At the post hoc retirement party given, literally, around my bed in the hospital suite as I lay there with a very acute case of some quickly multiplying cancerous orb at the base of my skull, one of the partners in my firm asked me what I wished to be known for as saying in my dying breath.
I have lived a long and rich life and, therefore, the question was asked more in a light-hearted way, in jest. We were having fun, eating cake. The bowl of punch had been mixed—out of sight of the nurses—with two bottles of vodka.
I told them that I would give my last words in the form of a story, if that was fine by them. They agreed that it most certainly was. I told them how many years earlier, over half a century, late in the year of two-thousand and thirteen, a case of intellectual property had been brought before me against Facebook. “Facebook was a popular social networking site at that time,” I said to a nearby group of junior partners. They laughed when I said that.
“We know Facebook, Harry!” they said.
Tom, one of these junior partners, said, “Yeah, and we know what compact discs are, too!”
After everyone had a good hearty chuckle over that, I told them of the letter from Mrs. Jansen’s estate that had arrived in an enclosed packet of old lesson plans and transparencies. “I bet you don’t know what transparencies are Tom, do you?” I said.
Again with the laughter. Everyone was clearly having a good time. They were pouring more of the punch.
The letter had been from Mrs. Jansen’s oldest grandchild Sylvia. In the letter, Sylvia explained how when going through her grandmother’s things after her death, she had found these enclosed classroom materials from an activity of her grandmother’s own invention. Calling it the Smiley Book Face, her grandmother had used the activity in her split second and third grade classrooms for a period of four years in the early 1980′s.
As Sylvia understood the activity from a few conversations with her grandmother when she was a girl, and from the materials her grandmother had left behind, each student had what Mrs. Jansen called his or her “profile picture.” These profile pictures had been laminated—Mrs. Jansen had a laminating machine in her classroom—and were felted in back so that they could be stuck to each student’s individual felt board. Mrs. Jansen asked the children when coming in first thing every morning to update their individual statuses by choosing a flannel word and corresponding facial expression from a basket near her desk.
As reward for good behavior or as motivation for completing their various assignments throughout the day, her students could change their profile pictures and status updates as often as they wished. There was a “friending” feature to the game, the details of which were unclear from at least the materials that Ms. Jansen left behind. But only when the students had established themselves as friends, however that happened, could they begin interacting with one another by way of the most popular liking feature.
In the letter, Sylvia had gone on to describe in great detail this part of the activity. Students could like other students for their handwriting or for their high scores on their arithmetic, artwork and spelling assignments, etc. When liking, students could also write comments to their peers with transparency markers on individual transparencies tacked to their felt boards. Students could unlike their fellow students, as well, especially if these latter students were disrupting the class.
One day when flipping through the documents, I found written at the bottom of one of the lesson plans in Mrs. Jansen’s impeccable handwriting: “The behaviorists were right: we are our brains.”
Perhaps lost on Sylvia, this cryptic note had been most intriguing for me. I had done my undergrad in psychology at Harvard (the Yale graduates in my hospital room playfully booed at the mention of Harvard) and had long been fascinated with that branch of psychology via Watson and Skinner based on the operant conditioning of rats. I gathered from my own research into this case, and my conversations with Sylvia, that the more the students had been liked, the more they had liked to participate in the activity and to find ways to get likes.
In her classroom experiment, Mrs. Jansen had learned or confirmed that children were nothing but rats, in a way, and could be guided toward certain behavioral responses, which had to do, primarily, with fulfilling her various lesson plan objectives. ”Your grandmother was brilliant,” I had said to Sylvia in one of our early phone conversations.
“Maybe, yes,” Sylvia said. “But the problem is that my grandmother herself was not well-liked.”
“But how could this be?”
Sylvia explained to me that her grandmother had terribly red, irritant and flakey eczema for most of her adult life. This eczema, coupled with an abnormally large rear end, had made her an easy target for insults. Students called her Mrs. Waddlebutt, for instance. Eventually this nickname wore at her. She was not a kind or friendly person. She was impossible to like.
Smiley Book Face ended, Sylvia told me, when one of the hold-back third-graders had drawn a picture of her grandmother as a dragon with eczema. I had seen this picture in the file of materials myself. It was well done and had gotten the most likes of anything ever posted to the flannel boards from the three previous years of the activity, according to a rough draft of the letter—also included in the file—from Mrs. Jansen to the boy’s parents.
Although the liking feature was taken away for a week, as detailed in the letter to this hyperactive boy’s parents, the activity eventually had to be suspended altogether. This happened sometime shortly after this same boy—a certain S. Sund (“don’t ask me how I remember his name,” I said to the partners, “but that was it”) —in lieu of liking, had begun “poking” and “tagging” the other children.
My problem as the attorney for this case was that aside from the ancient-looking quality of the lesson plans and overhead transparencies, there was no evidence, indeed, that they actually had been from the 1980′s. The only way, therefore, to establish the Smiley Book Face as a precursor to Facebook was to contact Mrs. Jansen’s former students. The firm was successful in reaching many of these students and although they were, for the most part, very cooperate and willing to talk, none of them were willing to testify under oath.
At this point in my story, I stopped talking.
“But I don’t get it!” Tom said. “What kind of encouraging last words are those?”
A couple of the others laughed again, but not with any vigor. They were waiting for me to go on. But for a moment, I could not. I glanced out the hospital window at the skyline of the city where I had spent most of my eighty-seven years of life, and yet suddenly it didn’t seem to me like I had lived there for a day.
After another, more awkward and extended period of silence, with only the faint hum from the machinery positioned around my bed, keeping me alive, I whispered, “The problem was just as Sylvia had foreseen. Though probably ahead of her time with Smiley Book Face, her grandmother, Mrs. Jansen, had died without friends, the worst possible thing.”