No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
– John Donne, Meditations XVII
In Georges Perec’s novel “Life: A User’s Manual“, the author describes a sect that one of the book’s characters is involved in. This fictional group, named “The Three Free Men” and formed in 1960, began with three members. In the following three years from the group’s formation, each of the three members recruited three more members, making twelve by 1963. The nine new members initiated a further three members each (twenty-seven members) in the following three years, and so on until 1975, when there were seven hundred and twenty-nine members.
I found this idea fascinating in its simplicity. It lacks any pretence of mass-indoctrination, instead relying on the relatively simple task of each member recruiting a small number that would be devoted followers of the sect. It is about the individual persuading the individual, one per year, and seems more powerful and more effective than any form of propaganda or mass advertisement. At this rate of conversion it would take just over sixty years to covert all of humanity to a new sect.
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, the poem by John Donne quoted at the beginning of this post, used the metaphor of islands to depict isolation of the individual. This poem was written in 1624, long before the developments in shipping of the pirates and private companies of the 18th and 19th centuries, and long before the invention of the aeroplane and shipping container made mass transport faster and easier in the twentieth century. The poem was also written four centuries before the dawn of social networking and the possible eradication of the isolation of the individual.
The age of social networking has brought with it a new way of shaping the insulated identity of individuals. There is a clear link between existentialism, which looks the individual human subject, and the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc. Besides the obvious veneer of profile pictures and tag-lines, every area of interaction with social media incorporates an individual identity from the user, from the content in status updates, the use of links or the choices in what media to post on a page. All of these choices lead to an online identity being created and shown, and this seems far easier controlled than an offline identity.
In every case this moves any social media user away from Donne’s metaphor of people as islands. Social media groups people closer together, and even those living in isolated communities can now engage in enlightened conversations with people conversing in the height of bohemian circles within seconds. This, as a result, creates a sense of community or society that exists separate to our analogue existence. In a sense, social media builds bridges between the isolated individual (the island) and the society, (the continent).
However, there is a lingering danger that this could become more of an illusion of society than a reality. As Facebook and Google in particular lead the way with clever algorithms that “choose” what information a user might like to see, more information that may be pertinent to a larger society begin to be filtered out (see the ted.com video below). The overall effect of the use of these algorithms will create a less diverse array of information on a social networking or search feed.
This scenario turns events to something a little more like Perec’s model of “The Three Free Men”. Rather than having a wide array of opinions, ideas and knowledge, each user is subjected to repetitions of their own opinions from popular followers and like-minded folk. The rate of conversion is minimal, but unlike Perec’s model it is not continuous. It is split into two forms, and the wide array of knowledge becomes more streamlined.
This streamlining has the added danger of contributing to a future commonality of divide and conquer politics that could potentially be employed by figures in positions of power. There is a trend of “us or them” attitudes that, as illustrated by Eli Pariser in the above Ted Talk, could be influenced by the direct news feed that any one user has access to. Rather than being shown a variety of opinions, when there is a dichotomy of opinions on offer (e.g. creation vs. evolution, Democrat vs. Republican) a user who has tame opinions may be persuaded to become more extreme as their opinions are constantly reinforced.
Although this development is not a new one (people have always been likely to seek out the opinions of those who share like beliefs), it may have a dramatic effect on those more isolated individuals, the islands of John Donne’s metaphor, who may have lived in isolation in past times, but will now find themselves in a society that reinforces their own existential stereotype.
The Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote a theory on political stability that he referred to as “The One, The Few, The Many”. The basic drive of this theory is that influence is contagious, and that the leadership of one can create a sphere of influence that reaches through the few, and eventually to the many. The internet “filter bubbles” are instead developing a system that conforms to the idea of “the one, the few, the one.” This is an unstable idea that may create more isolation in the individual than ever before possible, as the sharing of information is pigeon-holed into the reinforcement of strong opinion.
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