sciences, work to classify similar groups and their motivations by relation to date of birth. These findings seemed as insufficient as political parties are, for representing up where one might stand.

To my point, however, I’m increasingly of the mind that our behaviors and collective predilections are less informed by when we were born, and more by the technologies surrounding us. If this holds any truth, we may–for at least the time being–accurately describe ourselves as the Facebook Generation.

Pretending to Engage

We speak of social networks, but this term has become misleading as, in practice, we really only mean Facebook and Twitter. This is an incidental note, but one I feel we should start to consider more carefully. We don’t use many social networks, but we are on Facebook, and this has changed a great deal about how we act. Or, perhaps it hasn’t.

I loathe team sports. While I’m quite keen on going for a bike ride or perhaps a hike in the woods, I find the notion of sitting on the couch, while rooting for “my” team, rather ghastly. While I can appreciate the desire to actually partake in some sport, this hysterical behavior from the sidelines seems pointless and masturbatory. While it may make you feel good, it accomplishes very little else.

In spite of criticizing this dialogue, I don’t mean to silence anyone. Instead, I ask when we take the next step. Posting a status update regarding one’s fears for their nation is a start. Putting down the mouse and actively joining a party that more accurately reflects one’s beliefs is so much more. For all those folks who posted their gripes online, I’ll bet less than 1 in 10 watched the debates. I’ll bet that less than 1 in 100 knocked on doors, campaigning for their party of choice. I’ll go one step further and bet that less than 1 in 1,000 considered exercising their democratic rights, and running for a seat.

This, then, becomes the tragic irony of the social network. We “like” pages in order to not offend our friends, “share” mundane nonsense and self-promotion, and “engage” with well-intentioned causes, so long as none of it avoids us doing anything more than contributing a click. We’re all “concerned” about the environment, but few of us sell our cars. We “boycott” oil companies for a day, only to fill our tanks the next. We think we’re “engaging” with our friends, but when we see many of them in public, we hardly know how to behave.

Most notably, we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re doing something constructive, when we’re mostly just adding to the chorus of meaningless banter that has become a global affliction. Want to connect with a friend? Invite them over for dinner. Want to share something? Give them something you’d actually miss. And for heaven’s sake, if you want to affect change in your community (or nation), turn off your computer, get off your ass, and actually do something.

A (Likely Pointless) Post-script

Mr. Harper, this is a historic juncture. Now that you finally have this power you campaigned so long to achieve, people like me hope that you’ll look at it less like an opportunity and more as a responsibility. Consider that the interests of our weakest populations are as important as maintaining a strong economic engine. Remember that people are often short-sighted and that the voting majority does not necessarily reflect what’s in the best interests of the nation or future generations.

While many of my peers can see little but darkness with this ostensibly galvanized position you step into, I remain optimistic. I’m hopeful that the shrewd, calculating mind you’ve revealed to us over the past years is too viciously intelligent to not see the multitude of interests and facets relating to the issues faced by our nation. In short, I hope you’ll prove to be the leader I don’t believe you to be.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Kristian says:

    Interesting insight into the apathy that is Facebook, and in many ways I agree, it is too easy to agree or dramatically disagree.

    However I think this can be just as much a problem related to the filter bubble you're subjected to on Facebook. You mention that your friends more or less unanimously were outraged with the direction the elections went. I'm quite certain you've got some friends on fb who actually agree, fb just filters that away, something which leads to a situation where everyone essentially agrees (or in your case disagree just to disagree), and as we know a discussion isn't very constructive when everyone agrees.

    Facebook simply isn't a good platform for discussion. Too many randoms you quite frankly don't care about, too much random noice and too many comercial interests. All of that leads to an environment of apathy and "lulz" all over, rather a setting suited for critical debate.

  2. Adam Mitchell says:

    Gosh, thank you so much for your provocateurism. You made my morning ranting about facebook. I might ask though, do you consider this post 'action'?

