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The Social Net Worth

September 22, 2010

For a while, I’ve been suspecting (or perhaps fearing is more accurate) that the Internet has probably given new validity to Rousseau’s thesis in his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. A thumbnail sketch of that thesis might go something like:

  1. Man is happiest when he is most naturally free.
  2. Society imposes restrictions on that natural freedom for the sake of creating, protecting, and distributing both power and “stuff.”
  3. Men can and will become jealous of their neighbor’s power and “stuff” if they do not have equal or greater amounts of it.
  4. Therefore, societal arrangements tend to make man unhappy because they are dictated by those with the most power and ability to collect and keep the most power and stuff.
  5. Therefore, unfettered freedom, unconcerned with protecting societally distributed power and stuff, is what makes man happy and content.

Rousseau, writing in the 18th Century, had yet to see the fortuitous results of the combination of Capitalism and industrialization. The ability to generate additional stuff at blinding speeds in the 19th and 20th Centuries increased welfare for all, meeting basic needs for vastly greater proportions of the population than ever before, while also improving the democratic rights and material welfare of those populations almost across the board, even if the returns to such a system became increasingly concentrated toward the top. The economists basically had it right; the welfare gains to all were still optimal. It was as if the idea of the American Dream (i.e., that everyone can make it to richness if they accept the validity of the system and try hard enough) allowed the lower and middle classes to accept restraints on power and freedom to cooperate in what might otherwise have been a prisoner’s dilemma (i.e., the “rational” move in Rousseau’s mind would have been for the bulk of humanity to reject the constructs of society in an attempt better and more free position oneself relative to one’s neighbors). This bargain was basically struck because we agreed that the stuff was good enough to trade away some freedom (Note that freedom in Rousseau’s sense is the natural freedom of living without social competitiveness and concern for authority to distract from pursuit of the natural good life. See Rousseau’s The Social Contract: “Man is or was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they.”).

Now, I’m not sure whether our attitudes toward either stuff or the dispersion of power have changed. However, I would posit that the resulting social relations that have evolved in relation to the newest stuff and power dynamics, may provide more obvious discontentment in the way that Rousseau prognosticated. Indeed, everyone has more or less the same physical stuff; the barometers of success have moved to the more ephemeral fora of the social networks. These networks may highlight the conditions give rise to that pervasive sense of inequality between us all. Other observers have provided pithy descriptions of these new emotions and social conditions, such as:

  1. Acute Social Networking Loneliness (spending inhuman amounts of energy and time to share with others without getting any reaction or reinforcement to demonstrate that those efforts were appreciated or worth anything at all);
  2. False Intimacy Syndrome (spending one’s time and energy on fantasy relationships with individuals that do not and will never care about their “fans”);
  3. Awkward Friendship Revelation Despair (the potential to gain a little *too much* knowledge of one’s peers to presume their integrity and respect them as equals, each deserving their own dignity);
  4. Obsessive Life Comparison Inadequacy (the equivalent of super-powered binoculars for becoming aware of the newest installation on a neighbor’s lawn in order to ensure that one follows suit shortly thereafter as a means of ensuring oneself that one is “doing alright”); and
  5. Chronic Impotent Internet Rage (the acute awareness of the vast human fallibility and outright evil in the world, the vast majority of those circumstances being beyond any individual’s power to change).

As you can see, these anxieties and discontentments are all derivative of that same concern Rousseau had articulated centuries ago. We have already sacrificed our potential for Rousseau’s concept of a natural state of freedom for the sake of our political-economic structure; the Internet heightens our awareness of that bargain. Networks may encourage us to compare ourselves with one another, sacrificing our own compassion, communion, and equality in the process. We sometimes attempt to distinguish ourselves from all the other internet constellations, and we are disappointed or discontented when our lack of social success is made all the more apparent to both ourselves and to others.

Despite that bleak picture of the effects of social networking on existential contentment, I am extremely optimistic that the Internet’s heightened egalitarian distribution of powers of speech, democracy, and even total anarchy are likely to compensate and counteract some of those effects. Of course, such an outlook requires a willingness to adopt a communal sense of success and achievement, rather than the individualized sense of exceptionalism encouraged throughout the 20th Century. But the history of capitalism shows that engaging in one’s freedom and power is quite a bit more challenging than simply swallowing the 20th Century’s existential drug of enjoying one’s own superior stuff. We’ll have to take a more mind-altering approach on this one.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven permalink
    October 8, 2010 9:02 am

    A better articulation of the limitations on freedom the internet puts on us. To take it a step further, (aside from the comparison stalking that happens on FB), there is also an obligatory pressure to consume data “because it’s there; it’s available.”

  2. October 21, 2010 4:33 pm

    Hello!, Very interest angle, we were talking about the same thing at work and found your site very stimulating. So felt compelled to com?ment a little thank you for all your effort. Please keep up the great work your doing!

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