Day’s Verse:
Calling the crowd to join his disciples, [Jesus] said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”
Mark 8:34-37

Here’s a philosophical question for you. Let’s say that you could map all your neural connections and processes into a computer so that the computer exactly, identically duplicated the way your brain works. It’s a perfect copy of your neural network. It will respond exactly the same way you would in any given situation. The question is: Is the computer copy you? If it’s not you, is it still a person? Would erasing it be murder? Does it have a soul? Is it alive?

At first blush, I’d say no, it’s not a person; it’s just a clever copy made possible with some amazing technology. It’s just 1s and 0s floating around. But giving this a little more thought gets into some pretty hairy philosophy pretty quickly. It really asks a deeper question: What makes a person a person? How do you define personhood?

This is a particularly interesting question because so much of our lives — what we do as people — is mediated by technology these days. In his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier argues that we’re actually losing what it means to be a person because of our increasing reliance on computers, and particularly websites like Facebook, for mediating human interactions. Essentially, by fitting ourselves into simple categories, as required by social networking sites like Facebook, we’re sacrificing the depth and breadth of what it means to be a person. This one reason why it’s important to know what makes a person a person: So that we don’t inadvertently lose some key element without even realizing it, and later find that we aren’t as human as we used to be.

Lanier’s concern is that no database can accurately capture the nuances of a person’s individuality. Drop-down menus and multiple choices can’t really capture what makes you you. For example, on Facebook I’m listed as Deborah Ferguson’s daughter, even though I’m her daughter-in-law, because there’s no daughter-in-law option. This loss may not seem particularly important, but cumulatively, these compromises in nuance add up. Lanier argues that we’re losing culture because people are less individual and more cookie-cutter than they were. This blog, in fact, would almost certainly draw his scorn because it’s template-based, and not as truly reflective of me as if I’d created the entire thing from scratch.

I’m not on board with all of what Lanier says in You Are Not a Gadget, but I have to agree that by moving relationships online, we have sacrificed depth for breadth. Instead of having 10 good friends, we can now have 200 Facebook friends, whose status updates we follow religiously. It lets us feel involved without actually being involved. I’ll take in-person or even just voice any day.

Now, Facebook does have its place. It’s a nice way to “keep track” (I use quotes because that’s the phrase I most often hear in this context) of people you wouldn’t regularly communicate with. Those old high school or college friends who might in the past have just faded from your life in years past now play more of a role in your life, if you want. I’m frankly ambivalent about even that “benefit”: Is there real value in keeping track of people from previous phases of your life?

Anyway, I’m not sure about Carmel’s personhood, but she’s our house guest for the next three days while Mom and Dad are out of town. She sheds more than other house guests, but she also fetches tennis balls, which most people don’t do very well.
Carmel, April 13, 2011

One thought on “Is Facebook Stealing Personhood?

  1. That’s a tough one… right now, Facebook is keeping relationships with good friends and relatives in other cities more real and current for me. Some I don’t consider to be “past” relationships, but ongoing over the distance until we live nearby again or at least can visit. For the people I don’t have time to call every week with life updates, Facebook has been an easier fallback for maintaining relationships.

    I also found out an old friend is living in Houston through Facebook, so it led to a face-to-face encounter there.

    Of course, the downside is also wading through whiney comments from high school classmates I could really care less about and lots of pointless apps and videos…

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