    Either way, keep it coming :-)

  3. I agree Kristian, Facebook does provide a skewed view of group perspectives. Just for the record, though, I'm all for people sharing their opinions in such a forum. It's just that the nature of some of these comments made me wonder: at what point do we stop posting, and actually do something?

    Thanks for the note Adam. And to answer your question: no, I don't consider this post action. I think it's perhaps part of a dialogue, but getting off my ass and partaking in a political party's efforts would be quite a different thing.

  4. Kristian says:

    By all means, one should voice one's opinions on Facebook, but it would be naive to belive that one's critical opinion carries any more weight than someone elses new baby, or cat, or car, or yellow curtains on Facebook.

    On the other hand one could argue that by voicing your opinion you are informing your friends and ultimately encuraging them to take action.

    Sadly though, too many people believe that "liking" something or "agreeing" to something on the internet have a real chance of making a difference.

  5. Malcolm has some interesting thoughts on this same topic here:

  6. Bryan Hinkle says:

    Great thoughts.

    To add to Kristian's idea, it's not just Facebook that people find themselves insulated against other ideas. If we constantly surround ourselves by people (Friends) who share the same worldview, it won't be long until we believe that it is the world's view. Here in the US, it seams that citizens with bold principles get elected and go to Washington only to find themselves surrounded by a completely differing mind-set than that of the smaller communities they left. They want to make friends, go along to get along, and eventually abandon principles that got them elected—all because they were surrounded by those with a singular worldview. We call that in the "Ruling-class" mindset; eventually the new politician falls in line with the new mindset and forgets that he was sent to represent, not rule.

    I digress. There are far to many who refuse to participate and engage ANY system, but whine about the results. On the other side of the equation, far too many ignorantly participate and are surprised by the outcomes. It's important to be and active participant, but even more so to be and informed one.

  7. Adrian L. says:

    Gee Eric, I hadn't considered that I was engaged in "pointless and masturbatory" activity every time I went to a hockey game. I also wasn't aware that to "accomplish" something was an essential prerequisite of all human activity. But you're right. The next time I have a long day (up at 6 a.m....rush dropped off at daycare.......working.....rush hour...etc.) I will exchew watching that relaxing Canucks game and rather spend my evening engaged in an activity you might approve of. Perhaps I will conjugate Latin verbs, or dwell on ways I can be more considerate about my purchases or my relationship to the environment.

    I'm not sure there is any "tragic irony" here. I don't remember anyone promising social networks would make the world a more profound place or turn us into Ghandis. There are informed discussions happening on the internet, but Facebook is not the place to find them. It's a teenage cocktail party, a Shangri-la of the frivolous. I don't look down my nose on activities that hold little interest for me, but I have come to the conclusion that I can live a healthy, happy life without seeing pictures of my co-workers new puppy, hearing about a high school classmate's latest shopping spree or reading about what TV show you are watching. Or what you had for breakfast.

    As to the question "at what point do we stop posting, and actually do something?" I have no idea. Perhaps when humans cease to find "pointless and masturbatory" activity so much fun?

  8. Well, at least you exchew what you're watching. I'd hate for you to not do that and accidentally exchoke on it.

  9. Hi Adrian,

    Let me try my response again. My first was an attempt at humor, but I recognize it could be misconstrued for snideness.

    I think you imbue certain notions upon this post that simply aren’t there. I don’t at any point in it imply that we have an individual responsibility to do anything (I do suggest this in other posts, but that isn’t the point of this one). What I propose is that many of us mistake a status update on Facebook for real action. If you follow the link noted in the comments above, you’ll find that Gladwell is of the same opinion.

    I do, however, still believe there’s something tragic in all of this. It’s sort of like the web itself: such a great tool, yet, much of the actual traffic is still porn. Social networks present great promise. I don’t think it’s foolish to ask if we should be using them for more than we are. In fact, I think it’s the kind of dialogue we need to engage in.

    On another point, you present your days as being rather harrowing. While each of us deals with parenting in their own way, I should note that the tasks you outline aren’t in any way unique: we all have many needs to balance.

