Why I'm Not on Social Media

/ by Kurt Leutgeb

1. I don't drive. Since I can think, I've always detested cars. The awful contemplation-hampering, reflection-distorting, stupefying noise they make. The slow death their exhaust fumes bring and the sudden maiming and annihilation they are expected to mete out in so-called traffic accidents. The reverence these monsters were paid almost universally until quite recently. Their sheer presence in historic city centres and in otherwise unspoilt countryside. The status they bestow upon their brainless owners, who for no good reason speed from one place to another the whole time. The billions and trillions that flow into the coffers of that unlikely alliance of political Islam and the political West: autocratic, human rights-abusing, Islamist, generally loathsome Middle Eastern oil-exporting enemies of reason, peace, and freedom; and Western governments and companies that promote war, injustice, and environmental destruction.

 

2. In his essay Reading, Wystan Hugh Auden outlined his idea of Eden. Under ‘Means of transport’ we read, ‘Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, narrow-gauge railroads, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes’.

 

Philip Larkin liked to pedal out into the countryside around Hull at the weekend, often as far as Spurn Point, twenty-five miles from the town. Church Going and Here are among the poems inspired by these excursions. ‘Here is unfenced existence’, a famous line from Here says about Spurn, the remote peninsular sandspit at the mouth of the Humber. Had Larkin driven there, would he have experienced unfenced existence?

 

Seamus Heaney devoted one of his best-known early poems, The Peninsula, to the road trips he liked to take: ‘When you have nothing more to say, just drive / For a day all round the peninsula’. Thirty years later he added a Postscript: ‘And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore’. As if as a reproach to Larkin, he insists: ‘Useless to think you'll park and capture it / More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there’. Had Heaney cycled round his peninsula, would he have been there, or even here?

 

3. Judging by the readers' comments in the online daily newspapers I visit, the feelings which motorists and cyclists harbour for each other resemble those of the supporters of rival local football teams. But whereas the latter are largely irrational, rooted in an obsolete sense of microlocal belonging or opaque family traditions, the conflict between motorists and cyclists has a clearly definable sociological underpinning. Statistically, motorists are old undereducated moneyed fatsoes, whereas cyclists are young well-educated hard-up athletes. In Bourdieusian terms, the motorists represent economic capital and the cyclists represent cultural capital, and the war they wage on the streets is a war between these two types of capital.

 

4. Julian Barnes is one of the few contemporary writers I read. Nevertheless, there is often something in or about his books that alienates me. This alienation of mine is best epitomized by the way Barnes writes about cycling in his very worthwhile short story Vigilance, the rant of an ageing lover of classical music against coughing during concerts. The narrator's homosexual partner, cyclist Andrew, is on a parallel campaign against motorists, which is presented as an equally misguided attempt at promoting civility. The cyclist is a weirdo who shouts ‘You fucking cunt’! at male drivers and ‘You fucking bitch’! at female ones, adding ‘I hope you get cancer’! He is the aggressor, the violent one. Straight, good, normal people, according to Barnes, are motorists.

 

5. My favourite living writer, J. M. Coetzee, praises cycling as freedom-enhancing and the fastest muscle-propelled means of transport. However, he mostly refers to recreational cycling on racing bikes, whereas to me a bicycle is a roadster that serves as a daily a-to-b. Recreational road cyclists in their racing gear tend to be old shits too lame to run, and I view them with deeper suspicion than even motorists, just like a, say, Leninist, would reserve greater animosity for a Trotskyist than for a czarist. Sociologically and psychologically, a daily-traffic cyclist is as far removed from a recreational racing cyclist as a sailing-boat owner from a motor-yacht owner; i.e., very far indeed.

 

6. Auden drove. ‘I cannot tell a / Jaguar from a Bentley / And you never read’, he addresses Hugerl, his bedfellow at Kirchstetten in Lower Austria, in the poem Glad. Hugerl used to borrow Wystan's yellow Volkswagen Beetle to drive to the houses he burgled. The car was even shot at by police and henceforth sported bullet holes. Neither bicycles nor public transport figure in Auden's Eden.

‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me) —’, read the famous first lines of Larkin's poem Annus Mirabilis. In 1963, another thing began for the poet too. Aged forty-one, he learnt to drive and acquired a Singer Gazelle. A decade later, he wrote about ‘The so-called working class’ in a letter to Robert Conquest: ‘When I drive out each morning / In one of my new suits / I want to find them fawning / To clean my car and boots’. A cyclist would not have written these lines.

