Submarine or Banyan?

Like most folks, I suppose, I’ve been alternately amazed and horrified at the way in which the rapid present-day connections that emerge from tools like Linked In and Facebook may thwart years of careful effort at compartmentalization. To me, my life is a series of chambers through which I have passed, and each chamber is tightly sealed off from the others. Very few indeed are the friends who have come with me from one period to the next, in part because quite often I find that the sign of moving from one period to the next is that all my friends are still each other’s friends, but I no longer have enough in common with any of them.

In my bleaker moments it feels something like the watertight hatches that one might slam shut in order to prevent a submarine from sinking. Down there, below that hatch, are the connections and memories of a place I have left. That place, in turn, was made by closing the doors on a prior, past. And all the time, the water keeps seeping in.

That seems a Bad Way To Do Things, a form of dishonesty that I regret. As an alternative, I would like to think in terms of the banyan: a tree that grows up within another tree, sends down its own roots, creates a trunk, then beings to spread; and as it widens, sends down alternative trunks until, if it’s lucky enough to grow to a grand old age, it becomes a maze of trunks and spaces between them. Each of those newer trunks is a different point of contact with the earth, and the spreading geometry of trunks is particular to just that banyan tree. So each trunk is distinct; but the tree is a whole.

To return to Facebook and all that: the effect of these find-a-friend technologies is to present me as having one undifferentiated network to which all my ‘friends’ belong. That may be fine for an 18 year old student who has just discovered their First Real Friends; but actually, I don’t actually want my work buddies to know who my old school buddies are, nor my university friends to know who my geek friends are. That compartmentalization is a vital social strategy for me as an ordinary social person with a long social history and multiple social lives.

Facebook, of course, works on the idea that it’s a desirable experience to go snooping around in other people’s friend sets looking for interesting people—indeed, to judge people by their friends. I really value Facebook’s ability to help find lost folks—I have discovered some folks long lost who I’m saving for a rainy day, others whom I am rather shy to contact. I dislike, intensely, the fact that any of my friends can either see all of my friends, or none, without my being able to conceal or reveal those connections as I see fit. There must be some happy medium in this, a way to search (related to what Linked In does) the cloud of people in 2nd and 3rd order links around, but not to specify through whom those links are made.

In any case, here’s a link to my own past that I discovered while looking for something else: me as absurdist actor in a Latino theatre company. Look under Douglas; I was’t married then.

Of course, the whole question of being forced to stare at adverts and be targetted for adverts as one sets about having a social life is utterly disgusting—the worst kind of pornography. I am greatly cheered by the prospect of Diaspora and the anti-Facebook movment. Bhawana, my wise and sometimes edgy wife, finally decided she couldn’t stand all the stupidity of Facebook and deleted her account. As she put it: in Buddhism, repeating rumours is against the precepts yet that’s exactly what Facebook is for— and I might add, building on criticism I made in my article about technology for the journal of Buddhist Ethics, it’s also about deliberately becoming unmindful.

Sadly, I need Facebook’s connections to keep in touch with colleagues for now, as much as I dislike it.


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