What would Aldous Huxley have made of Snapchat?
Surely a writer who spent his career satirising the dehumanising effects of technology and mass media would have been horrified at our most extreme iteration yet of communication as mindless, ephemeral churn.
If Huxley thought the world needed warning about soul-sapping tech in 1931 – the year he wrote Brave New World – it is difficult to imagine just how depressing he would find the bright young hopes of 2014, who eschew fomenting social revolution for sexting and trading selfies of their Nike iDs.
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The transient nature of Snapchat and the host of apps following its lead – Viber’s Hold and Talk feature, for example, which allows users to send instant, eight-second voice messages, or Sobr, an entire social network that erases all your updates after twenty-four hours – makes it exquisitely difficult for companies to achieve (let alone measure) any sort of meaningful engagement with users.
If there’s one thing businesses want from their consumers, it is that we damn well stay where they can see us, and where we have half a chance of seeing them (or very much less than half a chance, in the case of the increasingly miserly Facebook algorithm).
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If only we wouldn’t forget our loyalty card, or buy something on a whim, or fall in love or divorce or age, our data might just remain steady enough for them to achieve an advertising bullseye.
They’ve only just mustered the know-how and process to bash out reactive tweets and on-message Vines. Now they’re expected to follow us into spaces where content crumbles quicker than click-through cookies, and they can’t count the Likes at the end of the week?
And our increasingly throwaway approach to social media raises concerns in the world beyond commerce. Thousands of blogs and forum threads can be found hyperventilating: ‘Is Snapchat Ruining People’s Lives?’ The most common cause for alarm is that good old plaint that, left to its own secretive devices, humanity does nothing but bully, entrap and peddle porn.
Bring on the Panopticon.
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Easy Does It
However. Back to Huxley. My favourite Huxley quote is in fact not from Brave New World but from his final, utopian novel Island. It starts like this:
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”
You see, I’m not so sure that Huxley would have hated Snapchat, because it is, essentially, the social media of lightness.
It represents an escape from those heavy, sticky, eerily polished broadcasting platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest – social interaction as CV – and refocuses users’ attention on their relationships.
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Experience, Not Artefacts
Is it any wonder that teenagers prefer social media to be a place where they replicate the messy, ever-changing process of living, rather than a forge in which to craft a self-conscious Product Of Self?
Blogs that double up as creative portfolios or Instagram feeds that showcase a chichi life are all very well for professional thirtysomethings, but kids who have no idea who they are or what they want to be don’t want the burden of permanent personal artefacts hanging round their digital neck.
Pinterest pins our moments into carefully cropped and filtered glass cabinets; Snapchat throws them, handful by easy handful, into the air. There’s something joyful in that. And surely Huxley would have applauded bottom-up media of such fluttering evasiveness that Big Brother is left waggling an empty net.
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Of course, there is danger in lightness. Lightness can also mean banality, cruelty, the rise of the regrettable impulse. Nothing ever really disappears on the Internet and teenagers – unlike humanity – probably do default to bullying, entrapment and porn-peddling when given half a chance (when they’re not creating multimillion dollar startups, that is).
But, although the shallowness of the Internet still threatens to to turn us into mental Labradors, Facebook’s ‘A Look Back’ video or Intel’s ‘Museum of Me’ can be equally dangerous – attempting as they do to imbue our relationships, moods and actions with an overload of meaning, and diminishing the complex interconnection of lived experience.
Maybe we’ve got something to learn from those pesky kids yet.