How A Fetish Evolves Into A Virtual World
When I got my first smartphone I was hooked. It grabbed me with the full-force of mania. Previous to that, I had never been a social media addict. The difference was I now had instant anywhere/anytime access not only to all human knowledge (Wikipedia, online libraries, newspapers and blogs) but also instantaneous validation from my peers. I felt my self-worth meter rise with each ‘like’ my status updates, or one of my snarky comments, received. The gratification was more immediate than the pace of actual human-to-human contact. And it was (is) addictive. While I’ve moved on from tenderly clutching my smartphone to my chest while I sleep, I still begin every morning in bed perusing Facebook. My day doesn’t feel right unless I, even for just a few minutes, begin with a small dose of escapism. This is how the virtual world I access through my phone became a fetish. And it is a fetish, because Facebook can’t love me back, no matter how much I love it.
A fetish is never about a real thing. It’s about an idea that is self-sustaining, self-referential. Advertising promises such an ideal world. After drinking a soda we never say, “Wow. The people at the Coke plant did a really good job with this batch of soda pop.” We respond to Coke as a metaphysical ideal, detached from the world of perishable things. It’s Coca Cola. It’s a symbol that signifies something bigger and more important than the actual ingredients that make it up (or the factory workers who produce it). And that’s why we can worship it—it is an idea that transcends the real world. Similarly, the ‘likes’ on my ‘status’ have no real world value, but they mean something on Facebook. And that in itself is comforting.
It is this blurring of fantasy gratification and reality that I’d like to explore.
One of social media’s appeals is how it can replace a world indifferent to us—one of tsunamis and earthquakes and frustrating resistance—with a world almost totally responsive to our every wish, as if reality were a mere extension of the self.
But there is another, even more chilling, revelation tucked conveniently out of sight. Social media is inspired by the same Utopian ideals of Nirvana. The search for Nirvana, like Utopia, is ultimately futile. It is chasing the unrealizable, the non-existent. False promises like these are what advertising is made of: the promise of a better you, which is achievable if you simply buy this product or do that thing. Yet the difficult truth, as Christopher Hitchens said, is that “there is no escape from anxiety and struggle.” The world of techno-consumerism, of course, would have it otherwise. The iPhone and its social media apps bathe us in the glow of instant responsiveness, a world that caters to our needs in exactly the way our most wishful thinking can aspire.
We witness this same form of advertising when perusing the self-help section of any bookstore: there is a better you waiting to be actualized if you just do this ten-step program or recite these affirmations. Even more telling is the surge of media touting the manifesting powers of wishful thinking. This particular brand of ‘New Ageism’ demands that reality be instantly responsive to our most narcissistic desires. Like the consumer technology that enables instant gratification, the entire universe conspires to get us exactly what we want, if we really want it. At its core narcissism like this is corrosive to the conditions necessary for love and human connection. It is a way of insulating ourselves from the vulnerability of being human.
Here is another layer in which social media shares in the idealism of the ‘New Age’: through social media we can create a persona, one that can be ‘liked,’ to protect ourselves from the pain of real relationships, where real things are at stake, where we are flawed and there is little chance of escape through choreographed performance. Likewise, wishful thinking that we can ‘manifest’ what we want at any moment hobbles our capacity to truly love, which requires, at times, sacrifice and the ability to accept what cannot be changed. In the end, the promise of the New Age is the same as the promise of social media: there is some way out of being our flawed broken selves.
The saddest and strangest part of this postmodern tale is that loneliness drives us to social media and self-help. We are trying to negotiate with our own feelings of isolation. Rather than coming to terms with human loneliness and finding a way to truly connect, we instead seek to transcend it. And that is what advertising ultimately promises: transcendence. It is the dream of a world free of resistance and disappointment. In order to chase this mirage one must forfeit human intimacy. That is the pound of flesh it requires.
Consumerism, in its many manifestations, achieves this isolation of the self by validating our inherent sense that we are the special center of our own world. If we think about it, other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to us, but our own are unquestionably real and important. There is not one experience in which we are not at the center of. Social media decorates and fortifies this solitary kingdom. New Ageism talks about the universe as if it were a castrated manservant waiting on our beck and call. This brand of idealism is an opiate, anesthetizing us to suffering, while insulating us from connecting with others.
The Ecology of Dialogue
The irony is that the first place I will share this article is on Facebook. I’m addicted to the instant gratification it provides. I would mourn Facebook’s end. And yet deep down I know that I should be undermining and tending to my narcissistic tendencies, not entrenching them. Here is where I’d like to make a subtle but important distinction. I’ve been speaking of the ‘promise of social media’ (i.e. the marketing of it). But social media can also be a fertile landscape rich with authentic communication. Through Facebook I have met some of my closest friends. Reading and sharing with them continues to remind me that other people—their turmoil, mirth and loneliness—are every bit as real as myself. As much as Facebook has served to facilitate my own narcissism it has also, remarkably, helped to subvert my natural solipsism, rendering it both ridiculous and tragic by making me feel love and affinity to private worlds that I am not necessarily the center of. This surprising nuance draws nearer to my central argument.
The thesis I’m trying to advance turns upon the role philosophy plays in our lives. If I choose to believe that the world should respond to my every whim, I’ve opted for an isolating (and unrealizable) fantasy that divorces me from human intimacy, while also insulating me from the risk of love. But, just as important, social media without good philosophy carries the potential to validate these very same conceited and self-centered delusions.
In order to unpack the philosophical problems of social media the difference between self-expression and communication must be lucidly defined. The former fulfills the aim of indulging one’s own emotional concerns, which is fine to a point, while the latter seeks to commune with another consciousness. One keeps us locked inside our own heads’ in some masturbatory monologue, forever cut-off from others. The other serves the purpose of philosophy, which is to find shareable-communicable meaning in what is, not simply what is imagined. Otherwise, it is really and truly just another form of masturbation—it holds no meaning or relevance to anyone other than the masturbator. And that is a life of disconnection and loneliness. Philosophy soothes because its very lifeblood is in the act of communication; its habitat is in the ecology of dialogue, where we find connection.
The trouble then is not with social media or self-help. It is wishful thinking. It is the deification of self-expression over authentic communication. It is about the difference between buying into a fantasy of pure narcissistic gratification versus cultivating a philosophy that not only intersects with reality but also aligns with what is real. It is about something deeper than simply trying to ‘love the world,’ which, ironically, is another form of self-indulgence (a way of feeling expansive and significant), and about getting messy and loving someone or something that asks of you to give something of yourself. It is about realizing that the world is independent of your desires.
It is something so simple that I sound obtuse even saying it. But we live in a time in which the simplest most obvious truths need to be stated. If only because we now have the power to erect virtual kingdoms that can delude us into thinking that the world was, in fact, made for us.