Friendship and Loneliness

Friends

I recently re-blogged one of my first posts on Carrying the Gun, called The Last Letter WarI was still in graduate school at the time, and I was getting nostalgic for the feeling that letter writing and receiving brought during my first deployment, which was pretty austere. In that post, I lamented the fact that due to the rapid spread of connectivity and smartphones, future wars would likely not depend on good old fashioned mail the way we once knew it. In that, something would be lost – solitude, loneliness, and a deep yearning for outside contact. I admitted though, that all that nostalgia would be lost on a soldier sitting on his cot, waiting weeks or months for a letter that may never come – he’d choose the internet in a heartbeat because it is better, easier, and instantaneous.

A couple of years later, I wrote a piece imagining what it might be like to deploy in the current media landscape, where a soldier’s actions are almost instantaneously captured and beamed across the world via the internet at the speed of light, dissected, critiqued, and discarded before the soldier makes it back to his camp. It was a dark thought, especially the idea of having a bunch of snarky twenty and thirty somethings share thoughts on your behavior from the comfort of their computer chairs or porcelain toilets, in 140 characters or less.

Now, I am living in that future.

I tend to find myself reading things that bleed into one another – articles that may or not be related, but share common themes. I don’t know if this is a product of my mood at a given time, which makes me more likely to click and follow through on reading one thing rather than another, or simply a random occurrence that seems to happen pretty frequently. Over the past week I’ve been thinking about those two posts while also having read a number of articles and essays on the topics of friendship, loneliness, and civility. They all seem to be connected, somehow, so I thought I’d share them here. The common denominator in them (with the exception of The Hermit) is the rise of social media as a disruptive force – disruptive, in this case, not necessarily being a “bad” thing (although it might be – the jury is still out).

It started with this article in GQ (The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit) about a man who remained hidden in the woods of Maine for almost thirty years. It is a fascinating story, and especially so in today’s interconnected world, where this phenomena seems exceptionally rare. The author, who continually tries to tease out of Chris Knight (the hermit) why he did it – only comes close to an answer when discovering what it is that he missed about his exile, now that it had been taken from him.

“What I miss most,” he eventually continued, “is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.” He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp. I’d noticed the mushroom when I visited—it was enormous—and he asked me with evident concern if anyone had knocked it down. I assured him it was still there. In the height of summer, he said, he’d sometimes sneak down to the lake at night. “I’d stretch out in the water, float on my back, and look at the stars.”

While scrolling through my Timeline on my Facebook, looking for a certain picture, I came across an article I shared from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Faux Friendship in 2009. In it, William Deresiewicz discusses the changing nature of friendship, and especially the loss of the “romantic” friendship, as in, that single friend with whom we are almost cosmically linked. Instead, we have replaced “information for experience.” Think about the throngs of outstretched hands at concerts (or any event) clutching glowing smartphones to “capture” moments they aren’t really experiencing to be shared with others who don’t really care.

Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Deresiewicz wrote another article for the Chronicle titled The End of Solitude, which is very closely related to Faux Friendship, but worth reading on its own.

The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity.

Strangely, I was also pointed to this article called How to Be Polite which feels somewhat related in that it discusses the demise of civility, mostly due to the rise of social media and a more interconnected world.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

Just before I was ready to post this piece, I came across this Mashable article, The Most Connected Man is You, Just a Few Years From NowThe subject obsessively tracks everything he can track with whatever digital tracker exists, creating a cyborg-effect.

“Everyone wants to know if they will be like me in the future, but everyone is already like me; they just don’t think about it like that,” he says. “Your phone is already collecting information about you and your life. If you use a credit card or a car GPS system, you’re already being tracked. But that’s Big Brother. When you take control of it yourself, that’s Big Mother, and that relationship is nurturing, kind and not controlling.

And lastly, just for fun, is this edit of celebrities at the VMAs, looking more and more like citizens of the Hunger Games’ Capitol, ignoring the party going on around them in favor of the pitch-and-toss happening on their smartphones.

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A Dark Imagining – the dwindling flash-to-bang ratio of the internet

soldier

A few months ago, I tweeted about how demoralizing it would be to go to war in the Twitter age.

My point, was that as someone who is now plugged into the social media universe, I can imagine how demoralizing it would feel to be suddenly unplugged, deployed, and forward in a fight, fully knowing that there is a cadre of Twitterarti in Snarkistan talking shit about my every move. Things that happen today on the battlefield are instantly captured, written about, analyzed, and then snarked-up before lunch.