 

7. My father, the late Josef Leutgeb, gave up smoking and took up driving at forty-eight. He became an avid motorist for over a quarter century. I'm forty-seven. Of course, I don't smoke. In summer, I don't feel as sexy as I used to when I, a smelly sweaty middle-aged bastard, alight from my time-honed Batavus. In winter, I sometimes get bronchitis and am reduced to using public transport. An inveterate anti-automobilist, I might as well learn to drive next year. After all, those evil combustion engines are being replaced by electric motors. It is becoming possible to drive without financing one's enemies and perhaps even without destroying the world. I'll keep you updated.

 

8. More to the point, I'm not on Facebook. A man my age, with my education, my income, my place of residence, etc., is highly likely to be an active user of that particular social network. I've got nothing against Facebook, except that it seems to be mostly a waste of time. But so is watching football and possibly pretty much everything else that we do.

 

Illustration by Andrew Khanian.
While watching football is an escape from our personal lives, Facebook is an escape into them. Social media users abandon control of the information they receive and of their own data to the network. They increase that third Bourdieusian type of capital: their social capital. But they lose part of themselves to the world. Social networking yields a very low and unrewarding form of experience and consciousness. The goal of a social networker should be to become as independent of others as possible, not as closely connected to them as possible. Higher forms of experience and consciousness can be found through reading, travelling, sex, sport, drugs, etc. Social relations are necessary too, but they invariably turn agonistic and impede true experience.

 

The real reason why I'm not on Facebook is probably that I would have come to it too late for my liking. In the Harvard-down logic of emulation that governs that network, latecomers are by definition undistinguished. And having no status is often preferable to having low status.

 

9. In my yet-to-be-published novel Berlin & Paris, Jim Morrison is taught by his millennial daughter to use Facebook. He refuses to tweet, though.

 

10. Nothing saddens me like Twitter. Birds don't know any better, but people? ‘When you have nothing more to say’, shut up. Don't drive, and for fuck's sake don't tweet. And let me be clear: there never is a lot to say. The so-called elite, who were much more aptly named the establishment a few decades ago, disgrace themselves with the constant noise of insincere inanity they produce. Have these politicians, journalists, and academics ever read Pascal, Lichtenberg, Leopardi, Nietzsche, Gómez Dávila? And aren't the harmful idiots ashamed of themselves when they compare their sorry pronouncements with the great aphorisms of literary history? Don't they ever ask themselves what Cicero would think of them if he could follow them? Or imagine the sickness Plato would feel in his stomach if he came across their pages?

 

11. I do use social media. I have started a few groups on WhatsApp that produce a steady flow of traffic. I could spend centuries watching videos on YouTube, my kind of TV. And like any sane and self-respecting person these days, I regard my iPhone as an integral and vital part of my body.

 

12. A tradition in conservative German philosophy regards humans as ‘deficient beings’ because they're less fully adapted to their environment than other animals. That's nonsense; we've just more successfully and more quickly expanded our habitat. And while humans are animals, the other animals aren't humans, and it depends solely on us how big the gap is.

 

Leftie intellectuals like to blame economic necessities (‘capitalism’) for the misery of the world, and their righty counterparts like to blame technological progress itself. I blame the intellectuals. It is their responsibility to make sure the technosphere serves the biosphere and doesn't turn it into a thanatosphere; that the poor countries are kept from taking over the technological advances of the rich ones without adopting their values and lifestyles; that governments force tech giants to pay taxes; and so on. They've been doing a very bad job for decades.

 

13. I hesitate to add this vantage loaf to the good round dozen I've provided. Say what you will, thirteen is an unlucky number. Of course, I could easily use the very short ninth part of this text as the first paragraph of the tenth and there'd be twelve parts on the whole again, but that would be asking for trouble. Try to trick your luck and you're done for.

My efforts in parts one to twelve have been inconclusive, fragmentary. I haven't been quite able to deliver the goods. I fear I've become too self-centred recently to satisfy my readers. I probably should sign up for Tinder after all. Once I chose a lady for a friend of mine on Tinder, and now they've already had their first abortion and postponed their wedding, originally scheduled for this summer, to maybe next year.

If even such an exemplarily rational person as myself is superstitious, how ill-prepared are we humans to handle all those powerful technologies which we suddenly find at our disposal? When superstition is systematically enforced with violence or the threat of violence, it is called faith, religion. And we have allowed people who believe in an imaginary being, even ritually talk to it, and who adhere to a preposterous worldview shaped by mediocre old books to decide about the use of nuclear weapons.

Will human mentality adapt to this technological age quickly enough to avert catastrophe? Or should artificial intelligence take over? I hear some people are dating robots already. But if robots date humans, they can't be the solution either.

....
Kurt Leutgeb

was born in Upper Austria in 1970. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which, Humana fraus (2015), tells two versions of a story from Titus Livius. He lives in Vienna.


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