The Facebook Eye and the artist’s eye

“We are increasingly aware of how our lives will look as a Facebook photo, status update or check-in,” according to Nathan Jurgenson in “The Facebook Eye,” and the quote stood out not only because I think it’s true, but because this kind of double awareness has long been characteristic of writers, photographers, artists, and professional videographers. Now it’s simply being disseminated through the population at large.

I’m especially aware of this tendency among writers, and in my own life I even encourage and cultivate it by carrying around a notebook. Now, a notebook obviously doesn’t have the connectivity of a cell phone, but it does still encourage a certain performative aspect, and a readiness to harvest the material of every day life in order to turn it into art. Facebook probably isn’t art—at least to me it isn’t, although I can imagine some people arguing that it is—and I think that’s the key difference between the Facebook Eye and what artists are doing and have been doing for a very long time. I’ve actually been contemplating and taking notes on a novel about a photographer who lives behind his (potentially magic) camera instead of in the moment, and that might be part of the reason why I’m more cognizant of the feeling being expressed.

Anyway, Michael Lewis’s recently gave an NPR interview about his recent Obama article (which is worth reading on its own merits, and, like Tucker Max’s “What it’s like to play basketball with Obama,” uses the sport as a way of drawing larger conclusions about Obama’s personality and presidency). In the interview, Lewis sees Obama as having that writer’s temperament, and even says that “he really is, at bottom, a writer,” and goes on to say Obama is “in a moment, and not in a moment at the same time.” Lewis says Obama can be “in a room, but detach himself at the same time,” and he calls it “a curious inside-outside thing.” As I indicated, I don’t think this is unique to writers, although it may be more prevalent or pronounced in writers. Perhaps that’s why writers love great art and, in some ways, sex, more than normal people: both offer a way into living in the present. If writers are more predisposed towards alcoholism—I’m not sure if they are or not, though many salient examples spring to mind—getting out of the double perspective might be part of the reason why.

I think the key differences between what I do, with a notebook, and what Facebook enables via phones, are distance and perspective. My goal isn’t to have an instantaneous audience for the fact that I just did Cool Activity X. Whatever may emerge from what I’m observing is only going to emerge in a wholly different context that obscures its origins as a conversation, a snatch of overheard dialogue, a thing read in a magazine, or an observation from a friend. The lack of immediacy means that I don’t think I’m as immediately performative in most circumstances.

But the similarities remain: Jurgenson writes that “my concern is that the ultimate power of social media is how it burrows into us, our minds, our consciousness, changing how we consciously experience the world even when logged off.” And I think writing and other forms of art do the same thing: they “burrow into us,” like parasites that we welcome, and change the way we experience the world.

Still, the way we experience the world has probably been changing continuously throughout human history. The idea of having “human history” is a relatively recent idea: most hunter-gatherers didn’t have it, for example. The changes Facebook (and its analogues; I’m only using Facebook as a placeholder for a broader swath of technologies) is bringing seem new, weird, and different because they are, obviously, new. For all I know, most of my students already have the Facebook Eye more than any other kind of eye or way of being. This has its problems, as William Deresiewicz points out in “Solitude and Leadership,” but presumably people who watch with the Facebook Eye are getting something—even a very cheap kind of fame—out of what they do. And writers generally want fame too, regardless of what they say—if they didn’t, they’d be silent.

I think the real problem is that artists become aware of their double consciousness, while most normal people probably aren’t—they just think of it as “normal.” But then again, very few us probably contemplate how “normal” changes by time and place in general.


Thanks to Elena for sending me “The Facebook Eye”.

The future of the city: the L.A. and New York models

Matt Yglesias wrote an implausible-sounding story about “How Los Angeles—Yes, Los Angeles—Is Becoming America’s Next Great Mass-Transit City.” It sounds like L.A. is (slowly) becoming a more palatable place to live, and the city’s mass-transit strategy makes sense to me because driving pretty much anywhere in L.A. right now is a hellacious, grinding experience, and that experience is only getting worse over time. Which means L.A. and its residents only really have two choices: accept the hellacious driving experience and accept that it’s going to get continually worse, or attempt to build some kind of alternative system, presumably modeled on New York.

At the moment, we only really have two “models” of cities: the New York-style, walking and public transit version, or the L.A. style of car-based transport. Most cities over the last 75 years have followed the L.A. model, but L.A. is now demonstrating the limits of that very model.* When Southern California first began growing in earnest in the 1920s, cars were just getting started, and for each marginal driver getting behind the wheel made a lot of sense. But we’re now at the point where each marginal driver makes the situation that much worse, and the net effect of all that driving is an awful lot of misery. The only real alternative is allowing much denser construction patterns and building mass-transit around those very dense developments. I just didn’t expect that L.A.’s politicians and bureaucrats—and, by extension, its voters—would actually embrace, or at least tolerate, this solution.


* I’ve written a little bit about this topic before, most notably in Cars and generational shift.

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