General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently hinted at this at a recent talk:

“For the first time our competence and character are being evaluated by experts and pundits while we fight.”

I also saw it a couple of days ago, as another Egyptian leader was deposed through the massing of people in Tahrir Square. Less than 24 hours had passed and already people were decrying the whole thing as a fraud or an American plot, before the party in the street had even ended.

I’m really not making any striking points in this post, but to say this is the way the world is heading, and it is high time to accept that instead of lament and thrash at history. Future war will involve us going forward, doing things, and having those things beamed back and dissected and becoming memes before we re-enter the forward operaring base. Raging against the machine will just make you nuts.

Just something to think about.

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T.E. Lawrence and my social media revolt

Originally published in 2013.

“Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be a chore to read. It’s massive, and Lawrence at times muses like Holden Caulfield.

But there are many gems found throughout that have stayed with me, like this, his thoughts on the military man, the veteran:

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”

Most of my favorites, though, have little to do with military matters, language, or his travels. The one that sticks with me most is the end of the quote I opened with. Lawrence, in pure orientalist fashion, expresses his thoughts on the Syrians:

“All these peoples of Syria were open to us by the master-key of their common Arabic language. Their distinctions were political and religious: morally they differed only in the steady gradation from neurotic sensibility on the sea coast to reserve inland. They were quick-minded; admirers, but not seekers of truth; self-satisfied; not (like the Egyptians) helpless before abstract ideas, but unpractical; and so lazy in mind as to be habitually superficial. Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

“…busy themselves in others’ affairs.”

It was 2006. I was still fresh out of the Army and I shot out like a rocket ship. I had a full time job and I went to community college full time, trying to catch up with my education while not sacrificing my livelihood. I exercised daily and had a healthy social life. I was busy and happy.

“You should start a Facebook account,” my fiancĂ© said.

“Why? I have a MySpace,” I replied.

I held out for a year. I just wasn’t interested.

Eventually, I relented and created a Facebook account, my modest little garden on the internet. I started connecting with ‘friends.’ Old friends and new. I was in college and meeting lots of people. It was fun. I have always enjoyed socializing online. AOL chat rooms. Internet forums. Online video games. This was a natural evolution of that.

I’d meet someone and say before leaving “Are you on Facebook?”

I enjoyed it. Pictures and comments and the opportunity to display your best self in a steady parade of best selves.

But something changed. The whole experience is no longer fun. It’s exhausting and depressing and it’s making me nuts.

More and more I’m finding myself rotating through a digital cycle of Facebook and Twitter, clearing out my ‘reds,’ those cruelly painted notifications designed to excite my brain and grab my attention. I’ll sit down at my computer to do something and find myself some time later staring at three open tabs that each say ‘Facebook (1)’ and I wonder what the hell it was I meant to do in the first place.

Or I find myself staring at a Twitter avatar, a brilliant, tiny photograph next to a quip, some moral grandstand that dares me to respond. I click ‘reply’ and tap out a response and stare at it, cursor blinking, asking me, “done?”

I think, and delete it. I almost always delete it. I don’t want to get sucked into a whole thing.

Except sometimes I send it and get sucked into a whole thing. Then comes the reply, an electric torpedo from the dark. And I’ll send another one back. And then I have to go out and actually do something in life.

I’m at lunch, checking my phone. My wife rolls her eyes. I’m waiting for a reply. Pitifully, my phone allows for ‘push notifications,’ allowing someone to reach me like a vine growing out of my phone and wrapping around my neck.

My day can be ruined by what someone says on the Internet. And I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of writing little notes and pressing enter, sending it into the ‘stream’ and watching it get carried away, or rather, pushed away by other peoples’ notes. I hate waiting and wanting those other people to look at my note and think it is so great that they’ll pass it along to their people, all sending their own little notes.

I’m tired of the ridiculous conspiracy theories from people I respect, and trying to gently make the correction.

Mostly, I’m tired of the unending gazing. The incessant scrolling. The comparing and wondering. The constant tugging from the social media ether-space, beckoning me to check again, to see what’s going on.

I can no longer stand to have people I don’t know or with whom I share some limited, past experience, suck me into their world. It’s too much.

Aa Lawrence hints: is it wrong to be interested chiefly with one’s own affairs?

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media. I wholeheartedly believe in it as a tool for fun and personal growth as well as a platform for mobilization. I’ve made some of my best friends through it and it allows me to maintain and develop relationships in a way not as readily available in the past. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of social media in an Egyptian social movement, using Facebook to reach out to and interview some of its leaders.

