Have we created a monster?
Our story with the internet – with our relationship to technology – is a story that has been told before. It’s a motif that has preoccupied some of the greatest thinkers from Descartes to ÄŒapek to Wachowski, and has been taken up in literature and cinema since the enlightenment.
Perhaps the most classical narrative about the dynamic between humans and their inventions was told by Mary Shelley. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells of the lonely genius Frankenstein, who creates a monster who will ultimately undo the genius Frankenstein.
The monster’s name is not Frankenstein, though we’ve forgotten this: as soon as someone says “Frankenstein,” we think of the ugly green monster with nails in his head, when in fact, it was the inventor, Victor, whose last name was Frankenstein, and his monster figure was not named, referred to by Shelley as simply “the monster.” The cultural confusion is appropriate, since Shelley’s novel is meant to confuse mortality and monstrosity in such a way that it calls to question the very nature of humanity.
Frankenstein is a story about relationships: about the relationship between god and man, about the relationship between man (or artist) and his creation, and about mankind’s relationship to machines. The moral of this last story is that man can’t always understand or harness the power of his creations – that his inventions (read: monsters) can ultimately destroy him. But more than telling a story about the ways technology becomes monstrous, Frankenstein tells us about ourselves; Who is the monster in Frankenstein, the monster, or the inventor?
Written at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Shelley was articulating a cultural anxiety towards technology at the turn of the century, an anxiety that is still felt by cynics and skeptics today when discussing social media. While I remain positive about websites like Facebook and Twitter, I worry about the way these spaces will be used.
When Charlie Sheen joined Twitter, I knew something monstrous was happening.
Sheen didn’t create Twitter. He recreated it. Sheen used Twitter as a tool to inflate his celebrity – the only quality an actor possesses after getting canned from his full-time gig on Two and a Half Men. Like Victor Frankenstein, Sheen was trying to harness the power of technology (in his case, social media) but could never have imagined what he’d ignite in the blogosphere.
Now, celebrities have copied Sheen’s business model, which thrives on controversy and depends on being politically incorrect. Fifty Cent is being controversial for the sake of controversy, tweeting about the tsunamis in Japan and using misogynist language simply because he knows controversy breeds attention, and, in our ocular-centric culture, where it’s believed that if you have somebody’s eyes you also have their mind, attention translates into cash via advertising; if people’s eyes are on you, you’re a cash cow, and Sheen was the first to smash the piggy bank.
Now, YouTube is a whirlwind of personal videos that copy-cat Sheen’s rules for success: Rule number one: say it loud. Rule number two: say it proud. Rule number three: piss off as many people as you can when you say it.
In the past few days, two videos have occupied the blog world: First, Alexandra Wallace’s UCLA video, which got everyone and their mother talking about a Barbie-looking twenty-something impersonating Asians on cell phones in libraries, and more recently, Pamela Tamtampamela’s erie YouTube video, in which she says nothing racist enough to get her killed, but weird enough to make people actually think she’s in a cult.
These people aren’t serious, and if you’re watching them, the joke is on you.
These outrageous videos are expiraments in social media from attention-seekers who are being taught by the media that the more noise they make, the more people’s attention they’ll have. By reporting on them and discussing them, we (the media) fuel their stupidity.
I didn’t want to write about Charlie Sheen. I tired my best to avoid it. Same goes for these other two YouTube bimbos. But seen together, these videos dramatize the ethos of absurdity preoccupying our media.
In many ways, we’re satirizing our own democracy. While people in the Middle East fight for their real, lived freedom, we take advantage of our virtual freedom by creating – and talking about – videos that essentially say nothing. We could be using sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for positive social change, but instead, we’re using them to morally shame people who weren’t even serious in the first place.
If we don’t smarten up about how we engage with social media, things could get pretty ugly. Monstrous, even.