My Anti-Social Tendencies

Late in David Eggers’ fine new novel The Circle a character drives off a cliff to avoid the aggressive attack of total strangers demanding that he “be our friend.” Eggers’ portrays a kind of dystopian world where fictional social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. have infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life, and he raises serious and legitimate questions about what Ellen Ullman in her New York Times Sunday Review calls the “tyranny of transparency.” In the novel, Mae Holland works for the Circle, a company determined to convince an all too willing public that “Secrets are Lies” and “Privacy is theft.” The Circle manages to reduce humanity and human interactions to various algorithms and patterns, tracing, predicting, and anticipating the hopes and desires of just about everyone. The goal, of course, is to make the world a better place. Totalitarianism always seems to begin with such noble goals.

As with so many of these kinds of novels, the scariest part isn’t how easily the technology might be mastered to pull off such a feat.

The frightening part is how willingly humanity participates in its own annihilation.

Eggers’ novel, to be fair, doesn’t actually end with the death of humanity, but he certainly seems to imply that things like secrecy and privacy are, in fact, vital to being human. In The Circle, tuning out is not only rude but indicative of some vaguely defined evil. Politicians begin wearing cameras and every interaction is recorded. Those who refuse simply don’t get elected. Voting, by the end of the novel, is mandatory through a Circle account; hence, citizenship requires an account. That account requires other accounts and the inputting of various pieces of personal data. Privacy implies, the Circle says, guilt. We are our online identity and our online avatar is us. The Circle closes as the lines of demarcation between who we physically are who we are online collapse.

Characters share (and share and share and share) every last detail of their lives. In many ways, Eggers imagines a world where our self-esteem outpaces our discretion and we imagine that because mom told us we were special (and little league gave us a ribbon for showing up at the fields twice a week) our opinions matter, regardless of our qualifications. In essence, not telling people what you like or don’t like is equivalent to robbing your friends and neighbors of valuable data, even if you are ill-informed, idiotic, or imbecilic.

It used to be rude to speak out of turn. In Eggers’ novel, it’s always your turn. And my turn. And his turn. And her turn.

There is, I realize, a certain amount of irony involved in blogging about the possible dangers of social media. Once I post this blog, I will add a link on my twitter account that automatically posts to my Facebook account, creating a digital trail leading folks back to the blog. Each of those sites will troll for data, searching for key words, collecting frequencies, and making assumptions about what ads to send to my email and what images to stick on the left hand corner of my next google search. Each morning the little elves in my computer will do everything possible to trick my mouse into clicking on the pretty pictures, thereby adding to the digital database that is John Wegner.

And if you are reading this sentence, WordPress has already gotten everything they need from you. Feel free to click on any ads you see if you want, but the cookie crumbs are already working their way into the belly of the beast.

“Based on your search history, we just know you will also enjoy  . . . Click here.” Please and Thank you.

Anyone who reads my blog, though, might notice how infrequently I’ve posted lately. Even before I read Eggers’ novel, I knew my writing would slack off heading into the holidays. I had a major project for work to complete, and, since I spend too much of my workday staring at little pixels, my goal was to take about a month off. Let the fingers rest, I told myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed blogging, and, quite honestly, writing twice a week for a year has helped me write much more gooder :). I’ve written around 150,ooo words in a little over a year. That’s a novel full of essays.

Not a very good novel, mind you, but you get the idea. Writing well, I tell my students, takes three things: Practice, More Practice, and Practicing again. Blogging certainly provides such a thing.

But I also realize the truth of Eggers’ novel. Every key stroke makes my life far more public than I might have ever imagined. Each search, tweet, post, “like,” or click creates an identity and gives external forces opportunities to shape my internal desires. I’m a red-blooded American, heterosexual male: of course I want to see Scarlet Johanson’s wardrobe malfunction and Beyonce in that sheer, see-through dress. 

Am I better person if I avoid the temptation? Or am I a bad person when I don’t click because I’m not being true to myself? If it’s NSFW is it Safe For Home (unless my wife finds out)?

