Buber on social networking

Peter Jones Dialogic Design

OK, not really, but I got your attention – I am rereading Martin Buber on dialogue, where he takes on the problem of “monologue disguised as dialogue.” a false dialogue of abstracted opponents. More than anyone else I’ve read, Buber reminds usof the inherent and deep human need to connect.  And in distinguishing between dialogue real and false, he’s speaking to a fatal flaw / human need underlying all of our attempts to perfect online social networking. Because a lot of his ideas are so underappreciated now, they are worth recovering in the new contexts of the dissociating online world we spend half our lives in.

Buber spoke about the relationship of human beings to one another, the importance of true dialogic encounter, the power of the here and now, and the threats of the modernity to psychological health or wholeness. Dissociation was a critical concern of his, back then in the 50’s when people typically had (or lived as thought they had) just a single identity.

“Vital dissociation is the sickness of the peoples of our age.”

Dissociation with the real world of human lifeworld was a predominating concern for Buber, and other pre-postmodern thinkers: Maslow, R.D. Laing, Carl Rogers, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Fromm, Krishnamurti. Just because we have socially adapted to embrace our dissociation as a way of celebrating the fragmentation of contemporary life does not mean we have evolved into it. Human beings become partial identities, fragmented souls, if starved of F2F encounters and genuine communication. Consider your own experience –  which of our own virtual interactions lead to real interpersonal connections (beyond the instrumental)?

In Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, Maurice Friedman goes on: “These organic forms — the family, union in work, and the community in village and town — were based on a vital tradition which has now been lost. Despite the outward preservation of some of the old forms, the inward decay has resulted in an intensification of man’s solitude and a destruction of his security. In their place new community forms have arisen which have attempted to bring the individual into relation with others; but these forms, such as the club, the trade union, and the party, ‘have not been able to re-establish the security which has been destroyed,’ ‘since they have no access to the life of society itself and its foundations: production and consumption.’ (Between Man and Man, ‘What Is Man?’ p. 157).

Buber wrote this in 1954 – so how much further have we (socially and intrapersonally) dissociated since then? Do we even care, do we have any way of assessing our essential disconnection, even as we evermore frantically connect online?

Back to tech – First of all, small-scale networking is highly intentional – wikis, invited lists, social network services like Ning, Web and email groups. But I’m uncomfortable with the large-scale social networking services, even though I use some of them. Not with the tech, which is cool enough, but with the meaning of the experience and the “meaning of the network.” These are not values-neutral services.  OK, LinkedIn is fine for keeping track business connections, especially the weak-tie relationships that are easy to let slip by. A blue-suit values system, useful but not all that inspiring.

As a professional, MySpace is not worth my time, and Facebook – well, I’m not even going to get started. Its not just that the scale and reach of Facebook creeps me out, or the total loss of personal privacy you give up, allowing their corporation to locate any information on the web someone tags about you and associates it with Facebook. Even if you consider its value as a “terrorist network” search tool as purported by some, based on its CIA links and Gilman Louie investment, its not that. Its this:

– Do I really want to create an online identity that represents “me” to a million people I don’t need to be in touch with? And then to maintain and upgrade that identity on a persistent basis based on its inherent values system, its distracting features, and its communities that don’t help me personally?

– What if my identity is not static enough to fit their context-free model? In my genuine experience I”m not really the same, consistent person to everyone. Any self-simulacrum removed from its context seems ultimately unsatisfying and phony.

– What if the very idea of my online Self is something I wish to have control over, to assert and retract my self-presentation when and as I want? At least LinkedIn is just an online resume service – I don’t know what Facebook will do with my identity once I’m tired of it. Will people find me in 5 years after I’ve left the service and ask where the old Peter Jones went to?

– What if its becomes the new “permanent record?” Do I trust these guys with my personal data?

Yes, we are all postmodernists now. We have learned to thrive in the temporary autonomous zones created by a shared life of the mind. But I prefer to do my Facebooking live, F2F.