Instrumentalizing Social Life

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


November 16, 2011

Instrumentalizing Social Life

Networking is everyone’s favorite hobby in Silicon Valley – its the preferred way of filling jobs, finding a cofounder and setting up meetings with venture capitalists. You’d think the geeks would just create a web site for these purposes, but they love real-life social networks – they love building them and they love using them. Everybody wants to be a connector, that guy who knows people and knows what’s going on.

Connectedness tends to be a proxy for intelligence, because of the assumption that everyone wants to be connected to smart people, and smart people work at the most interesting and promising startups, so they know about the best jobs, best engineers, angel investors and VCs.

The effect of that is you don’t have to work very hard to get well-connected – people do it for you because linking you with someone with shared interests or a job opening is an expression of their network power and makes them feel like an insider. After 4 years, I’m pretty well-connected, or at least more connected than I should be, because of the efforts of others. But I’m terrible at networking because I can’t pretend to be interested in other people who I am not interested on the off-chance that I might need a favor from them. By refusing to network, I get to enjoy the luxury of talking to people I like and avoiding the people I don’t.

Sometimes I get requests from connections asking if I would meet their acquaintance for professional reasons, and most of the time, I agree. When these requests come from friends, I don’t mind doing them a favor, but I also find it hard to turn down requests from people who think I can help them.

But I accept the offer from the connector reluctantly, viewing it as an unpleasant but unavoidable instrumentalization of our social relation, and I’ve discovered that this is a major breach of etiquette. The fact that we are just using each other must be denied, usually with pretextual inquiries delivered via instant messenger into how’s life, how have I’ve been doing lately and so on. The slickest try to be reminded of the favor they were going to ask in what I say, so that it appears that they started chatting with me for purely social reasons, and only discovered afterwards that I could help them.

The offense comes when I ask them to hurry up and get to the part where they ask me a favor. I’m willing to do them a favor, so why waste time pretending that that’s not ultimately all that they want. I have no problem being connected with someone for no social reasons whatsoever, only because the connection is mutually beneficial in instrumental terms. I even think a kind of solidarity emerges from admitting this instead of bullshitting each other, as demonstrated in this scene from the late-90s cult classic Human Traffic. Two acquaintances make eye contact in the bar and are forced to make awkward small talk with each other for just enough time to avoid the appearance of not really being friends. The protagonist Jip recreates the scene in his imagination, this time with more honesty: simply admitting what both parties know but cannot say, that they have no real desire to be friends. The exchange of mutual dislike, even including obscenities creates the paradoxically opposite effect that maybe they could be friends.

Total honesty about the instrumental character of a networking situation is not permitted, instead we go through the empty ritual of pretending that it’s only a social call. The truth is unspeakable, offensive and obscene.

A similar rule applies in the exchange of gift. Officially, a gift is an expression of generosity, and unofficially, it carries an expectation of reciprocity. But if you were ever to say this openly – by saying naively, “Thanks, I’ll go out to buy the present I owe you tomorrow” – there would be something offensive in this. If you openly state the fact that the giver expects a gift in return, it implies that their gift is not genuine, they are only doing to get something from you.

Thes same logic applies to the old-fashioned scenario of a man buying a drink (or dinner) for a woman at a bar. Officially, it is a generous gift, but unofficially there are some expectations – if not sex, then some preliminary step towards that goal. But if, after the woman has accepted the drink, the man openly says “OK, but when are we leaving so I can sleep with you?” he offends the woman by implying that she’s effectively a prostitute. And she can also offend him by making explicit the tacit invitation, implying that he is a john paying her for sex.

The strange paradox here is that this does not mean that the two people are engaging in prostitution and refuse to admit it. By attempting to conceal the element of prostitution, he implies that she has dignity and should not be seen as or made to feel as if she’s a prostitute, which suggests that she really is not a prostitute. Why would you need to protect the dignity of prostitute, who (in the traditional understanding, not endorsing this view) does not deserve respect?

This is taken to an even further extreme in a somewhat pathetic way in the film Man of La Mancha, where Don Quixote in his madness, mistakes Aldonza for his lady Dulcinea. She finds this intolerable, insisting that she is nothing but a whore. Eventually she discovers that his unshakeable false belief in her nobility, refusing the mere reality of her lowly state even when its made totally apparant, uplifts her and she really does become Dulcinea, and then her belief rescues Don Quixote after he has abandoned the dream as madness.

The brilliance of the film is that the Don Quixote’s belief reverberates even beyond the play that Miguel De Cervantes puts on in the prison. In the final scenes, the woman in the prison who is cast as Aldonza/Dulcinea also begins to believe. Far from sentimental idealism, these scenes have a certain resonance with Lacan’s true Act that touches the Real, which is also called “traversing the fantasy”. As described by Richard Boothby:

‘Traversing the fantasy’ thus does not mean that the subject somehow abandons its involvement with fanciful caprices and accommodates itself to a pragmatic ‘reality,’ but precisely the opposite: the subject is submitted to that effect of the symbolic lack that reveals the limit of everyday reality. To traverse the fantasy in the Lacanian sense is to be more profoundly claimed by the fantasy than ever, in the sense of being brought into an ever more intimate relation with that real core of the fantasy that transcends imaging.

When Don Quixote says “What is sickness to the body of a knight-errant? What matter wounds? For each time he falls he shall rise again and woe to the wicked!” does he not speak as the Lacanian saint: “an undead partial object, pure willing, what is in the subject beyond the subject… the death drive.”

So the illusion has real effects. In the field of professional networking, covering up the fact that one is instrumentalizing a connection for personal gain has the same kind of efficacity as the denial of prostitution – the “false” gesture of politely providing another pretext for the communication is rooted in the authentic concern that the other person should not feel as if they are being used.

But there is a catch: sometimes this authentic desire only exists out of the belief that if someone felt used, they wouldn’t want to help you. Or in the case of the woman at the bar, if she felt that you thought of her as a prostitute, she wouldn’t sleep with you. Here we can see the deep corruption that Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has effected on the American public, by convincing us of the utility of cynically pretending to believe that people are entitled to dignity, thereby inventing the Customer Service personality.

This might explain our deep attachment to a specifically American form of consumerism. As a consumer, I can go to the mall and be treated with respect, the salespeople smile at me and call me “Sir”. Aldonza goes to the mall where Don Quixote works and is paid to call her Dulcinea. We know it’s fake, but still get upset if we’re not treated properly.

In Klout is bad for your soul, Bonnie Stewart criticizes the influence of social networking analytics tools like Klout as a further assuault by neoliberalism on our social life. We are being led to understand our social relationships in the purely instrumental terms of “influence”, a mode that is antithetical to social life itself. Even though I agree, I think this kind of critique is misguided because it doesn’t take into account the way that social network users (and even the companies that run these sites) militate against excesses.

A careful balance must be maintained by concealing how our connections are being leveraged for profit behind a friendly, sociable exterior. We already see such things as the @humblebrag Twitter account, which retweets subtle attempts at self-promotion and boasting on Twitter, often turning the original author into a target for vicious criticism from other users. By misperceiving the problem with humble-bragging as a moral problem of “attention whores” rather than a broad socio-economic ideology that encourages these harmful excesses, this kind of reaction polices on behalf of the stability of the system.

Warning us of the dangers of social networks on our social life in the way that Bonnie Stewart does leads to moderating actions that ensure the continued dominance of social networks. It effaces the true horror of the problem: under conditions of neoliberalism, there is actually nothing we can do to stop it.