Our public identity has always been a construct in which we “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet,” as J. Alfred Prufrock tells us, but never before, it seems to me, have we so willingly invited the public into our own private space. Our face is in a constant state of preparation or, perhaps more aptly put, constantly being constructed and reconstructed for us with each and every click. When are we every ourselves? Or, Eggers certainly seems to ask, are we every really supposed to be ourselves? 

I could, I guess, turn off, tune out, and power down.

But what would my friends think if I did?



Trapped in a Bubble of Intellectual Isolationism

I’m not entirely sure why this government shutdown bothers me so much more than 1995/96 when the two-year-olds last took over Washington. As I noted earlier this week, our current shutdown strikes me as far more dangerous in the long run. We are moving beyond political ideology and threatening to reshape the checks and balances that have helped America grow as a nation. Simply put, if the Republicans are successful, we will witness a presidency weakened for generations to come.

Such an idea might appeal to the Tea Party, anti-Obama voter today, but it won’t when a group of liberal party leaders shuts down the government over cuts to the SNAP program (or some other program conservatives like) in 5 years. Once we allow a government shutdown to become a viable bargaining tool, we will replay this cycle every time 26 House members decide things aren’t going their way.

That’s not governance. That’s blackmail.

I will readily admit that the video of Rep. Randy Neugebauer chastising the Park Ranger put me in a foul mood Thursday. My mood didn’t improve Friday morning when Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), a person who voted to shut down the government, told reporters she will keep her paycheck.

“I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line,” she said.

I have no doubt that Rep. Ellmers needs her paycheck. I’ve written before that our Representatives and Senators are, sometimes, in a tough financial situations. Many have two homes and, honestly, living in Washington D.C. is expensive. I don’t blame her for needing her pay.

But my neighbor needs his paycheck also. He would, like Rep. Ellmers, love to be at work today.

I think, though, that what bothers me the most is we are witnessing something far different than in 1996. Beyond the cynical hypocrisy when politicians who vote to shut down national monuments one day rise in righteous indignation the next, we are watching a small group of politicians emboldened by a kind of intellectual isolationism.

I rise to speak for 300 million Americans, Sen. Ted Cruz told us, who oppose Obamacare.

Except 300 million people don’t oppose Obamacare. I’m guessing Sen. Cruz is fed information from source after source that leads him to believe America agrees with him. He daily allows Fox News, the Drudge Report, NRO, and other conservative media outlets to massage his ego and he rejects the possibility that he might, in fact, not be speaking for large swaths of the American public. He has become, like too many of us, trapped in the bubble of ideological social media.

Twitter, Facebook, and our web site favorites block those inconvenient truths we might not want to see and we become victims of the vacuum of voices telling us what we want to hear.

In fact, we can see from the Republican talking points that they miscalculated America’s dislike of the Affordable Care Act. Four days in and they have stopped insisting on an end to ACA and now want to delay the medical device tax. Or they want to negotiate the debt ceiling. Or they want to vote piecemeal on funding the government. Or they want an exit strategy that doesn’t make them look weak. Or they want gold stars and cups of chocolate milk.

Heck, I’m not even sure what they are holding out for anymore. On day one of the shutdown, they owned their choice. Rep. Michelle Bachmann told us they were “giddy,” and Republicans were standing tall, shoulder to shoulder for America. By day two, the shutdown was Sen. Harry Reid’s fault. By day three, Republican Senators were privately grumbling that Sen. Cruz didn’t have an exit strategy.

In so many ways, the Republicans are replaying the same mistakes they made when Karl Rove called into question Fox News pollsters who told him President Obama would win the White House, as if somehow those Fox pollsters were secret members of the mainstream press trying to brainwash their viewers. Rove, like Dick Morris (see simply couldn’t imagine a scenario where people didn’t agree with his world view.

But let’s note that the Republicans aren’t alone in this problem. They are just the easiest target right now.

What is most disturbing, though, is too many of our politicians simply reflect our own willingness to wallow in confirmation biases that cost us our ability to sympathize and empathize with those who disagree with us. We bury ourselves in data that proves our view of the world, increasing our certainty that what we see is what everyone sees.

Or what everyone should see.

