Every week I get an email from Facebook informing me that there has been zero action on my page. This is no accident. Since part of this renewed blogging I’m doing here is an effort to improve my what they call web presence, I’ve been thinking about why I’ve been so reluctant to engage with Facebook. It can’t just be fogeyism, for my wife, who is if anything more conservative than I am, is a Facebook power user. Nor am I a stranger to computers or even social networking. Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s a very deep tale, and in the supposition that readers want to know absolutely everything they can about authors, I will tell it.
First, computers. I am almost exactly as old as electronic computation: I was learning to crawl at about the same time as ENIAC was, but computers did not enter my awareness to any great extent (except as characters in science fiction stories) until I became a graduate student in biology in the mid-1960s. This was old biology, not modern biology, and it was for people who were not good in math. Most of the calculations you had to do were easily handled with paper and pencil or with electro-mechanical calculators. Physicists used computers, but these were housed in special building where you went as supplicants with boxes of punched cards and gave them over to the keepers, who fed them into a machine that occupied a whole air-conditioned floor, and had maybe a tenth the power of an iPhone. A day later you got a sheaf of green and white striped paper, known as elephant toilet paper, at which time you found you had made a tiny error and the output was meaningless. So back to the cards. I was glad not to be a physicist.
In my last year of grad school my department purchased an electronic four-function calculator that did square roots. Unless you are over sixty you have not extracted square roots by hand, but it is a bear, and you have to do it a lot if you are doing analysis of variance. This machine, which was about the size of a hard-bound novel, had its own locked room, where it was bolted to a table, and you had to sign up to use it. One peculiarity of my graduate school career was that in the middle of it the Army Reserve unit I was in was called up for service in the Vietnam War, a footnote to the Pueblo incident (you could look it up) and when I got out I was you might say disaffected. I suppose it was a form of PTSD, although we didn’t have that then. I got the degree, however, but skipped the graduation ceremony and also bailed out of science, finding work as a cook in a Miami restaurant. I was known as Dr. Cook.
Hold that thought. A number of interesting adventures later I found myself employed as an urban bureaucrat in the human services biz. I was responsible for planning and evaluation, the inhumane part of human services, and it was clear to me that without computer readable and analyzable records, the task was hopeless. So I looked into it and found a consulting outfit that was throwing a week-end seminar for clueless people like me and I went. They had a room there with a couple of dumb terminals in it—CRT screens w/keyboards hooked up to a mainframe via modems where you had to put a telephone handset into a large device fitted with rubber suction cups, dial the mainframe—toot, whistle, sigh—and marvelously you were connected to a real computer that you could play with. They demonstrated their social services software, but what we were really interested in was playing Adventure and Pong. I never got my agency computerized because shortly after that I went to Washington and a job at the White House. They didn’t have computers there either.
Now flash back to the restaurant. One evening a new waitress arrived. We became friendly as one does in small restaurants and it turned out she was Bonnie Jean Romney, the wife of Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy, of Hog Farm fame. These were people who traveled around in modified buses and lived a life that was as deep as you could get into Hippie. I arranged for their bus to be parked on the estate of a wanna-be hippie millionaire where I was living and working as a sort of guestish servant, and which I later fictionalized in Night of the Jaguar. When the bus departed for the west coast, I was on it, again as a guestish servant, cooking nourishing meals for ten people out of dumpster dives and road kill.
The point of this is that the Hog Farm was connected in one direction with Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster crowd and in the other direction to Stuart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog crowd, and I got sort of connected to the latter bunch, I wrote some things for them and when the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link went live in 1986 I joined it. This is The Well, aka The Colonial Williamsburg of the Internet, and for the past twenty-odd years it has been essentially my only social medium. It is essentially a text-based bulletin board operation, consisting of hosted conferences on a very, very large number of subjects by a relatively small group of non-anonymous people. About 2800 people belong to it and of course it is no longer financially viable, any more than Williamsburg would be without foundation support.
The neat thing about a bulletin board is that all the interaction is ordered by topics and subject conferences: that is, it stands in relation to the real Internet as an orrery does to the solar system. Nowadays, if your guppies are sick, you google ‘guppies’ and pick from a dozen websites devoted to the dear tiny fish and you can get any information you need. But on the Well there are only a couple of guppy people and over time you get to know them and their guppies and they get to know you and yours and you become guppy friends with them. If while you’re raising your guppies you happen to have a nervous breakdown or an automotive breakdown you can go to those topics and talk about stress and head gaskets, same deal. The guppy people don’t need to know about it. In other words it’s scaled and ordered like a small town—hardware store, grocery store, insane asylum, pediatrician, massage parlor, etc.—and over the years you get to know the people in it, especially those in the conferences where you spend most of your time.
In contrast, my first impression of Facebook was of a kind of urban cacophony, like you get walking through a crowded train station. Yes, there’s the convention of friending, and you can filter out posts you don’t like, and you can set up private spaces to discuss anything you like, but still . . . when I look at a Facebook-page wall, what I see is dozens of separate conversations going on between people I know and those I don’t, about stuff I’m interested in and stuff I could care less about, plus the videos and the pictures and its all too multi-tasking multi-media for my brain to accommodate. What I flash on when I see modern social media, and I just realized this the other day, is the destruction of real life communities by the forces of progress. A bunch of artists, let’s say, gather in a decrepit neighborhood because rents are cheap. Pretty soon there are coffeehouses, bars and shops and street life and festivals and the place springs into life, drawing on the creativity and good spirits of the inhabitants, and a community forms. Then the real estate people get wise and the rich, or at least their kids, decide that this is a happening place and they want to live there too, and the rents go up and the chain stores arrive, and the artists are priced out and go someplace else and the result is a kind of Disney version—“arty” without artists and without real community. I’ve been through this twice, in SoHo in New York in the 60s and in Coconut Grove in Miami in the 70s and now again in virtual space, because the Well is being sold and may not survive, because it seems that “well.com” is too valuable a piece of web real estate to leave at the disposal of a few thousand people who just want to hang out and have a community. Well, boo-hoo, and let them go to Facebook like everyone else, and what can I say, it’s perfectly true. But I still resent it and I believe this is a big part of the reason for my self-imposed ignorance of FB and its culture.
But ever forward. I have a private Facebook page and a Facebook fan page that my publisher set up a long time ago and which, as I said, has zero traffic. My plan now is to fix this website so that it is not so much a publisher’s website but a shrine to wonderful Moi, and then learn how to use Facebook and Twitter, all before my next book comes out, probably next spring. I am a good soldier. I floss. I can do this.