Can College Students Avoid the Social-Media Industrial Complex?

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Jonathan Franzen warns about our superficial, "like"-based economy, but recent and future graduates may have a hard time avoiding it

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Surprisingly often the New York Times will simultaneously publish articles in different sections, inadvertently commenting on each other's premises. Two pieces appeared on Sunday, a college commencement address by Jonathan Franzen in the Op-Ed section, and a feature about the younng men and women writing copy for the Web promotional service Groupon in Business Day.

Franzen contrasted the vulnerability of real personal relationships based on loving with the narcissism of gadgets and social networks based on (transitory) liking:

Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn't throw terrible scenes when it's replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

(The Onion covered this a year or two ago in its own style.)

Mr. Franzen was speaking about personal relationships and environmental commitments, not about careers. Yet it will be hard for these graduates to avoid likability as a way of life if the Times' other article reflects the lives of young people in the real economy.

Groupon's editorial side is a joke machine, grinding out affable patter (no puns or mother-in-law gags) as sugar coating for promotional offers: "The more you can laugh with Groupon, the more you will like it. Or so the company hopes."

But as Mr. Franzen noted, liking is not loving:

Restaurants have been overwhelmed by too-successful Groupons where they are forced to sell many meals too cheaply. Some question whether any of these customers ever come back for a full-price meal.

In the market for recent graduates, being a Groupon writer is a plum job. One editor previously was a kosher-pretzel salesman. Another worked in a kennel where at least one client shipped her sick dog to die out of sight.

So for college students, what's the alternative to social networking gigs? How can they avoid the system of liking? Mr. Franzen briefly mentions products that don't depend on consumers liking them, that stand on their own: "jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature."

The implications of this phrase are profound. Studying serious art and literature seems to lead to jobs like social network copy writing and designing. There are comparatively few professional positions for nature lovers, as Mr. Franzen now declares himself to be. What's left? Designing and building unglamorous machines. Engineering producer goods may be the last refuge of humanistic spirit. Because it doesn't require affability, because it uses tools to produce other tools judged only by their performance and value, might it be the profession with the best chances of freeing the soul?

Image: smemon87/Flickr.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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