The net impact, though, is we increasingly isolate our “self” or our group as something unique and under attack from the hordes of ill-informed Americans around us. We have moved beyond disagreement to anger at other people’s ignorance.

I’m sure Rep. Neugebauer is a decent man. My guess is Sen. Ted Cruz is highly intelligent and he cares deeply about America. Even Rep. John Boehner, my liberal, tree-hugging hippie friends, cares about America.

So does President Obama. And Sen. Reid. Even Rep. Nancy Pelosi, my right-wing, evangelical friends, cares about America.

Don’t misread me here: I’m not arguing for some sort of kumbaya, can’t we all get along, campfire solution to our current shutdown. You can bring politicians to the table, but you can’t make them talk.

I’m not asking my tea party, God-loving, gun-toting friends to suddenly support open borders, free health care, and marijuana in the public square any more than I would want my liberal, humanist, PETA-member friends to support oil pipelines, capital punishment, and low corporate tax rates.

I am asking them, though, to move beyond the sycophantic voices swirling around them.

Democrats simply must recognize large segments of the population are justifiably concerned about rising entitlement costs and the changing demographic makeup of America.

Republicans must recognize large segments of the population believe in social safety nets, have radically different views about cultural issues, and support things like gun control.

These are not silly, ignorant, or uninformed concerns.

We must begin treating disagreements as opportunities to discuss, disagree, and debate not invitations to ignore, shout, and hate.

Our government was built on the former and is in danger of being destroyed by the latter.

Breathe Slowly, But Do It Quickly

Within minutes of Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” statement, a viewer created a Twitter account. The site had 14,155 followers the next morning. The Facebook page, “Binders Full of Women” had 266,671 likes the next morning.

This is the state of social media today. We are regularly bombarded with information, and our students are inundated with facts, lies, stats, damned likes, information and misinformation, opinion and analysis, spin and no-spin. They walk into our class often the most well-informed yet the least knowledgeable generation we have ever seen. This package of data is being carried around by a frontal lobe incompletely developed, surrounded by raging hormonal impulses. (Does this shirt make me look fat? Did she just smile at me? Why didn’t Bobby call last night? Does Gina think I’m a creep? By the way–thank god I’m not 18 again.)

Do we really expect an 18 year old at 8:00 in the morning to want to talk about presidential politics, T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on angst, Pythagoras ideas about angles, or the chemical compound of skunk scent ? Sure they can know the facts but do we really think they can contextualize and think critically (and intelligently) about which person has the better tax plan? Hell, this is a generation bombarded daily with reminders that their own parents and grandparents can’t manage money on a grand, national scale.

But, it’s way too easy to pick on the 18 year old (mostly because they aren’t here to defend themselves). Let’s admit first that college students haven’t really changed that much nor have college professors. Anyone who has taught for an extended period of time will tell you that the quality of student work is declining. When I first started teaching, the faculty near retirement said so. Fifteen years later, the faculty near retirement say so. I suspect when I near retirement, I’ll say the same thing. I’m kind of young, though, so I guess by the time I retire the current students will be slinking around in the primordial sludge barely capable of monosyllabic grunts. Let’s face it: the students can’t keep getting worse–there is a bottom and we can’t keep reaching it every generation.

We might, then, want to look a little closer in the mirror at our own expectations. Just because an 18 year old (or a 15 year old) can hear the conversation doesn’t mean he can understand the cacophony around him. One of the glories and beauties of the 21st century is how much knowledge and understanding we have about the world around us. Concomitantly, one of the real pains of the 21st century is how much knowledge and understanding we have about the world around us. We are awash in specialists who can break down and report on 101 reasons the economic future of bananas is bright. That report can be used to impact marketing campaigns, bombarding us with 15 reasons banana X tastes better (and is better for you) than banana Y.

And so we might step back and take a breath. People live longer than ever and they live better for longer than ever. Seventy is the new 50. There’s plenty of time for our 18 year olds to grow up. Plenty of time for our 15 year old to figure out how to be a grown up. Plenty of time to learn and plenty of time to teach. After all, tomorrow will have plenty of information and a whole slew of new Twitter pages.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)