    Nevertheless, some of us still do find the time to consider our larger responsibilities (i.e. our relationship with the environment). I’m not inferring that you should do the same, but I also don’t believe that a busy schedule absolves one of considering such things.

    I should stop now. I have to go conjugate some Latin verbs.


  10. Adrian L. says:

    Eric, I like your blog. I really do. You have an active mind, you write well and your posts are thoughtful and frequently insightful. But you can't dismiss sports fans as hysterical, drooling timewasters when you are tweeting about beer cupcakes.

    Lighten up, dude...... all kinds of monkeys in the jungle. Lazy, sporty monkeys as well as prissy, clean freak, workaholic monkeys. You may severely limit "fun", but you can't expect everyone else to.

    But I'm not here to make a fuss or to name call. We're talking about social networks. Facebook and Twitter are tools, like email. When email became ubiquitous in the late 90s it was a great invention--a great catalyst. But remember the glut of crap everybody (myself included) sent out? Spam, Dumb jokes, lame videos (usually of the home video variety where someone hurts himself. haha), aggravating "I love my 3,000 friends, including you, so send this on or you'll have 20 years bad luck". It got so bad that writers began to suggest that professionals could be doing their reputations serious damage by engaging in this juvenile behavior. Deja vu, anyone?

    My point here is simply that in amongst all this "mundane nonsense", scientists, politicians and academics were getting on with their work and using this powerful tool to communicate across the world. They didn't have time to engage in discussions about why others were not utilizing this new technology to its full potential. No one would seriously suggest that email (and the internet) are flawed to the point of despair because they contain flaws. That is like saying we should abandon the police force because of a small percentage of crooked cops. Or abandon unemployment insurance or welfare because some misuse it.

    I'm not sure Gladwell was saying that Facebook users mistake "updates" for real action but rather that some mistakenly feel social networks are inherently suited for bringing groups together to instigate social change. I think he is right in pointing out that a lack of leadership and organization is a serious impediment.

    Trivial example: Last week there was a really good burger recipe on CNN.COM. The 384 comments included the usual rancour and pointless insult tossing. The main topic? wait for it.......what kind of cheese should be used. If the web's participants can't even agree on burger ingredients, what hope is there that they will agree on ways to facilitate social change?

    Must dash.....gotta buy some beer for tonight's game.

  11. So, I’m supposed to “lighten up,” but not post about beer cupcakes? ;-)

    I don’t expect people to limit fun, nor, am I patently dismissing sports fans. You’ll note that I say this sort of fandom seems pointless to me, not that it is pointless. I feel the same way about Terence Koh packaging and selling his semen-stained underwear as art. It seems awfully masturbatory (ha, ha), but I’m sure others would argue that it is in fact highly relevant.

    The point of this post wasn’t to chastise others having fun or deciding to not participate. It was intended to challenge the misunderstanding that some seem to be under: that making noise and taking action are one in the same.

  12. Adrian L. says:

    [translated from the French]

    "Your honour, I didn't say 'Jews are dirty', rather I said "Jews seem dirty" while I was drunk out of my mind at 3 a.m. in a bar.

    "Thank you Mr. Galliano. I appreciate this subtle distinction. It is clear that you didn't actually say what you apparently meant. Case dismissed. You are free to go."

  13. You're stretching things a little, Adrian.

    Plus, you've taken one small (somewhat anecdotal) part of the post and turned it into one of those mountain/molehill dealios.

  14. Teal says:

    Many Months later ...

    The irony of the exchange between you (Eric), and Adrian, is that it is the kind of (possibly fun for some), intense exclamation about ? (relatively innocuous differences, in this case) that you are suggesting Facebook (and the internet itself, perhaps?) promotes. A discussion without leading to understanding, or action.

    That Eric feels condemned for loving sports is fair to acknowledge (though his reaction to your view seems to give it disproportionate personal weight).

    And the potential of the discussion, that a Dialogue be created, seems to have been missed. All too often the case.

    Interesting writing. It might be enjoyable to have a real exchange on the issues with you.

  15. Alex says:

    Interesting points of view. I see facebook as a externalization of people's need to be guided..

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