No, social media is great. Just not for me. I can’t survive in it. It’s quicksand. Others, I’m sure, walk along like it’s a gorgeous beach, waving and smiling and enjoying the sunset

I take a few steps and sink.

That’s my problem.

So, I’m in rebellion. I declare war on social media. I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and I’ve resolved to checking them both just once a day. From my computer.

Oh I’ll still post. To withdraw completely would be to lose. To win is to control this beast. To use the space and turn their weapons to my own use. To pillage the trains left smoldering on their tracks, as Lawrence did with the Arabs.

Take back your day. It’s a revolt.

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

T. E. Lawrence

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Social media as a way to bridge the civil-military divide

Soldiers crossing a bridge. It’s a metaphor. But that really happened.

Just about every week there is some event that happens that connects social media and the Army, for good or for ill. I’m a true believer in social media. I love using it myself, I studied its use in social movements in college, and I believe that for all its flaws, social media is good for the Army and good for soldiers. Social media allows both the Army and its soldiers to “tell the Army’s story” to the American public, and further, I argue that it helps fill in some of the empty space that makes up the civilian-military divide.

A brief history

… I started to write my own “brief history” of the Army and social media, but then remembered that MAJ Crispin Burke (aka Starbuck, aka, Wings Over Iraq) wrote a good one at the New York Times At War Blog. So if you’re interested in that history, check it out.

How the Army has changed

The Army has struggled over the years to figure out if wants to embrace social media or wall itself in. Thankfully, after many fits and starts, the Army has chosen to embrace social media, and cautiously empowers soldiers to use it to tell the Army story. For its part, the Army has established a pretty impressive digital foothold (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.) Units across the force have their own digital holdings. While I’m sure lots of units out there are just “doing it” the Army actually has created guidelines on “how to do it” through the Social Media Handbook (3rd Edition). The handbook provides units and individuals the guidance they need on how to establish a social media presence for their unit or how to conduct themselves online as individuals. There are some specific rules governing a digital presence for units, but for individuals, following the UCMJ, not violating OPSEC, and using common sense is the best hedge for staying out of trouble.

Connecting worlds, bridging the civil-military divide

The thing that excites me most about social media is the way it allows outsiders of a specific community to inject themselves into that community and engage with it in a way that would normally be difficult or impossible. Interested in ballet but not a ballet dancer? A few minutes of searching and you can amass a small arsenal of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to saturate yourself in the art. Whenever I find myself interested in a new topic, I usually start finding that community online as a way to quickly learn about it, and hopefully, connect to people who know what they’re talking about.

While the big Army is able to tell its story through its social media presence, individual soldiers like myself can engage with the larger public through blogs like this or on any other social media site. While military bases are normally walled off and secluded from major population areas, the internet is everywhere, and anyone can engage with soldiers who are out there and online. Interested civilians can follow me on Twitter or follow this blog and get an idea of what their soldiers are doing in a more personal way than just reading about it in the newspaper.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in this, just as there is when the military is coupled with social media generally. Some people will do dumb things. That is why anyone – especially soldiers – who choose to engage online need to do so with eyes wide open.

Top comment: “Every time i hear this video it reminds me that we’re all humans and sometimes we need to set aside our differences and live life. I salute these soldiers for taking time to make this video as they get little RR in the war zone. So the next time you see a soldier be kind and say “thanks” because it could be their last appreciation they hear from someone that’s protecting our freedom and liberty.” 

A few years ago when I was still in college, I remember this video was released and it was getting shared across the internet. From the comments and reactions I saw from a lot of my peers in college, I got the impression that this was the first time they saw and thought of soldiers as human beings. That is, to most Americans – young people especially – the concept of the soldier is something abstract, something never seen or experienced. It’s something that happens in movies, video games, and newspaper articles. While many of my military friends chided the soldiers in the video for making us “look foolish” or for obviously having too much free time, I saw value in the video in the way it humanized the soldiers to a society who are largely unaware of what soldiers do or are doing. Plus, the whole idea of tough paratroopers dancing and enjoying a Lady GaGa song destroyed a ton of stereotypes.

The civil-military divide, that thing which gets lots of lip service of being something that needs to be addressed but little in terms of how to fix it. I’ve written about it before, and I’m of the mind that since we’re helplessly outnumbered by the American population, it falls on our shoulders to do our best to not wall ourselves in further and reach out the rest of country to help bridge the divide. Using social media is one way in which we can do that.

And, just for fun.

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