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Time’s limp reasoning

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Jesse Eisenberg looks better than the character he plays in The Social Network

Time Magazine is a quaint little publication these days.  Since its historical function as a compiler of news highlights was consigned to the dustbin marked “analog”, it has survived primarily as a kind of zeitgeist encapsulator.  In this sense, the annual Person of the Year issue has gained even greater importance to Time’s business than it was back when people actually paid for the magazine.  It is their biggest opportunity to remind the (mainly) English-speaking world of their ongoing relevance, however tenuous.

This year, they have gone for Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.  This seems, on its face at least, a decent choice.  Certainly, Facebook is a revolutionary business that has come to signify great and profound cultural, technological and economic shifts.  Time previously recognized Web 2.0 by naming “You” as its 2006 Person of the Year, so you could argue that they have already dined at this table, but that would be quibbling.

If there’s one thing Time has got right over the years, it is the ambitious, epoch-defining essay — a genre about which Nancy Gibb conducted a masterclass in the aftermath of 9-11. On a normal day, we value heroism because it is uncommon,”  she wrote the day after the attack, “on Sept. 11, we valued heroism because it was everywhere.”

That’s what makes the lame and dreary essay Time published to defend its decision to tap Zuckberberg so disappointing.

When I heard that Zuckerberg had pipped the hot favorite, Julian Assange, I looked forward to reading Time’s reasoning.  I imagined that they had decided this year, as opposed to 2009 or 2008, because 2010 is when Facebook really stepped it up in terms of competing with Google to dominate content as well as relationships on the Web.  But the Time essay doesn’t even touch on this point; instead, it is a fairly boilerplate rant about the power of social networking, something the could have been written years ago (and was, ad nauseum):

Evolutionary biologists suggest there is a correlation between the size of the cerebral neocortex and the number of social relationships a primate species can have. Humans have the largest neocortex and the widest social circle — about 150, according to the scientist Robin Dunbar. Dunbar’s number — 150 — also happens to mirror the average number of friends people have on Facebook. Because of airplanes and telephones and now social media, human beings touch the lives of vastly more people than did our ancestors, who might have encountered only 150 people in their lifetime. Now the possibility of connection is accelerating at an extraordinary pace. As the great biologist E.O. Wilson says, “We’re in uncharted territory.”

That paragraph is the antithesis of its final sentiment: it is extremely well-charted territory.  Rarely have such humdrum ideas been expressed as blandly.

And how about this honking example of rhetorical overreach from later in the same essay?

Like two of our runners-up this year, Julian Assange and the Tea Party, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a whole lot of veneration for traditional authority.

The Tea Party doesn’t venerate traditional authority?

Ahem.

Pause.

Excuse me?

Pause.

THE TEA PARTY VENERATES THE SHIT OUT OF TRADITIONAL AUTHORITY.  THEY EXIST PURELY IN REACTION TO THE PERCEIVED DECLINE OF TRADITIONAL AUTHORITY, SYMBOLIZED BY A PROGRESSIVE BLACK PRESIDENT.  IF TRADITIONAL AUTHORITY REMAINED ASCENDANT, THERE WOULD BE NO TEA PARTY.

And…relax.

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