It’s been nearly six months since I’ve written anything on Facebook and longer than that since I published anything on The Armenite. Some people have asked why so I wanted to give an update here.
2016 was a heavy year by any measure, one of great upheaval and acrimony across the world. Most exceptionally, 2016 was the first year when the Internet became a major platform for war; although battles had been fought there before, the convergence of political, military, and media cyber activity led to a ferocity that can only be paralleled to war.
As with other extenuating times, there were many lessons to learn from this troublesome period and my break had much to do with taking stock of and reflecting upon those lessons myself.
Keyboard Thugs to Keyboard Warriors
I grew up just as the Internet was taking off, in the mid and late 90s. I didn’t have the foresight to invest the few hundreds dollars I had to my name in a random dot-com and cash out before the bubble collapsed but I learned some things that I thought were useless until recently.
In the days of the West Coast-East Coast rap wars and the incredibly violent music that came with them, it wasn’t uncommon, particularly in the immigrant-heavy environment in which I grew up in, for kids to be listening to 2Pac and fashioning themselves thugs. But, these kids, like myself, didn’t live in a housing project or dangerous neighborhood like where many of these rappers were coming from and rapping about so they had little chance to live out their thug life fantasies in the real world. That’s where the Internet came in.
With AIM, chat rooms, ICQ, and message boards, kids could be whatever they wanted to be including, for some, thugs, albeit with their keyboards. It would be something like one guy having an issue with another guy and creating an anonymous “screen name” on AIM and messaging the other one with some non-personally-identifiable text like “sup” then launching into a vicious cyber attack about how he’s going to beat his ass. Quite naturally, this would move to an online shouting match in which it was easy for things to escalate because there were no immediate consequences. It probably didn’t help that one of them was probably listening to Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Gangsta Party while the other was wildin’ out to Hit ’Em Up (on WinAmp, of course, because all other mp3 players sucked).
These online tiffs were essentially pressure release valves for issues which would’ve been suppressed in real life because of the physical consequences involved with cursing someone’s mother or telling them that you’re going to beat their ass.
But, with the absence of physical interaction and the possibility for anonymity, you could play out your thug fantasy, feel confident that “you showed him,” and move on to more important things like how you were going to make the station wagon you’re driving look cool when you pull into the school’s parking lot (not possible). Very rarely would these online fights devolve into physical fisticuffs as neither party was terribly interested in living out their thug fantasy in the physical world where physical consequences obtained. Lots of kids also played Doom until the wee hours of the morning but that didn’t mean they hoped to be a soldier in a never-ending maze with demons jumping out at them every three seconds.
It also helped that real thugs didn’t start using the Internet until much later, sometime after the creation of Craigslist made it much easier to rob people by getting them to come directly to your house to pick up what was apparently a nationwide surplus of refrigerators in great condition which were being thrown out.
What does this have to do with 2016?
I came to the uncomfortable if belated realization in 2016 that many of the same principles which led young boys to exercise their fantasies of having a thug life and feeling like a big dog continued to obtain in the age of Facebook and Twitter with people with advanced university degrees, impressive jobs, and even pleasant personalities (in the physical world, at least).
“You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to shy a stone at every dog that barks.”
Before the Internet, people would derive worthwhile information from books and authorities on subjects who had established their reputation through verifiable experience. There was an opportunity cost to accessing this information and if you went to the bookstore, library, or classroom, you would necessarily be removed from the other activities that might take up your time like watching TV, going to the movies, or talking to your friends. There were physical limitations to what you could do at the same time because you couldn’t watch a movie, talk to your friends, and read a book or sit in on a class in the same space.
Those limitations are now gone.
Today, you watch TV and movies, talk to your friends, read books, and listen to lectures all on the same platform: the Internet. While this is a wondrous development in terms of access to knowledge, it poses a problem. Because the Yale Open Course you want to watch, Facebook, and the “pile of garbage” known as Buzzfeed appear on the same screen on the same device with you accessing all three in the same physical location, your brain is naturally going to have a more difficult time discerning the opportunity cost between them.
Because the brain can no longer use the shelves of a library, the pages of a book, or the seats of a classroom to immediately apply the heuristic which will allow it to determine the difference in importance between the works of Aristotle and a Facebook comment, both of which are found on the same screen sitting in the same place, things can get tricky. This puts the burden on us to create new heuristics which will allow us to determine what is worthwhile and what is not.
This complication extends to the fora we use for debates because they are often also the places, unlike before, where we interact with our close friends, our casual friends, our family, and people we don’t even know; most of our communication online takes place in the same few spaces.
Think about it: you go on Facebook to check messages your close friend might have sent and all of sudden you’re exposed to a thousand different conversations, most of them by people you will never see in a year’s time and some by people you’ve never even met. It’s like going to the downtown post office a hundred times a day to pick up your mail.
