The problem of Facebook is — in part — a literary problem — not just because it’s been a part of a years-long phenomenon designed to make Faulkner’s sense of place relevant to us once again, but because the solution we can draw from that is perfectly capable of having unique literary DNA thrive within it as well.
Facebook styles itself as a combination of someone’s little black book and the yellow pages. It is a data broker, yes — it is pretty much what McKenzie Wark says and certainly capable of creating the kind of environment ‘Gravis’ describes — but what we’re concerned about in this piece of writing is that the structure of the website as it’s currently constituted is as such that it almost seems to have been designed to create a kind of moral failure. Instead of the internet being a place of trust, we have lies traveling further and faster (and at scale.) Instead of the internet being a place of utopian empathy a la John Barlow, it is a place where Russians can organize anti-immigrant rallies in the United States at little cost to their overall operating budget.
I’m aware of the way in which responding to one articulation of morality with another articulation of morality has repeatedly backfired over the course of history —consider how the introduction of graham crackers into the United States successfully ensured universal abstinence, thereby giving us a world where no one would ever drink or have sex again — but I am nevertheless struck by Tom Simpson’s description of The Moral Contents Of A Backward Society.
“Because of [one Italian] village’s moral code,” Simpson said, “[the inhabitants] were unable to trust each other.” He continued —
Maria Prato bought a sowing machine from someone who was leaving the town to go to Rome. It turned out to be broken and she lost a large sum. When Paolo heard the story, he remarked that it was wrong of the seller to have done so. The interviewer challenged him: Paolo had himself sold a defective sowing machine of the same model to someone from the neighboring town. Why did he do that?
Paolo explained patiently, “Because the forestier — the outsider — buys it and goes off. It is his problem after that. If I sell it to a pesano — someone from the same town — what can I do? I see him every day. It would not be good.”
How can we fix this moral failure? What if we all bought notebooks and began to re-write Facebook as books of our own? Imagine a notebook filled with someone’s name, the photos you’ve glued in, the relevant contact information, letters they may have sent you that you want to hold on to, and then — whatever you want: what if you wanted to see how a friend of yours looked like as a dragon? What if you wanted to imagine an acquaintance of yours as a different gender but felt like you didn’t have the space to sketch that out online? (And, besides, you say to yourself in the second person, it’s been ages since you’ve been to DeviantArt, anyway.) What if someone left a cryptic suggestion online regarding how they were feeling or what they were doing but you wanted to have the space to suss out what happened to them and how it played out on your own?
I believe a notebook somehow ‘designed’ to replace Facebook would be beneficial because an object like that could give someone the space to follow some of the strategies a novel takes towards empathizing with others while still emphasizing the fact that — with this particular book, at least (a ‘NewBook’) — you’re dealing with real people and real lives: however, if the person isn’t entirely ‘real’ in the NewBook, you won’t be bound by the potential expectations and potential pressure of others. You can risk empathizing. You are no longer bound by hashtag thinking and trying to figure out whether or not you’re for punching up or punching down, whether you are Charlie or are not: with the NewBook, you can give yourself the chance to make the leap.
Even if 1,000 people gave the idea of NewBook a go — even if we take the time to acknowledge the fact that “due to the social flow of information, we estimate that approximately 95% of the potential predictive accuracy attainable for an individual is available within the social ties of that individual only, without requiring the individual’s data” — it might give us a chance to try and work towards re-setting the loop of the low-trust trap we find ourselves in — something that arguably makes itself somewhat manifest in different ways in charts and graphs like these —
A 1973 paper on social traps (where the term was first coined by John Platt) suggests that ways of avoiding social traps include making the impact of certain decisions more immediate and apparent, changing the nature of the long-term consequence, giving yourself more ways to positively reinforce the path you’re trying to take, and asking for outside help. Which takes us to the question posed by Bo Rothstein in his book Social Traps And The Problem Of Trust: “How can you get people who have long harbored deeply rooted mutual suspicion to suddenly begin to trust one another and cooperate loyally for the common good?”
As Rothstein notes elsewhere —
The society-centered approach views regular social interaction, preferably through activity in voluntary associations, as the most important mechanism for the generation of social capital.
This model plays into our sense of how we relate to our landscape; however, Rothstein does not see the model as having “survived empirical testing.” He goes on to note —
… it is trustworthy, uncorrupt, honest, impartial government institutions that exercise public power and implement policies in a fair manner that create social trust and social capital.
But that has taken us away from this particular space — Facebook, ourselves, and the problem of fixing a social trap.
Personally speaking, I think part of the answer comes in acknowledging what our collective memory is, a question that has exploded in a thousand different directions with the arrival of most of the planet on the internet. I don’t think the answer comes with people like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders reaching for rhetoric that suggests people have the ‘right to be angry’ with life as it is as they did during the 2016 campaign.
But, the thing is — once we know what our shared past is, then we can work towards steps of trust based on our shared present — and, from a position of shared trust — we can then work towards a shared future. Rothstein again —
… human behavior is to a large extent determined by forward-looking strategic thinking in the sense that what agents do depends on what they think the other agents are going to do … Historical experiences and ‘collective memories’ certainly play a role here, but research also shows that people update their perceptions based on new information.
And, perhaps — once everyone was given the chance to re-set their social loops, once someone realized that Sweden had high levels of social trust, trust in government, and better income-equality than the States — someone using a NewBook would realize that there needed to be a Rehn–Meidner model of government and begin taking the steps to ameliorate the situation.
I’m not writing this to ignore the fact that legislative steps can and should be taken when it comes to regulating social media. I’m not writing this to deny how someone who is intrinsically creative might instead dream of a social network replaced entirely by crows, their days of aimless scrolling instead replaced with gifts and catching sight of a bird rolling down the back windshield of a snowy car. (Perhaps someone might even give the crows their very own entry in their NewBook.)
The purpose of this piece is to remind us that — just as there are a thousand different ways to be a man — there are numerous ways to trust well. And that I believe in your ability to get there.