One of my favorite topics, outside of the domain of music, on this site has been Max Weber’s proposition that too much attention to market values and consumerism can lead to loss of meaning. My own effort to keep loss of meaning at bay has involved a concerted effort to read texts that require sustained cogitation, rather than simple “consumption” based on a “bottom line.” This is the sort of reading that sticks with you long after you put the book or article down; and experience has taught me that it often involves interaction with the physical medium (not only annotation but also leafing back and forth through the pages to recall what one thinks one has previously read). Thus, it is not reading that fares very well on a computer screen, whether we are talking about a monitor or a desk or the surface of a tablet.
Not too long ago I posted a “progress report” on my efforts to work my way through the “Nicomachean Ethics” of Aristotle. I am still at it, but I have just embarked on a domain that has already started my reflecting on the fact that I have begun to spend more time on Facebook since the demise of Examiner.com. It turns out that Aristotle devotes two entire books (the eighth and ninth) of the “Nicomachean Ethics” to friendship; and in the revised Oxford translation edited by Jonathan Barnes and published by Princeton University Press (in the Bollingen Series), this comes to about 27 pages. In other words there is a lot more to friendship than creating a social network by clicking a Friend button!
To some extent I might be accused of trivializing Facebook by writing that last sentence. However, I prefer to look through the other end of the telescope: By its very nature, friendship is a highly complicated dimension of human interaction that, by its very approach to interface, has been trivialized by Facebook to a degree that the noun has been almost entirely stripped of meaning. This may seem like an extreme position to make over a rather innocuous piece of software. However, it is basically yet another instance of a precept expressed by H. L. Mencken that I cannot cite too often:
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
It is through clarity and simplicity that Facebook has managed to build up such a large user community, but size signifies only in matters of marketing rather than the complexities of social interaction that occupied so much of Aristotle’s thought. One might almost argue that a Presidential election came down to choosing between a candidate that was not afraid to confront complexity and one that had a clear and simple answer for everything without caring very much whether or not that answer would be effective if put into practice.
Nevertheless the nature of meaning has not yet been entirely lost. The good news is that there is still a body of individuals out there, however small their numbers may be, that are not afraid of big books and complex arguments that do not always result in easy resolutions. We may have to keep a low profile for the next four years; but, as long as we continue to express ourselves through media that exceed the prevailing attention span, we have a fighting chance of keeping at our business. We just have to view that low profile as a safety measure, rather than a sign of weakness.