The Atlantic has an article in its latest issue about the new loneliness that we suffer from even though we are more densely connected through social networks than ever before. It goes on to explore the notion that Facebook is a part of the problem:
The question of the future is this: Is Facebook part of the separating or part of the congregating; is it a huddling-together for warmth or a shuffling-away in pain?
It is hard to read the article and not feel that it is another one in the long array of neo-luddite texts that want to make a point out of finding fault with new technologies. If there is indeed a new loneliness (and the question of how to measure that is open to discussion, the references to literature and research in the article are ambiguous) then that is hardly something that can be ascribed to social networks. Loneliness is a quality in the very fabric of society, it has to do with civil society, institutions, norms, values — and these are reflected in a lot of different phenomena. Perhaps social networks is one reflection, but I don’t think so.
The Atlantic asking if Google makes us Stoopid or Facebook makes us lonely is just reiterating a formula for the contrarian article that is starting to feel worn. It would be much more interesting to see a raving review of new technologies than the same technology scepticism reiterated again and again. I wonder who will be brave enough to publish the article “Twitter makes us think deeper” or “LinkedIn increased good job matches by X%” – articles that are contrarian contrarian, examining why our reflexes have become luddite, or Ellulian.
Jacques Ellul defined the new skepticism of technology well as he summed it up:
[W]hat is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.
This notion, that technology always is a Faustian bargain, that we need to give something up, still hunts us. We could call it the Ellulian Illusion: the conviction that technology must take something from us as it gives us something. It may well be a promethean gift instead. But of course, the gods were rather harsh on Prometheus. But that was because they thought he had given men the power to be like gods…