The Asocial Network
Jacob, the hero of this week’s parasha, understood what really mattered in life. The Facebook Generation doesn’t.
A few weeks ago, on a flight from the northeast to the southwest, I happened to hear two young people chatting.
“Happened to hear” is putting it mildly; an aficionado of good gossip, I tuned in attentively as soon as the first snippets of conversation made their way across the airplane’s narrow aisle. A quick glance taught me that the conversationalists were both in their twenties or early thirties. One, a gaunt young man, hair down to the nape of his neck, chin unshaved and clothes unwashed, was, he said, a musician, traveling south to get in touch with the blues. The other, a petite woman wearing tights, boots, and a dress on which three different animal-skin prints each vied for supremacy, introduced herself as an associate publicist at a large fashion house.
The man enumerated his favorite bands; the woman nodded her head and named some of her own. Then, she named five of her favorite movies. He reciprocated. They went on like that for two or three hours, listing favorite this and favorite that, from restaurants to Disney rides. Their conversation was inane, but it stayed with me long after I landed; listening to the two, I realized, was less like eavesdropping on people and more like watching two Facebook profiles communicate—the personalities they presented were nothing more than an amalgam of preferences, a thick but meaningless pile of likes and dislikes. I went to bed that day feeling utterly hopeless.
Reading this week’s parasha made me feel a bit better. It begins with a strange last request. On his deathbed, the ailing Jacob summons Joseph and delivers some concrete instructions: “If I have now found favor in your eyes,” he says, “now place your hand beneath my thigh, and you shall deal with me with lovingkindness and truth; do not bury me now in Egypt.”
Taken literally, this is not a complicated moment—like his ancestors before him, Jacob wishes to be buried by his father and grandfather, in Canaan. But if that’s all there is to it, why use terms like lovingkindness and truth, terms that introduce a moral dimension to what at first seems like a straightforward question of real estate?
The reason, I believe, has to do less with location and more with affirmation; by asking for a posthumous trip to Canaan, Jacob demonstrates to the next generations that he hadn’t abandoned his spiritual and historical commitments. Life in Egypt may be comfortable and convenient—the whole business of slavery is still in the distant future—but Jacob knows that his heart lies in that same sliver of earth on which Abraham, acting on God’s orders, settled years ago, and he realizes that to be true to himself, he must return there.
It’s a profound lesson in authenticity, and one that my generation would do well to learn. Selecting Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, as its person of the year, Time magazine largely failed to observe the very same point that Jacob, begging Joseph for truth and lovingkindness, understood intimately, namely that even the most elaborate and efficient constructs mean very little if they don’t represent who we truly are and what we really want. Egypt was grand, but it just wasn’t for Joseph. And Facebook is terrific, but it just isn’t for real people.
Writing in the New York Review of Books last month, Zadie Smith captured this point neatly. “It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations,” she wrote. “What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a ‘life’? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)”
Smith’s sentiments would’ve been all but inscrutable to the young things chatting each other up on my flight. In Facebook, the scruffy musician and the perky fashionista found more than a communications tool; in Facebook, they found a cognitive system, a grand metaphor, a way of life. The brilliance of Facebook, after all, is its ability to transform the messy business of living into a series of coherent, undemanding actions and statements. The way to like something is to “like” it by pressing a button. The way to talk to someone is by posting a few words on their wall. The way to be yourself is to pick a few favorite bands.
This, computer scientist Jaron Lanier warns us, is a disaster in the making. The title of Lanier’s new book elegantly captures his main thesis: You Are Not a Gadget. Our enthusiasm about Facebook and the other emerald cities of the Web 2.0 generation, Lanier writes, is “based on [a] philosophical mistake … the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.”
What computers can do is think in code, a series of simple, mathematical statements. Human beings, on the other hand, can imagine and dream, hope and despair, hate and love with all their hearts. When they meet—truly meet, face to face and at leisure—with their friends—true friends, not an assortment of barely recognizable acquaintances living on the periphery of an enormous virtual network—they are capable of subtle wonders. If, instead, they opt for convenience, if they reduce their thoughts to brief posts, if they don’t bother finding out who they really are outside the bounds of their Facebook profiles, they’re doomed to wither into a virtual oblivion.
But if they are to resist, they have Jacob to look up to for inspiration. Like him, they can demand, in the name of lovingkindness and truth, that life become a journey away from Egypt and all that is transitory and fake toward Canaan and all that is eternal and real.