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The Asocial Network

Jacob, the hero of this week’s parasha, understood what really mattered in life. The Facebook Generation doesn’t.

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The Social Network. (Merrick Morton, © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

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.

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Funny, I read the Parasha as centering around Jacob’s insistence that his family return to the land of Israel, and not assimilate into the Egyptian nation. Another lesson for this generation, I suppose.

Two strangers keeping conversation at twenty thousand feet while they flirt on a flight, does not mean they are having a degraded human experience. They are simply — starting out — beginning a connection with another human being. Facebook is an opportunity to start or continue connections that, for the most part, grow or continue face to face.

Everything you bemoan above, that Facebook isn’t for real people, and that our generation is missing out on authenticity and the subtle wonders of face to face interaction, is curious given you spent a doctoral education researching ontology of video games. You even accuse Facebook of becoming, “a cognitive system, a grand metaphor, a way of life”. You are accusing Facebook of becoming our ontology. However, you are the one who spent the years researching “that code, that series of simple, mathematical statements” that don’t really matter in life. Is this essay a letter to yourself?

This is like blaming cars for bad driving. People can be just as inauthentic in person as online. Oh, and I got to this article via Facebook.

Jennie and Kim,

Thank you for taking the time to write. And Jennie, you are, of course, correct: in a way, anything worth writing is a letter one writes to oneself in an attempt to better understand the currents that shape our lives and that aren’t always clear to us. Being a new media scholar, I spend a lot of time trying to understand how these new tools work and what, if anything, do they mean. And I agree with fellow researchers like Lanier or Nicholas Carr that our contemporary communications tools are shaping our consciousness and regulating our social interactions in ways that are, in my opinion, largely detrimental. This, of course, is not to say that the tools are inherently dangerous; they are not. But the ways we use them have much impact on our social structures, and if we never stop to think about their essence, about the compromises they’re forcing us to make, about the ways in which they encourage us to represent the most profound aspects of our lives, we’re likely to lose sight of these elusive, subtle, and immensely complex mosaics that are our selves.

Isabel Ringer says:

I thank you for explaining why I refuse to use Facebook. I prefer e-mail that is personal, a phone call or a face to face visit. I don’t want my likes distributed all over; I don’t want to be that social! Though I am a vanishing generation (age 59), I wonder too what this social media is doing to kids.
I have read that a majority of teens sleep with their cell phone on buzz under their pillow–that means they wake up a lot to answer their phone. What is that doing to necessary REM sleep?
I attend a 12-Step study group. The 8 women cannot get through 1.5 hours together without people checking their phones and often leaving to answer them. I do not believe those phone calls are more important than the group but those who answer those calls certainly believe that.

JCarpenter says:

What I have observed as a Facebook user is this: one, I have re-established long-lost relationship with distant (by mileage) cousins—we probably share and remark once a day or every other day, communicating in a way we never had done in all our lives, having visited each other only at weddings and funerals; two, I share and remark (banter) with FB friends who I see socially at least once a week—once in a while our physical meeting refers to a FB post or remark, often such is totally ignored or forgotten. Long-distance banter becomes meaningful; close banter, meaningless or for the moment only. Go figure.
As the phenomenon continues to evolve/develop, I see it defining or refining our concept of communication and relationship. Mom at 85 wants more communication from her children (“you never call”); we got her on Facebook so she could be in on conversations though physically absent, and she could have “calls” at both parties’ convenience. We also warned her “it’s like the old party-line rural telephone system” and she might not approve of everything heard or seen. But it beats letter writing for its immediacy, and it beats the phone call for potential for thoughtful or thought-out responses.

VHJM van Neerven says:

Dear Liel,

You clearly do not know Facebook well; and you exhibit too much disdain for the American thirty-somethings. The latter are our children, I’m afraid. Blame not them, but let’s ask ourselves what we did wrong that they are still such children. And read Facebook in the older (my) cohorts and you might find links to and discussions on your own Parasha’s there. Ironic, isn’t it?

And, please! Realize that Yakov was an old old man near death — how utterly unfair to hold a great-great grandfather up as an example to children! Or listen to the gentle voice of J Carpenter right above this.
I am sorry to say so, Liel, but you seem in danger of becoming a pulpit-bashing, bible-thumping reverend of the too-many times reformed christian bend. And a sorry sight they make.

