“TV Buddha” is a forty year old piece by artist Nam June Paik. Its visual — that of Buddha staring at himself on a television, as captured through a closed-circuit video camera — is striking, through my interpretation stands beyond its original meaning, slightly, given the four decades of technological indulgence that have passed since its unveiling.
Ever since signing up for Facebook in college I’ve struggled with social media, though not because of the social aspect of the interactive medium. As has been said by many of late: the Internet (simply) remembers too much… And in the case of social media, I get hung up on the sticky residue of the past, old relationships now being maintained online despite no real personal connection or the electronic permanence of digital flare, often shared in passing reflection of a moment that becomes forever tied to my “profile.” This doesn’t seem to bother most, and it’s probably not that important anyhow, but in past moments of confusion and conflict over this stuff I’ve deleted social media accounts just as I’ve thrown school yearbooks in the fireplace: letting go of relationships and memories that might only otherwise be triggered by a name or a face from the past; the latter essentially wiping the sort of IRL personal cache that social media refuses to let go of (though each action has had consequence).
The thing about “TV Buddha” that reads different today, for me, than would likely have translated in 1974, doesn’t deal with the infinite feedback loop that exists in the piece, but the reality that we are all now able to get lost in that state of constant narcissistic reflection. Buddha was never watching what was happening, currently, but was always seeing what just happened — the wholeness of reality centering around what the self of the present moment is doing (the “present moment” perpetually revealing itself with a momentary lag caused by the electronic translation between present action and televised happenings). Like Buddha, those using Facebook or Twitter or any number of sites that act similarly, are always watching not what’s happening, but what’s just happened. Except now, we’re encouraged to then participate by reflecting on the moment that’s just taken place with some sort of clarity, insight, or opinion, constantly encouraged to participate in forced nostalgia for something that’s barely finished happening. “Being present” in this sort of arena means being forever trapped in what just happened.
This instinct to “participate” is fueled by the validation of others, noticing, liking, favoriting, or commenting, further solidifying the habit of impulsive clicking to gauge personal value. We are not our Facebook pages, but our Facebook pages often reflect our character, our personalities, our senses of style, and our values… And it’s because of this that the social self, or the televised reflection of self, is so quickly and so often misinterpreted as actual self, since we’re always looking to screens for confirmation of who we are as individuals. If we allow our understanding of who we are to be dictated by an (even a momentarily delayed) electronic representation of who we are on a screen, we’re in for nothing but a load of confusion. The “we”s here are, of course, intended to be “me”s and “I”s… but you get the idea.
A few weeks ago I took a break from social media, logging out on my laptop and deleting the apps from my phone so I wouldn’t be tempted: to access the accounts would then take more than a single impulsive click. It wasn’t long before I wondered about what I was missing. Had anyone commented on something I’d posted? I had sent a Facebook message earlier that morning… “Shit,” I thought, “what if my friend is trying to reply to me?” Twenty-four hours in and I was wondering what was being shared by my “Read First” list on Twitter (which is pretty much my RSS feed in a post-Google Reader world). What are they sharing today that I’m missing? Are there messages waiting for me on Facebook? Four days into my social media hunger strike I cracked and logged back in. I had two messages (and over a dozen annoying like invitations and event invites) waiting for me. On Twitter? Nothing important. Once I logged back in though, I was renewed with the urge to click. Got a free moment? Might as well check it out. Bored? Click away. A few days later I de-activated my Facebook account. I didn’t delete it, because I need it (I actually used it that night for work, only to de-activate it once again after the task was complete) and I didn’t want to completely lose touch with friends online (as I had in the past). I just needed a break.
The result? A few friends checked in via text message to make sure I hadn’t shaved my head and joined a cult, but beyond that, not much… except… I did seem to feel better. Eventually I logged back in, but I’ve tried to be mindful about when and how long I allow myself to log on and “see what’s shaking.” Some great stuff has happened since my recent deactivation, and I’ve started to make strides in finding a more satisfying life-away-from-screens, but that’s not entirely the point here — the point is that the way I’ve misused social media (since college and all the way through the dozen-plus Facebook and Twitter accounts I’ve burned through since) is on its way out. I’m not going to “like” anything anymore, and I don’t think I’ll comment publicly very often, because playing into the system doesn’t seem to work for me. (There’s always a chance I’ll change my mind or let some exceptions slip by, but) I’m not going to post anything else to my personal account because that sorta defeats the point, too. There’s a lot more to this that’s wrapped into general “un-plugging” and “getting a life” outside the Internet topics, but that’s really another discussion for another time. One I’m happy to have in person.