We have already suggested, in an earlier installment of The Realtime Chronicles, that “that our new transcendentalism is one in which individual human operatives, acting in physical isolation as nodes on a network, achieve the unity of an efficient cybernetic system through the optimized exchange of parsimonious messages over a universal realtime bus.” To recapitulate: this idea draws on both (1) Norbert Wiener’s observation, in The Human Use of Human Beings, that
society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and … in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part
and (2) the following, more recent observation by Vanessa Grigoriadis, made in a 2009 article in New York magazine:
This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand. In a time of deep economic, political, and intergenerational despair, social cohesion is the only chance to save the day, and online social networks like Facebook are the best method available for reflecting—or perhaps inspiring—an aesthetic of unity.
There has long been, among a certain set of fussy Internet intellectuals, a sense of dissatisfaction with, if not outright hostility toward, Facebook’s decision to offer the masses a “Like” button for purposes of automated affiliation signaling without also offering a “Dislike” button for purposes of automated dis-affiliation signaling. This controversy, if that’s not too strong a word, bubbled up again recently when Good Morning America reported that Facebook “soon plans to roll out ways to better understand why you don’t like something in your News Feed.” This was immediately misconstrued, in the popular realtime media, to mean that Facebook was going to introduce some type of Dislike button. “We’re Getting Close to a Facebook ‘Dislike’ Button,” blurted Huffpo. Nonsense. All that our dominant supranational social network is doing is introducing a human-to-machine messaging system that will better enable the automated identification and eradication of offensive content. It’s just part of the necessary work of cleansing the stream of disturbing material that has the potential to disrupt the emerging “aesthetic of unity.”
The pro-Dislike crowd, in addition to being on the wrong side of history, don’t really understand the nature and functioning of the Like button. They believe it offers no choice, that it is a unitary decision mechanism, a switch forever stuck in the On position. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Like button, in actuality, provides us with a binary choice: one may click the button, or one may leave the button unclicked. The choice is not between Like and Dislike but rather between Like and Absence of Like, the latter being a catch-all category of non-affiliation encompassing not only Dislike but also Not Sure and No Opinion and Don’t Care and Ambivalent and Can’t Be Bothered and Not in the Mood to Deal with This at the Moment and I Hate Facebook — the whole panoply, in other words, of states of non-affiliation with particular things or beings. By presenting a clean binary choice — On/Off; True/False — the Like button serves the overarching goal of bringing human communication and machine communication into closer harmony. By encapsulating the ambiguities of affect and expression that plague the kludgy human brain and its messaging systems into a single “state” (Absence of Like), the Like button essentially rids us of these debilitating ambiguities and hence tightens our cohesion with machines and with one another.
Consider the mess that would be made if Facebook were to offer us both a Like and a Dislike button. We would no longer have a clean binary choice. We would have three choices: click the Like button, click the Dislike button, or leave both buttons unclicked. Such ternarity has no place in a binary system. And that’s the best-case scenario. Imagine if we were allowed to click both the Like and the Dislike button simultaneously, leaving our mind in some kind of non-discrete, non-machine-readable state. One doesn’t even want to contemplate the consequences. The whole system might well seize up. In short: the Like button provides us with a binary affiliation choice that rids affiliation of ambiguity and promotes the efficient operation of the cybernetic system underpinning and animating the social graph.
Isolating Dislike as a choice would also, as others have pointed out, have the problematic result of introducing negativity into the stream, hence muddying the waters in a way that would threaten the aesthetic of unity and perpetuate the “economic, political, and intergenerational despair” that accompanies active dis-affiliation. Here, too, we see the wisdom of folding the state of Dislike into the broader state of Absence of Like as a step toward the eventual eradication of the state of Dislike. Optimizing the cybernetic system is a process of diminishing the distinction between human information processing and machine information processing. So-called humanists may rebel, but they are slaves to the states of ambiguity and despair that are artifacts of a hopelessly flawed and convoluted system of internal and external messaging that predates the establishment of the universal realtime bus.
Photo of women programming ENIAC from OUP.