Yours as ever,
Vinz van Neerven

I don’t know if van Neerven is a real name of code name, but I share the feeling that whatever conversation on Facebook Liel overheard about Facebook, and the subsequent comments, have nothing to do with the Parasha of the week.

I refuse to be on Facebook, like Isabel & many others and I agree the sincerity in public forums is faked 99.9999% of the time. This is very American.

This is a good piece Liel, thank you. One simple test all the supporters of FB here could take is this: find 5 people you know very well, compare what you know about them to what they post on their FB pages, and ask this: how much do they match up? FB is like applying makeup or wearing new clothes before going on a date. With digital personae, it’s easy to craft an image that you want people to have of you. Not that there isn’t a place for that (think dating or job hunting). But can you really get to know someone that way?

Dina Truman says:

I echo JCarpenter’s comment, it is basically the same experience I have had on Facebook. In addition, I get to keep up with people and events in my home community that I miss very much, and participating in these makes me feel more connected, not less. Fake people are fake everywhere, not just FB, and real people keep it real on FB and elsewhere.
Another benefit I have found on FB is connecting with very distant cousins in Eastern Europe, who I would have never met, much less conversed with because I don’t speak their language…but they write english well enough, and sometimes on online translator fills in some gaps. Basically, I feel more connected to humanity on FB, not less, and the quality of interaction is determined by me, and my friends, not by FB.

VHJM van Neerven says:

Rest assured, dear readers, VHJM van Neerven is my real name. I can be found by Google as well as in the Amsterdam phone book under that name.

I am editor-in-chief of VNCcommunicationcounsel or VNCcc, a web-based communication content service. Both the long and the short name can be found on the web and, when appropriate, in the writings if other web based services as one of their sources.

“VHJM van Neerven” is the real McCoy, the name my parents gave me and I am proud of it.
Nor my company nor I have a need for anonymity or codes or noms de plume or aliasses.

I do have a Facebook page for myself and one in development for the company.
I agree with Dina Truman and others: Facebook is just like the people on it. It’s like the real world. If someone overhears an inane conversation, let him blame the world, not the web.

Yours truly,
VHJM van Neerven

Liel and Zadie Smith sound like my parents–who’re nearly 60 (funny that another commenter on here who refuses to use FB is 59!).

It’s really useless to make value judgments about something so nebulous/multifaceted as the internet, and, by extension, facebook. The previous poster’s car analogy was accurate.

Amusing. I can’t help but point out that Jacob (Israel) was a little more specific in his request than Liel states.

Genesis 49:29-33 (Alter Translation) reads: “And he charged them and said to them, “I am about to be gathered to my kinfolk. Bury me with my fathers in the cave that is the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which faces Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial-holding. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah – the field and the cave within it bought from the Hittites.””

And this the essence is then repeated in Genesis 50:13: “And his sons conveyed him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the Macpelah field, the field Abraham had bought as a burial holding from Ephron the Hittite, facing Mamre.”

This, of course, is the source of the contentious Jewish settler presence in Hebron centering around the Cave of the Patriarchs or the Cave of Machpelah that UNESCO has now declared as a Palestinian site.

And while I support the principle of a land for peace deal, we should not forget that this site in the occupied West Bank is the very first Jewish real estate in the historical land of Israel.

There are alternatives to Facebook that may be substitutes or complements: http://www.intersect.com is a spot for people to tell stories and to intersect – in time and place – with others who have time to listen and share. The three-dimensional emphasis on storytelling can take us back to one of the core activities of our people, relating who we have been, who we are and who we are yet to be.

Our author writes,
“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.”
I respond-
That’s why I send the teddy bears, toys,books, and games. I want to move away from the “Egypt” that I see around me consisting of neglect, hurt, sorrow, being without, doing without, poverty, sickness, and addictions of having too much, where it is more important to have IT instead of having “what is really it” with another person.
I am trying to inspire others to move towards an Israel that embraces positive ethics and upholds a moral code. “(all that is eternal and real).”

Yael Taubman says:

who has the time to make up stuff to post on FB?
It is a being in the moment sentence…posting articles which you feel are so important for people to see…finding community…I am in my 70th year and I for one, think it is great!

I’ve said that least 284228 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Thanks so much for this. I thought I discovered plenty of good stuff here yesterday after spending all day going through this private area.

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The Asocial Network

Jacob, the hero of this week’s parasha, understood what really mattered in life. The Facebook Generation doesn’t.

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