Zadie Smith on Technology and Philosophy

I love Zadie Smith, but her lengthy review of The Social Network movie is disappointing. She tries to do a macro cultural critique of the online social network phenomenon but gets lost pretty quickly. A sample paragraph:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Say what?

Most negative pieces like Smith's are premised on the idea that Facebook and the web are changing our lives in a massive way. Most positive pieces are similarly premised except instead they argue that everything is sweetness and light.

Someone should write an article that argues the total impact (good or bad) of social networking technologies on an individual's identity, philosophies, behavior, and relationships may actually be overstated by the legion of recent essayists and filmmakers. And that it may be especially overstated even by those who claim it's been life changing — i.e., the piece skeptically assesses first-person testimonies. I'm not saying I hold this view, but it would be a refreshingly different way to frame the conversation.


Here's William Gibson on related topics in a recent interview. One line on globalization:

I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad. I don’t traffic in nostalgia. We’re becoming a global culture.

5 comments on “Zadie Smith on Technology and Philosophy
  • It is true that we are somehow reduced, or that we portray an edited version of ourselves, but that’s the way life works. We are not the same person with everybody we meet in our daily lives, very rarely do we show to someone who we truly are.

  • Jeffrey Rosen wrote an article for the NYT Magazine back in July that covers this topic well.

    Targeting privacy on the Internet in general—and on social networking sites specifically—Rosen provides a well-balanced look at social networking that is well-worth a read.

    It’s not exactly what you said you’re looking for above, but it does touch on this topic.

    The Web Means the End of Forgetting:

  • A couple weeks ago I went to my 20th college reunion. A recurring discussion with my friends was “what’s different now than twenty years ago?” Of course we kept coming back to technology and particularly the Internet.

    It was eery. The campus looks almost exactly the same, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that today’s students live in a profoundly different world. Here’s a small example:

    As a music student, a common assignment from a professor was to listen to, say, a Mozart piano sonata (probably K 333) that we might be quizzed about. Of course, it wasn’t just Mozart K 333. There were a LOT of pieces to listen to, so it was impractical to buy CDs of all of them unless you came from a wealthy family. So I and my fellow students would trudge over to the listening library and wait in line to listen to a recording.

    The library usually only had a couple of copies and would not allow students to take them out fo the library, so I’d go to a listening station and wait until one of the assistants played it for you (assuming someone else wasn’t using it at the moment).

    Compare that to buying that sonata for $0.99 on iTunes and listening to it as you walked between classes.

    Technology has brought massive efficiences to education that studens in the current generation can’t really grasp.

    I don’t know the correct way to measure the effect of social networking, but I asked a teacher friend of mine (who was also at that reunion) if he’s noticed any differences with his students over the years. He thinks teenagers today are much more self aware than in the past, particularly by allowing students to find communities beyond their high schools.

  • This article by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker suggests the movie fills an ideological void and serves as a counter-narrative to stories like Wall Street which paint with such a large brush.

    Surowiecki aptly highlights, “…but Hollywood has ignored even inherently dramatic stories. In particular, there have been few films about America’s most significant entrepreneurs. People like Henry Ford and Sam Walton remade American culture and American society, but Hollywood has dealt with such figures rarely, and then typically as fictionalized archetypes—most obviously, in “Citizen Kane”—rather than as figures worthy of real scrutiny. Watching “Wall Street,” you’d think that business is a Hollywood obsession. But it’s really Hollywood’s biggest blind spot.”

    Not an direct “answer” to all Smiths concerns–but does point to what she may be missing.

  • As a facebook user, yes, my facebook page is a carefully edited representation of myself and the facebook pages of my friends in no way captures the full complexities of who they are. But I also think it’s a bit patronizing to assume we don’t know where our facebook pages end and where we begin. Sure, fb has effected some fundamental differences in how I keep in touch with my friends but that does mean I have conflated the set of 1s and 0s that make up my fb page with my identity – anymore than I consider my name written down on paper as the sum representation of me.

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