Zadie Smith, Facebook, and the Game Layer

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

In the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith has written an interesting review of Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network that doubles as a critique of Facebook.  Smith rhetorically positions herself as a sort of luddite or dinosaur, a defender of what she calls "Person 1.0" against the debasements wrought upon — and by — a generation of "People 2.0."  Drawing on the arguments of Jaron Lanier, the author of You Are Not a Gadget, Smith suggests that Facebook entraps us "in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore":  

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

Is it possible that we have begun to think of ourselves that way? It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX

When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?

Initially, I felt that Smith’s argument bordered on alarmism — a sort of critical low-hanging fruit for the Smart Set.  Who, after all, really thinks that the existence of a memorial means the person so memorialized continues "in some sense" to live?  Doesn’t Facebook merely supplement our personhood, not replace it, giving us new channels through which to express or constitute whatever greater totality we are?  Didn’t advertisers think of us as little more than our capacity to buy well before Facebook ever came into the world?

After a bit of thought, though, I recalled recently seeing this video on the construction of a "game layer" over reality, which speaks very much to Smith’s concerns–

–and I came to think Smith may have a point, though I also offer this video as a way of reformulating or restating Smith’s argument.  In the terms of this reformulation, the issue isn’t so much that we become 2.0 folk when we enmesh ourselves in electronic systems such as Facebook.  Instead, the question is one that is relevant in all areas of political, economic, and social significance:  Who designs the systems we are embedded within?  Who gets to build — and who has the technical expertise to build — the frameworks or, as Priebatsch puts it in this video, the "game dynamics" that incentivize certain behaviors and suppress others?  In an era increasingly obsessed with behavioral economics and its myriad "nudges," who is nudging you — and how?