Facebook as Prosthesis

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

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Facebook as Prosthesis by Ruth Noakes 

(snippet from from my dissertation when I was a student in London)
Facebook, the social networking website, was launched in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskovitz from their dormitory room at Harvard, and within just two years it had twelve million users, which increased exponentially in 2008 with sixty-seven million users, and over fourteen million photos are uploaded daily[i]. Social networks can be seen to give people some control over projecting perceptions of themselves, and affirming current ideas of what the self consists of; ‘online social networks free us, in some sense, from the requirements of “real world” circumstances and permit us to try out various self conceptions to find ones that fit with what we would like to be’[ii]. Concedingly, Waters claims that ‘for the posthuman, there is no autonomous self that is given, because the self can only be made’[iii]

As a result of my research methodologies I was able to gather up to date, and currently relevant information to aid my case study. Therefore I needed a current media and technology example to illustrate my findings, and decided that the most prominent case within my research thus far was Facebook, because it remains somewhat mysterious and ever changing. I deem that Facebook acts as an interface, which enables common ground for people from a wide range of age groups and social backgrounds, and having gathered primary information from my participant observation, it seemed logical that this area deserved more focus and could aid me in answering the initial research question; to what extent can technology be seen as an extension of the human body or mind. If Facebook can be deemed a form of prosthesis to the human, then perhaps the same can be applied to other technologies.

Using the perspective gathered from having my own Facebook account, this primary research and participatory element should grant an accurate and detailed view of the current uses of Facebook, and the extent to which people allow it to represent them. However, I shall use other contemporary examples of human and machine interactivity to demonstrate how the ‘prosthetic impulse’[iv] affects modern society as a whole as well as in terms of individual identity.

From the detached yet directly involved perspective of my Facebook page, I was able to see why members of the focus groups I conducted spoke of how addictive they found it, and why going without technology was often mostly difficut because of the inability to connect with friends on Facebook. The Facebook ‘news feed’ updates automatically and perpetually, filling with status updates posted by my ‘friends’, including what their current actions are, who they are with, or where they are, this can be seen as ‘contributing to the creation of a permanent present whose intense pace knows no tomorrow’[v], and relates to Heidegger’s ‘presencing’ of what is present[vi], because the constant bringing forth of information, regardless of its purpose, holds meaning, a pre-existing need to share. Virilio is concerned with this speed, and need for constant information and entertainment, and deems that the distorted ‘time span is destroying the rhythms of a society which has become more and more debased’[vii]. If society is thus debased and flattened by technology, this seems to contradict the act of extending or adding prosthesis to the human self; rather Virilio seems to hint at the destruction of life as we know it.

Figure 1, (Permission from Ruairi Glynn) ‘Dancers 2008’ Emergencia Exhibition, Itau Cultural, Sao Paulo Brazil 2008.

The relation between biological matter and immaterial thought and meaning, which Merleau-Ponty explores, emphasises that our actions are not merely for survival, but shift to a figurative meaning that ‘manifests’ through bodies ‘a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing’[viii]. Using Merleau-Ponty’s perspective, I deduce that dancing could be described as a secondary action, unnecessary for survival but elaborated or extended from our inner thoughts as a means of perceiving the outer world. A contemporary example that illustrates this ‘new significance’ is Ruairi Glynn’s ‘Performative Ecology’ project ‘Dancers 2008’[ix], as shown above in Figure 1. The Dancers, or robots, are built to intuitively react to human facial expressions, dancing in accordance to the emotions they detect through facial recognition software. They have the power to learn new dance routines as well as teaching other Dancers the movements they found to be most successful in inciting response from the human crowd. The Dancers are granted a significant degree of autonomy and intuition, yet remain dependent upon human attention, and reactive to human emotions that they cannot ever feel themselves. Similarly, Facebook seems to grow in its autonomy, as it is programmed to intuitively detect a user’s preferences; I discovered that whatever you type is detected by Facebook, which then proceeds to place advertisements on the home page, related to your words. Facebook encourages you to click ‘like’ on brand pages, and asks you to engage in polls determining your response to certain products. Facebook institutionalises culture to an extent; marketing ploys tell us to invite more friends, to perpetuate the Facebook brand. Facebook is about profit, but beneath the material profit lays meaning, of which Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger would encourage the exploration.

Niedzviecki states that ‘from Facebook to WebCams to blogs to Reality TV we are actively involved in trading our privacy for community, shared meaning’[x]; this was also the concession I gained during the focus group methodology. On the most part the older age groups claimed to use Facebook for business reasons or nostalgia, for example, some claimed it was to reconnect with lost friends or family, and reminisce on the past, whereas the younger age groups all emphasised the uses of Facebook as being for plan making, current updates and learning what events were happening in the future.

Figure 2, Dancers 2008, courtesy of Ruairi Glynn.

