The present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.
These words, reverberating with contemporary echoes, were penned by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in 165 years ago, in 1846.
What about today?
“What’s On Your Mind” is expected to be typed into a text box and splashed across your universe facing wall. The most philosophical of one’s thoughts need to be crammed into a maximum of 140 characters. In such a world, where the instant trumps depth of thought, and the wisdom of crowds seem to be the favoured buzzword, those bearded sages of old would most probably shake their heads in unified disillusion. Sartre may have worried at the ascendency of nothingness over being, Schopenhauer may have sensed the tilting of the scales more in favour of representation with the relinquishment of will. Descartes may have sworn by the name we have given to our editorial ‘Blogito Ergo Sum’ and Nietzsche may have had his own blog ‘Thus Tweeted Zarathustra’.
However, when we talk of Social Media and discuss the importance of the same in the world of rebellion and activism, the most disgruntled soothsayer would probably have been Søren Kierkegaard.
Apart from contributing heavily to the corpus of Christian ethics, much of the work of this ephemeral thinker, who passed away at the young age of 42, dealt with the issues of living as a ‘single individual’ and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. Obviously, this individualistic approach to life can itself be difficult in the day of the synchronised electronic herd.
However, the major problem of Kierkegaard was with the new media of the mid nineteenth century that was growing fast and sharing ideas as never before – which is now called the traditional press.
Newspapers and magazines filled the market, and people assembled in the numerous coffee houses that sprang up to give voice to their brimming opinions. According to the Danish philosopher, these opinions were already moulded and coloured by print.
What pissed the thinker off was the universal growth of opinions of each and everyone without visible commitment, the proliferation of intellectual tourists in every sphere without the pains and experiences necessary to foray deep into the level of accomplishment.
According to him, this creation of the public sphere through the spread of the press and coffee houses, with the ideas and opinions led to a gamut of risk free, third party commentary, unreal individuals who are never united, yet stick together as a combined whole, a corpus, who form weak ideas. Without the involvement in the actual action, it became a society spending their hours on reflection. By reflection, Kierkegaard meant a mirror in which one derives one’s individuality by imitating others.
According to him, this was destined to become a realm of idle talk where spectators merely pass the word along. The public sphere promoted ubiquitous commentators who deliberately detached themselves from the local practices out of which specific practices grew, forming a world where everyone had a opinion and comments on public matters without the necessity of first-hand experience or responsibility. According to him, the press and coffee houses led to public demoralisation, by building up lazy ideas and opinions while rarely providing the urge to act on them, often resulting in people so overwhelmed with views that any forthcoming action was postponed indefinitely.
For Kierkegaard, one of the essential ingredients of useful speech was the capability to remain silent. And nineteenth century press and coffee house gatherings diluted the distinction between remaining silent and speaking. Quick spiritual and intellectual fixes offered by the media was the real target of his critique, which took away the risk associated with deep and authentic commitments which was the root of meaningful endeavour. Instead of dealing with fomenting armchair public opinion about every possible issue, it was more of trail and error, the failures of certain courses of real action, triumphs studded with lesson-filled disappointments which were the building blocks of wisdom.
And what would he have made of the Web 2.0? Is not the Social Media a hybrid of press and coffeehouse on super-steroids? Where anyone can join interest groups to discuss topics endlessly from the comfort of one’s couch or cubicle? Where the yellow journalism Kierkegaard was so critical of reaches new levels of accomplishment with anyone posting anything and sometimes the authentic press mooching off such unverified posts?
“It is frightful that someone ... can set any error into circulation with no thought of responsibility and with the aid of dreadful disproportioned means of communication,” he observed in Journals and Papers. One cannot help but feel a chilled shiver down one’s spine on reading the words written one and a half century back. Additionally, ubiquity of the Net and Social Media, the easy access and the countless cycles of pseudo-social consciousness and hollow discussions make us wonder whether what Kierkegaard’s own FaceBook or Twitter acconts would have looked like.
Information abounds and choices are aplenty on the Net now. The social responsibility causes, environmental issues, and even underground rebel groups are easily available and can be joined at the click of a mouse. However, the philosopher would have had a different spin on the Web. The very ease of making commitments for him would lead to the breakdown of the ethical sphere into the connected herd known as the public.
It is one thing for existing and committed activists, who are risking their lives on a daily basis in opposition to the regime, to embrace Facebook and Twitter and use them for their goals. Kierkegaard would have agreed that their commitment was authentic. However, it is a completely different matter for individuals with passing or no interest in the issue to come out clicking all cylinders to save the world. This is exactly the kind of shallow commitment the Dane detested. Millions of FB posts and tweets flew through the cyberspace when thousands of Egyptians risked bullets on the streets of Cairo, complete with smileys and the ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ quips. Yet, many believed that they had played a role in the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Søren Kierkegaard predicted this phenomenon when he wrote, “some political virtuoso might ... write some manifesto ... and bring it about that the audience believed that it had actually rebelled.” However, in reality, no one has really toppled an authoritarian government by cracking jokes about the guillotine in their drawing rooms.
Today, the iRevolutionaries tend to stay on their sofas till their iPad batteries run out. It does not really matter whether the causes they fight for are dedicated or real, as long as they are easy to find on FB or Google. It is through the number of friends and the types of causes that one supports that online social status is built on. No wonder psychologists have now discovered a high positive correlation between social networking and narcissism.
In words of Kierkegaard, the current age can be summed up as one with a growing tendency to be enthusiastic for a moment only to decline back into indolence, something everyone who has been invited to a cause on Facebook can identify with.
Sandeep Gupta is the protagonist of The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta
A struggling author, he makes his living as, among others, a ghost blogger, a tai chi teacher, an undercover reporter and a stand in consultant