In every time and place, people have associated new technologies with moral decline. “Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce,” Henry David Thoreau griped in 1854, “and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour… but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.” Similar anxieties have greeted most subsequent inventions, from the automobile to the iPhone: We’re always teetering on the brink of baboondom, always one technological leap away from forfeiting our humanity.
Sometimes, though, the pessimists are right to worry. Technology really does affect character. Cultures do change from era to era, sometimes for the worse. Particular vices can be encouraged by particular innovations, and thrive in the new worlds that they create.
In the sad case of Representative Anthony Weiner’s virtual adultery, the Internet era’s defining vice has been thrown into sharp relief. It isn’t lust or smut or infidelity, though online life encourages all three. It’s a desperate, adolescent narcissism.
The idea that modern America is in thrall to self-regard dates back to the 1970s, when writers like Tom Wolfe and Christopher Lasch famously critiqued the excesses of what Wolfe dubbed the “me decade.” But a growing body of research suggests that American self-involvement is actually reaching an apogee in the age of Facebook and Twitter. According to a variety of sociologists (San Diego State’s Jean Twenge, Notre Dame’s Christian Smith, and others), younger Americans are more self-absorbed, less empathetic and hungrier for approbation than earlier generations – and these trends seem to have accelerated as Internet culture has ripened. The rituals of social media, it seems, make status-seekers and exhibitionists of us all.
At 46, Weiner isn’t technically a member of Generation Facebook, but he’s
clearly a well-habituated creature of the online social world. The fact that he used the Internet’s freedoms to violate his marriage vows isn’t particularly noteworthy. That’s just the usual Spitzer-Schwarzenegger routine performed on a virtual plane. What’s more striking is the form his dalliances took – not a private surrender to lust or ardor, but a pathetic quest for quasipublic validation.
In all the tweets and transcripts that have leaked to date, there’s no sign that Weiner was particularly interested in the women he communicated with – not as human beings, certainly, but not really even as lust objects either. His “partners” existed less to titillate him than to hold up mirrors to his own vanity: whether the congressman was tweeting photos of his upper body or bragging about what lurked below, his focus was always squarely on himself. If Bill Clinton was seduced by a flash of Monica Lewinsky’s thong, Weiner seems to have been led into temptation primarily by the desire to boast about his own endowments.
In this sense, his tweeted chest shots are more telling than the explicitly pornographic photos that followed. There was a time when fame and influence were supposed to liberate men from such adolescent insecurity. When Henry Kissinger boasted about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac, the whole point was that he didn’t have to worry about his pecs and glutes while, say, wooing the former Bond girl Jill St. John.
Not so in the age of social media.