At the recent South African Communication Association conference at the Afda campus in Cape Town I was astonished at the level of naïveté about the use of Facebook on the part of academics and students alike. On the one hand there were those who regard it as a mere tool for communicating with friends and colleagues, and on the other there were those who, although admitting that it was much more than merely an instrument, namely a virtual sphere that has a decisive effect on the way that users experience themselves as social beings, still viewed this “ontological” social dimension of the social networking site as being completely innocuous.

When, during discussion, I pointed out that someone of the stature of Sherry Turkle (in Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other; New York: Basic Books, 2010) has voiced serious misgivings about the headlong rush towards smartphones, tablets and the like, to put their screens between oneself and others (via Facebook, among other internet-based sites), I was summarily castigated by one of the academics attending the session. She told me that one has reason to reject Turkle’s “dystopian” views, and that Facebook offers an altogether healthy experience, or something to that effect.

First I should mention that Turkle — who has spent many years, since the 1980s, thoroughly researching the effect of technology on human existence — makes it very clear that Alone Together “ … is about how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face” (Turkle 2010:11–12). Second, she cannot be accused of being a technophobe; by her own admission, she is deeply interested in technology, and her early books (from 1984 to 2009; and especially in Life on the Screen of 1995) were generally upbeat about the exciting new opportunities offered by advanced electronic technology, although Simulation and Its Discontents (2009) did introduce a shift in tone.

In Alone Together (2010) she makes it quite clear that, in her view, something is going seriously wrong in the relationship between people and technology. She backs up this claim by elaborating on the way that smartphone-use (particularly texting) appears to be undermining the ability and the willingness of individuals to enter into face-to-face conversation, instead of which a screen is constantly interposed between themselves and their interlocutors. She goes further by tracing the deleterious effects of the introduction of artificial intelligence in the shape of robots on people’s ability and willingness to accept, and deal with, the complexity of other human beings.

Needless to emphasise, this perceived decrease in willingness and ability to address the manifestations of human beings’ complexity — in the form of addressing the reasons for, and ways to overcome, or accept, disagreements, for instance — does not only pertain to Turkle’s observation of a marked desire for the expected simplicity of robots. It also applies to the apparent preference, on the part of millions of people, to communicate via social networking sites such as Facebook. As she pointedly remarks (quoted above), technology “offers substitutes” for the kind of direct communicational relationship that has always been part and parcel of human sociality.

Let me hasten to add, as several of my friends who defend their use of Facebook have pointed out to me, I know that Facebook offers itself as a handy tool to keep in contact with friends across the globe who are not readily available for face-to-face communication. I do not dispute this. But vast numbers of individuals communicate via Facebook despite the fact that they see one another personally on a virtually (pun intended) daily basis. In other words, in cases such as these the cyber-communicational space clearly functions as a preferred space for communication, and this is what Turkle means when she claims that technology changes people (and that these changes are not altogether salutary). Her new book, to be released sometime this year, is about the redeeming qualities of person-to-person conversation — something the Facebook generation has apparently forgotten, and to their detriment.

But this is not all; apart from these fundamental anthropological-ontological and psychological implications of using technology-enabled sites like Facebook (which Jacques Derrida examines in exemplary fashion in his book, Archive Fever; 1996: University of Chicago Press), there is the question of privacy, which Turkle addresses throughout Alone Together. In this connection I should mention that, yesterday, I received yet another confirmation that one has every reason to be suspicious of the claim that internet-enabled social spaces like Facebook are innocuous. In a thought-provoking article on the Mail & Guardian website Owen Bowcott reports on what he calls the “Facebook row” as follows: “US data storage systems operated by Facebook and other digital operators do not provide customers with protection from state surveillance, the European Court of Justice has ruled.”

Bowcott reports further that, in its judgment, the European Court of Justice found the so-called “safe harbour” agreement between the United States and the European Commission (where the US provides directives for American companies on how to protect the personal information of European Union citizens as required by the EU) “invalid”. This means that it has found this assurance by America groundless, with the implication that, as the European Court of Justice put it (quoted by Bowcott): “The United States … scheme thus enables interference, by United States public authorities, with the fundamental rights of persons … ”

In sum, Facebook provides absolutely no guarantee of privacy, which vindicates the previous action (referred to by Bowcott) by Austrian activist Maximilian Schrems, who registered a claim against Facebook in Ireland in the light of Edward Snowden’s exposé of the American National Security Agency’s unscrupulous spying on the online activities of individuals worldwide. It is telling that several influential agencies have welcomed the finding of the European Court of Justice, not only regarding the meaninglessness of the “safe harbour” assurances by the US, but also as far as Facebook is concerned: Zuckerberg and his colleagues do not care a hoot about your privacy.

This must come as a wake-up call to all those ingénues (female and male) who have ignored the question of their personal privacy on Facebook. It also resonates with something that Turkle points out in Alone Together, in the section titled “Privacy has a politics”. Commenting on an observation by some witless member of the “webberati” — in the context of the US government snooping scandal — that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear … the way to deal is to just be good”, Turkle writes:

“But sometimes a citizenry should not simply ‘be good’. You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent. There needs to be technical space (a sacrosanct mailbox) and mental space. The two are intertwined … in democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, one that must be protected no matter what our techno-enthusiasms.”

If you don’t agree with this, and instead support the web-celebrity’s view that you should accept governmental or commercial snooping in your private communications, as long as you “have nothing to hide”, you should realise that — as Turkle points out — you have implicitly accepted, and internalised, Michel Foucault’s diagnosis of the “disciplinary society”. According to Foucault people eventually internalise the disciplinary measures (such as surveillance) taken by authorities of various stripes, so that people carry out the task of surveillance of their own activities themselves, routinely, with no resistance or objection. This is what the web-celebrity admitted, without any irony, as Turkle observes with clear astonishment. He has obviously forgotten the political meaning of democracy.


Bert Olivier

Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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