This month in Technology Review, two authors write that they are.
Emily Gould, a penitent, formerly inauthentic editor of the gossip site Gawker.com, reviews two books (see “’It’s Not a Revolution if No One Loses’”): Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and a reprint of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Contrasting the living new-media critic and the dead Marxist cultural critic, she writes, “Maybe, in the same way that Benjamin says the difference between ‘follow[ing] with the eye, while resting on a summer afternoon, a mountain range on the horizon’ and experiencing that same mountain at a remove (imagine a picture postcard) makes it harder to appreciate the real thing, social-media technologies are creating simulacra of social connection, facsimiles of friendship.” Gould urges us, as “a pointless experiment,” to stop using social media for a time and see our “world opening back up again.”
Elsewhere (see “‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’”), the novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen condemns cell phones for their power to amplify inauthentic utterances and for what he describes as a kind of emotional coercion: “If the mother’s declaration of love had genuine, private emotional weight, wouldn’t she take at least a little care to guard it from public hearing?”
In Sincerity and Authenticity, a lovely collection of lectures delivered at Harvard by Lionel Trilling in the spring of 1970, the literary critic made a profound case for the importance of authenticity, and for its newness and fragility in our culture: “If sincerity is the avoidance of being false to any man through being true to one’s own self, we can see that this state of personal existence is not to be attained without the most arduous effort.” What, Trilling asks, is the enemy of authenticity? “No one has much difficulty with the answer to this question. From Rousseau we learned that what destroys our authenticity is society–our sentiment of being depends upon the opinion of other people.”
Insofar as social technologies make us more dependent upon the opinion of others, they may be said to increase our inauthenticity and are to be deplored. But I am a technologist and an optimist about technology’s capacity to expand and improve our lives. However hesitantly, I will continue to use social media. We’ll work out the kinks. I choose to think that our private selves will survive and be enlarged by Twitter and Facebook as they were by earlier communications technologies. In his book, Shirky says that social technologies also increase the quantity of love in the world. Human nature, after all, is a movable feast, continuously evolving through technology. But write and tell me what you think at email@example.com.