So it goes with debates.
Previously, your decision to enter into a debate with someone would depend heavily on the setting. Say you’re a biology student. You might be inclined to vigorously discuss an issue in a seminar class because you recognized — consciously or not — that your interlocutors could be expected to have a modicum of awareness about the topic being discussed because they were in the same class as you. If you wanted to discuss cell structure and plant physiology with serious people and expect to be taken seriously, you’d have to register for a class, read a book, and develop the ability to articulate your thoughts on the subjects through sustained effort. Conversely, you would be less inclined to enter into a debate with students of Spanish literature about endoplasmic reticula (finally, finally, finally got to use this somewhere).
Today, the biology student is debating cell structure and plant physiology on Facebook not just with her classmates but with her gender studies friends from the dorm, her neighbor across the street from back home, and her grandmother.
To be able to discuss not just cell structure but also the causal relationship between vaccines and disease all you need are a Facebook account, a group of equally or more ignorant friends, and the ability to read some pseudo-scientist’s musings on a legitimate-looking webpage because while in real life you would be able to easily differentiate between a laboratory at Harvard and the office a charlatan posing as an expert in the basement out of where he’s peddling his nonsense, it’s more difficult to differentiate between the legitimacy of that Harvard laboratory’s website and the website of that same charlatan sitting in his basement; after all, they were probably both made by the same web developer in Hyderabad.
The problem is not these other people with their crazy ideas and expressed opinions exist — they always have. The problem is that these new participants lower the average quality of the debate by the worthlessness of their contributions and the sheer overwhelming volume of them. And now, rather than being contained to drunken conversations at Christmas dinner, you’re surrounded by it daily in any interaction you have online.
Facebook and Dogfish
To be sure, it’s not that Facebook doesn’t host worthwhile conversation or helpful information. However, there is an opportunity cost with trying to fish out that information from Facebook than from a less costly source which might get you the same thing without causing you any heartache.
Since we’re on the subject of fishing, think about the following: if you had a choice, would you rather fish for salmon in Puget Sound where you have to reel in three evil dogfish for every salmon or would you rather stand on the banks of the Columbia River and catch salmon to your heart’s content without any goddamn dogfish? You know and I know that there is only one right answer to that question (unless you’re a sadist, in which case, Facebook all the way).
Through digital discipline, one can achieve the solitude of the hallowed library or bookstore online, happily bereft of the vulgar chatter.
What does this have to do with 2016 again?
In 2016 I had the revelation that I was in one way or another a party to more worthless discussions than ever before, precipitated by the worst calamities of the 21st century’s teenage years. Though not a parent, I finally felt their collective pain at having to observe and experience the madness of their adolescents, hoping that in the 17th year, they won’t get any more stupid, ugly, or crazy.
It’s hard for me to imagine it getting much stupider, uglier, and crazier, really.
As part of many worthless discussions — mine and others’ — smart and respectable individuals I know celebrated violence and justified murder; an educator mocked my education; an ostensible (and apparently gravely insecure) defender of democratic values tried to intimidate and silence me through the use of buffoonish lawyers. Nevertheless, I appreciated them making the point starkly clear to me.
I welcomed 2017 with the same reveling spirit that I might an exit from the Twilight Zone, where I was apparently residing during the prior year. In recognition of the absurdity of the past year, I also resolved that greater digital discipline might be in order.
Basically, always listen to Winston.
To allay any great or minor or nonexistent concern of the reader, I will not abscond into a permanent hermitage in avoidance of the world’s vulgarities; I rather like some of the world’s vulgarities, like politics, for example.
But we must choose how to engage with all things in life. I might argue that I’ve learned as much from my detractors as from those people which have helped buttress my own beliefs; some of those people have even been moderately vulgar.
Learning and thinking about worthwhile information for a person who intends to be a part of society can be no more divorced from the vulgar than can an explorer’s expedition be divorced from hardship. It is the very hardships of the adventure with which its discoveries and accomplishments are contrasted and enriched.
But, Christopher Columbus didn’t poke a hole in his ship to make his journey more adventurous; no mindful explorer ventures into more hardship than will already come naturally. On the contrary, he uses his time to prepare for the hardship he knows will come naturally as part of his journey. He is, like the level-headed salmon fisherman, no sadist.
My journey will include my writing and I welcome the hardship that will naturally accompany it. But, in order to better prepare to make my journey successful — the reasons for which I set out on it in the first place — I will spend less time wading into waters off my path that only look like they will cause me to expend great energy on things worthless.
I look forward to valuable discussions and debates in 2017 and hope that this new year will bring with it the triumph of the good and the wise over that which is not.
Happy New Year.
Originally published on Medium on January 23, 2017.