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The Zuckerberg Revolution

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2010

America's favorite boy genius, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has announced a new form of messaging. E-mail, the last Internet link to traditional, epistolary, interpersonal communication, is, he said, outmoded. Young people, by which he meant younger than his own 26 years, desired something more nimble for their iPads, mobile phones and other devices. What he proposed was a "social inbox" where users could readily access messages from friends and then sort them - sort of a cross between instant messaging and Twitter.

We are so accustomed by now to declarations of new technological revolutions that another one hardly gets noticed, especially when it comes to finding new ways of minimizing how we communicate with each other. And it is entirely possible that this proposed geological change will be no more geological than all those other alleged game-changers. But whether his messaging system really transforms how people communicate or not, Zuckerberg issued what amounts to a manifesto that in its own terse way conveys what is already altering our lives - not only how we interact but also how we think and feel. It may even challenge the very idea of serious ideas. Call it Zuckerberg's Revolution.

It qualifies as a revolution because how we communicate largely defines what we communicate. You know: "The medium is the message." When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first movable-type printing press, it was rightly considered one of the signal moments in human history. By allowing books to be mass produced, Gutenberg's press had the immediate effect of disseminating ideas far and wide, but it also had the more powerful and less immediate effect of changing the very construction of thought - through typography.

The social theorist Marshall McLuhan, in his book "The Gutenberg Galaxy," posited that the printing press resulted in what he called "typographic man" - humans with a new consciousness shaped by the non-visual, non-auditory culture of print. He felt that print's uniformity, its immutability, its rigidity, its logic led to a number of social transformations, among which were the rise of rationalism and of the scientific method. In facilitating reason, print also facilitated complex ideas. It was no accident that it coincided with the Renaissance. Print made us think better or, at least, with greater discipline. In effect, the printing press created the modern mind.

Writing scarcely 20 years after McLuhan, in 1985, Neil Postman, in his path-breaking book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," saw the handwriting - or rather the images - on the wall. He lamented the demise of print under the onslaught of the visual, thanks largely to television. Like McLuhan, Postman felt that print culture helped create thought that was rational, ordered and engaging, and he blamed TV for making us mindless. Print not only welcomed ideas, it was essential to them. Television not only repelled ideas, it was inimical to them.

One wonders what Postman - who died the same year Facebook's precursor went online - would have thought of Zuckerberg's Revolution. Facebook is still typographically dependent. Its messages are basically printed notes. But contradicting Postman, these bits of print are no more hospitable to real ideas than the television culture Postman reviled. Indeed, in making his "social inbox" announcement, Zuckerberg introduced seven principles that he said were the basis of communication 2.0. Messages have to be seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short.

As Zuckerberg no doubt recognizes, these principles are all of a piece. The seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short communication is not one that is likely to convey, let alone work out, ideas, great or not. Facebook, Twitter, Habbo, MyLife and just about every other social networking site pare everything down to noun and verb and not much more. The sites, and the information on them, billboard our personal blathering, the effluvium of our lives, and they wind up not expanding the world but shrinking it to our own dimensions. You could call this a metaphor for modern life, increasingly narcissistic and trivial, except that the sites and the posts are modern life for hundreds of millions of people.

Which is where the revolutionary aspect comes in. Gutenberg's Revolution transformed the world by broadening it, by proliferating ideas. Zuckerberg's Revolution also may change consciousness, only this time by razing what Gutenberg had helped erect. The more we text and Twitter and "friend," abiding by the haiku-like demands of social networking, the less likely we are to have the habit of mind or the means of expressing ourselves in interesting and complex ways.

That makes Zuckerberg the anti-Gutenberg. He has facilitated a typography in which complexity is all but impossible and meaninglessness reigns supreme. To the extent that ideas matter, we are no longer amusing ourselves to death. We are texting ourselves to death.

Ideas, of course, will survive, but more and more they will live at the margins of culture; more and more they will be a private reserve rather than a general fund. Meanwhile, everything at the cultural center militates against the sort of serious engagement that McLuhan described and that Postman celebrated.

McLuhan understood that print would eventually give way to electronic media, and that these new media would create his famous "global village," though it is nevertheless ironic that typography, which he thought engendered isolation, would in digital form lead to tens of millions of people calling themselves "friends."

Postman was more apocalyptic. He believed that a reading society was also a thinking society. No real reading, no real thought. Still, he couldn't have foreseen that a reading society in which print that was overwhelmingly seamless, informal, personal, short et al would be a society in which that kind of reading would force thought out - a society in which tens of millions of people feel compelled to tell tens of millions of other people that they are eating a sandwich or going to a movie or watching a TV show. So Zuckerberg's Revolution has a corollary that one might call Zuckerberg's Law: Empty communications drive out significant ones.

Gutenberg's Revolution left us with a world that was intellectually rich. Zuckerberg's portends one that is all thumbs and no brains.

• Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of Edward M. Kennedy. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.



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