What if technology has created a secondary or tertiary impulse, which I term as one that is not primary to survival, and has thus subverted our nature? During my participatory observation I noticed that mobile phones, such as the iPhone, encourage the use of Facebook through an application that is just one button click away, and introduced a new feature whereby you can ‘check-in’ to locations. Firsthand I observed, on the news feed, a person check-in at location tagged as their home, and also tagged was the person’s girlfriend. I was shocked that someone would go to the extent of revealing their home’s location on the Internet, but also including a link to the Facebook page of their girlfriend, and publicising such a seemingly private or intimate occasion. This would indeed support the notion of extending our sense of sharing, the Internet representing an interface where sharing too much matters less than it would if it were done face-to-face, and is exemplary of Niedzviecki’s term ‘overshare’. His book ‘The Peep Diaries’, describes our recently evolved ‘Peep Culture’, where we often interact more through machines than directly, essentially spy on others, and allow ourselves to be spied upon by ‘oversharing’ personal information via networking websites; ‘Apple released the iPhone 3G, and global capitalism teetered…yet that single ungainly word, overshare, may prove to be more significant’ for we ‘ushered in a new era: the Era of Peep Culture’[xi].

But perhaps the impulse to over-share is not one of prosthesis, and instead needs a new metaphor more befitting to its context. In ‘The Prosthetic Impulse’, Sobchack recognises Kurzman’s concern regarding the use of prosthesis as a metaphor in modern anthropology[xii]. Kurzman, who is an amputee deems that theorists situate an issue, then retroactively define it using prosthesis and artificial limbs in an attempt to expand ethnographic material, and emphasises that actually it is a reductive term when thus removed from context[xiii]. I am not entirely in agreement with this, because I think a word can be reconceptualised, granted new meaning or context, without having to change the word itself. Facebook certainly extends awareness in terms of current occurrences; as a participant observer I began to learn things about my ‘friends’ which I would not otherwise have known, or would ever before have had the desire to know. Perhaps Facebook is exemplary of the desire to transcend corporeality[xiv] in the paradoxical fashion Grosz demonstrated, and is powered by our desire to share and escape into voyeuristic digital interface. From a posthuman understanding, and the admission of dependency, and interactivity on the part of my focus group members, it seems likely that Facebook acts as a form of prosthesis, in that it offers functions the body could not attain alone.

References and Sources below:

Social networking makes you a liar?


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Social networking devices, such as Twitter and Facebook, are a daily part of people’s routines, which makes me wonder: how does it affect your honesty? Integrating your Facebook, blog, Twitter account, with all of your other social networking profiles (which we are all encouraged to do), means that we are more easily traceable across the Internet.

So, if someone turns down an invite to that “really cool block party” tonight because they’re “poorly in bed”, then later tweets about what a good time they are having somewhere else, the person who invited them to that block party immediately knows it was a lie. If you tell your boss you’re sick, forget you have them on your friends list, then you update your Facebook status about what a great time you’re having at Thorpe Park, you are immediately busted. Because of this, the ease of obtaining information, anyone with common sense knows either to hide their lies, or elaborate on the truth.

Even I have been caught out before, and I like to think I’m a bit savvier than that. I was never stupid enough to bad-mouth my previous boss anywhere on the Internet, or anything on parr with that. Mine was simple, I wasn’t answering someone’s calls or texts, but was active online, this lead them to realise I wasn’t too busy, or asleep, it meant I just didn’t want to contact them. But technically I never lied to them, I just ignored. Is that really so bad? Just because I want to reply to a few things online, doesn’t mean I want to answer a phone call right now.

I think it’s perfectly acceptable to tell someone truthfully that I’ve been too busy to do a certain thing, but also don’t care if they Internet stalk me and find out I’m not too busy to send a quick tweet or reply to a comment on Facebook. I mean, who do people think they are, the cyber police? I try to always be honest, so if I belatedly reply to an email, I don’t excuse it with “I’ve been too busy” (unless that’s the truth), usually it’s just a case of wanting to be in the right mind-state or focus to reply adequately rather than rushing it before my daily film/TV fix. I could try hard to please everybody, reply with super-quick insincere paragraphs, but that would be false.

I realise this post makes me sound arrogant, in reality I don’t receive tonnes of phone calls, or have “fans” monitoring my online activity to see if I haven’t replied in 0.02 seconds, but I think we all know a couple of people who get touchy about your online whereabouts, and how it relates to their own ego. My point is that, despite the Internet creating the need to sometimes lie and say we’re just too busy, rather than “I don’t want to talk to you right now”, it also forces us to avoid blatant lies that would get us in trouble.

I just think we shouldn’t have to lie, it should be acceptable to be in the mood to tweet or update, but be too busy/not in the mood to reply to a certain email, answer a phone call, or update something else at that same time.

That leaves me with a couple of questions: 1) Has anyone ever queried you about your online activity versus the real world? 2) Have you ever been caught out in an online lie? 3) When you make excuses to people, are they genuine? 4) To what extent are you honest online?

My best friend

The girl to the right, Katie Baugh, has been my best friend since primary school. So, since we were 5 years old. I recently bullied her into getting a WordPress blog, because she does all sorts of interesting things.

She’s an actress, and travels around, and is also beautiful, which helps. She hasn’t posted anything yet, but when she does I’ll be posting a link so that the (very few) people who read my blog can check her out.

I won’t give away anymore, because that’s what her blog posts are for. Just wanted to mention her on here. Was so nice catching up with her today, even just for a short while.