Can we please talk face to face?

When I tell a smartphone-owning neighbour that a friend was hijacked outside my house, I’m cut off in the first sentence with “I know”. Then the explanation: “Someone posted it on WhatsApp.” Conversation killed. My feeble answer: “Well, I’m not on WhatsApp.” We are different people; I’ve become the new abnormal to them.

As a diehard, or maybe a conscientious objector, I view the social media-hooked world from outside and can’t help noticing new divisions, exclusions and impoverishments. I live in a suburb whose community structure has been trying to bridge divides: it sends out emails, does fliers in postboxes and even put up blackboards so passersby can read chalked-up notices. But it also began posting its news on Facebook and at some point it was deemed quicker and more efficient to keep “everyone” in the loop exclusively on WhatsApp.

“You’d better join WhatsApp,” I’m told by a group feverishly exchanging updates on safety in my street. They seem unable to tell me face to face what it is I ought to know. Not long ago, residents in this area prided themselves on the fact that one could still walk around, bump into people, look over fences and catch up on news.

Neighbourhood streets aside, already more than a year ago Facebook killed the catch-up-on-news dimension of two leisure groups I belong to. No more spontaneous “guess what …”, “you won’t believe …” When these phrases are used, often the response is: “I know, I saw it on Facebook.” In one of these groups, I’m the only Facebook nonuser. Now someone has to remember to send me an email or SMS with date and venue changes. I begin to sense I’m a burden to the group.

Why object, when social media would make me a more acceptable person, would allow me to peek into people’s lives and instantly inform me of noteworthy incidents, put in me in the know, perhaps even give me new topics for conversation with other users I could call “friends” should I happen to meet them face to face?

Three simple reasons: one, listen to Edward Snowden – the CIA has access to every interaction on these platforms. My cynical side, though, assumes I’m more likely to be considered a suspect for not engaging transparently in these media. I evidently have something to hide, and the CIA will think it knows that too.

More indiscriminately though, every interaction is fed into the machinery of consumer profiling and commercial data mining, aimed at perfecting commodification, translating human desires into mass consumption. We need to ask why Microsoft Word recognises “Facebook” and “WhatsApp”, but still marks the word “commodify” with a red line.

This leads to the second reason: applications such as WhatsApp create a necessity for consumption of very particular phones. They are not a strategy to make our lives easier but rather to turn us into blind consumers of fairly expensive necessities.

As new apps hit the market, the previous range of gadgets becomes obsolete, fuelling capitalist extraction and expansion – from exploitative mining to toxic waste. The real profits are not reaped by buzzing cellphone outlets across the globe; the winners are large and increasingly anonymous multinational corporations and their shareholders competing for untapped markets.

Same as the car industry (in the absence of efficient public transport), but with one difference: I can get from A to B in my bottom-of-the-range second-hand vehicle and I have the same rights in the road network as someone driving the latest SUV. I can exercise choice in car consumption. But in the information network, the exclusions are determined by the phone I consume.

Third reason: I witnessed haunting scenes during a recent trip to Germany: restaurant tables with moms, dads and children of all ages. Each had an iPhone in hand, staring down. No conversation. Train compartments full of compulsively flipping index fingers, all eyes fixed on iPhone screens – no spontaneous exchange of words.

Were they all reading e-books, educating themselves, broadening their minds, corresponding meaningfully, scheming how to turn the world into a better place? Or were they hooked on the latest iPhone apps? Those large corporations have an easy task in penetrating a mostly middle-class country, whose trendy masses sport tattoos and the latest iPhones.

Back home in Jo’burg, we need to bridge divides and tackle inequality, but not so that we create a uniformity of trend-obsessed consumers.

Let’s get out into our streets and on to public transport – and talk.

Let’s not allow our fear of crime and the lure of instant communication to fuel the further penetration of corporate interests into the heart of community and interpersonal communication.

And let’s not allow those corporations to compile our profiles and blind us while feeding our fears and desires.

Marie Huchzermeyer lives in a neighbourhood on Johannesburg’s east-west axis

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Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer is an academic and public intellectual at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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