“What do you mean ‘it knows who you are’?”
“It can tell who’s who in photos.” Indeed, tagging someone in a photo was the height of social media sophistication in 2007. And so I signed up to Facebook, partly to appease her and partly because the prospect of reconnecting with high school acquaintances and keeping in touch with the American guy I pashed in Mykonos somehow seemed appealing. But then many things seemed appealing in 2007.
Look, I don’t want to be that person, OK! You know, that annoying person with a haughty sense of moral foreboding who shakes their head knowingly, sighs and says, “it was a simpler time back then”, but (shakes head knowingly, sighs) it was a simpler time back then. I wasn’t anxious!
Well, that’s not entirely true. I was anxious. I was anxious about whether the French guy on level two found me appealing, I was anxious about handing in my university assignments on time, I was anxious about how much it cost to get my clothes laundered but I wasn’t anxious about … everything. And now I am.
For a good few years, I thought I was overreacting, that I had made up the feeling of heaviness in my chest but it turns out the Germans have a word for it because, of course, they do: weltschmerz, a feeling of weariness about the world. This is what I have. This, I suspect, is what we all have.
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change,” writes Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. The 2010s felt like a series of great and sudden changes, of immense disruption, of death and rebirth. We watched as new technologies brought down once giant industries.
We watched as seas rose and skies fell, as hunters were hunted, as new kings were crowned. We watched as the tides turned in ways we could never have imagined.
If someone had told me then what Facebook would be like now – aka the data thieving, ad-selling, election-influencing, politically polarising, stat-manipulating public arm of a voluntary surveillance state, I would have politely declined to involve myself! My cousin’s words, once filled with promise have turned sinister. Facebook: it knows who you are!
Yes, I worry about the climate. I worry about the panopticon of social media and the way it bastardises conversation. I worry about automation. I worry about the gig-economy and the two-tier class system it begets. I worry about house prices. I worry about rising populism. I worry about tech giants selling my data to pharmaceutical companies. I worry about Siri listening to my conversations. I worry that Trump says things he doesn’t mean and means things he doesn’t say.
My cousin’s words, once filled with promise have turned sinister. Facebook: it knows who you are!
I worry about my complicity, my impotence. I worry about my future now in a way I couldn’t have fathomed that day in 2007 as I guzzled French Gatorade and discussed the inconveniences of snow with my cousin on Messenger.
So, what to do?
I went to a Catholic school run by the Sisters of St Joseph, the order started by Australia’s only saint, Mary MacKillop. Mary MacKillop, we were told every assembly, had a mantra: you can’t do everything. You can’t do nothing. But you can do something.
I can’t say I’ve thought too much about Mary MacKillop in the ensuing decades since leaving high school (I’m a heathen, see) except for perhaps in these last few months where it became difficult to breathe in every sense of the word; where the burden to act felt too heavy that I could only do nothing.
I’ve thought about those words in particular: You can’t do everything. You can’t do nothing. But you can do something. They’ve given me a quiet, resolute hope. A grounding of sorts. A way to make me less weary about the world, less weltschmerz-y!
Maybe it’s the pragmatist in me but I find power and strength in doing and when you don’t know what to do because you feel there’s nothing you can do, do … something. It’s the only thing you can do.
Now to figure out what that something is.
Jacqueline Maley is on leave.
Jan Fran is an Australian journalist and presenter.