A friend of mine recently developed an interest in transhumanism, the belief that the human condition will, in the future, be enhanced and transformed by the appliance of science. As a matter of course, then, I am regularly told all about the future that awaits us, a future that is either a dream or nightmare depending on your point of view: evolution as a directed and willed progression, rather than a series of random but useful mutations; bionic limbs and implants; artificial intelligence and superintelligence. I listen carefully, and on many levels am attracted by the idea. Who wouldn’t want to have a brain that encompassed both the imaginative and innovative capabilities of the human mind and the memory, speed and efficiency of a computer? Who would say no to having what are, in effect, superpowers?
Transhumanists even hold out the intriguing possibility of one day being able to defeat death itself. The old idea of cryonics is beginning to look a little dated, my friend tells me; mind uploading is where it’s all at these days. Just think: one day we may be able to scan the brain, upload that which we call the mind or personality to a computer, and enjoy techno-immortality! An interesting prospect, but would you really want to be reduced to a computer file, a sort of ghost in the machine? Wouldn’t it get boring? Wouldn’t it be lonely?
“Not at all,” my friend assured me. Human interaction is moving online these days anyway, she points out; why not take the process just that little bit further? And it won’t be lonely, not at all. In fact, she told me, it will be “like Facebook, but forever” – at which point I buried my face in my hands and let out a wail of soul-crushing despair.
I used to be intrigued by Facebook. It was so powerful, so masterful! Over 2 billion active users worldwide, and growing! Surely something good had to come out of that vast confluence of humanity, I reasoned. A dialogue, maybe, an ongoing conversation of the sort that is fundamental to human civilisation. True freedom of speech for all users, however lowly. A certain egalitarianism, too: everyone‘s on Facebook. Prior to social media, how many of us could have hoped to share a platform with David Beckham, Paulo Coelho, Bill Gates, and the Dalai Lama, to name but a few? All this, and as many cute kitten pictures as the human heart could desire!
Attracted as I was by Facebook, however, I fell hardest for Twitter. There was just something about the discipline required by the (now doubled) 140-character limit. It left so much unsaid, so much to be implied and interpreted! If Facebook was a garrulous old drunk, Twitter was the slightly mysterious, strong, silent type. I tweeted away happily, and posted Facebook updates only slightly less happily, merrily kidding myself – as many of us do – that someone out there was actually listening.
Then several things happened.
It occurred to me, for a start, that many people out there were using social media as a sort of poor man’s dating agency. I started getting weird messages: “Hello, I am [name withheld], a kind and caring man, looking for a sincere woman.” They got weirder: “Hello dear, I am looking for more from you please.” What did it all mean? It made me nostalgic for the days when direct messages were usually just harmless little attempts to get you to buy something.
Worse than the would-be Romeos, however, were the would-be Guevaras and Zapatas who suddenly appeared on Facebook (in particular) during the truly extraordinary year that was 2016. I don’t object to the odd political post or tweet, or to dedicated political pages or accounts that users can sign up to or not just as they please; and besides, y’know, freedom of speech and all that. It was the sheer volume of it that was bewildering. The rants and political propaganda spewed forth like molten lava from a convulsing Vesuvius. My objections to this were, in essence, twofold: firstly, there’s a time and a place, and Facebook, being designed to cater for our ever-decreasing attention spans, is probably not it; and secondly, it’s probably futile. Unless you have a few million friends and followers, and they are really devoted to you, your output has, to say the least, a rather limited audience. (This is especially true now that you can unfollow and mute people without their knowledge, which doubtless saved many a person’s sanity during 2016.)
Ah, and there I reached the faltering, diseased heart of the matter … viewed as anything other than a sort of existential wail of protest against the absurdity and pointlessness of it all, most social media use is probably – well, pointless. Most tweets and updates are doomed to be relegated to the realm of utter obscurity. Like bubbles in the vast and constantly-fizzing brew that is the Internet, they float to the surface, burst, and are promptly forgotten about. Very few people notice them. Fewer still care.
I gave this post the title “The End of the Affair”, but it now occurs to me that this isn’t true, at all. I’m still a willing participant in the affair, or the worldwide orgy, that is social media. This post will, no doubt, be publicised on Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps, rather than love lost, it’s the equivalent of the stale suburban marriage which, though long since drained of all passion, trudges defiantly on. There’s no escape, especially if what my transhumanist friend tells me turns out to be true.
The next time you visit Facebook, take a very good look around.
You might be spending all eternity there.