As I have immersed myself more into the world of social media, commenting on articles, the blogosphere there’s a very real attraction to it for me. I like putting ideas out there, I like being social, meeting people I never would have met. Overall I’m very positive about the way we communicate. Douglas Adams in a wonderful speech he gave (transcript here) talked about how humanity has made enormous leaps via, what he calls, the four ages of sand. Sand being made of silicon he outlines the 4 ages as:
1) Using silicon to make glass for the telescope
2) Using silicon to make glass for the microscope
These two allowed us to see the macro and micro universe around us.
3) The silicon chip. Computers with their ability to do many calculations quickly allowed us to model the process of how things work.
4) Silicon for fiber optics in the communication age.
Although of course at the time of the speech we didn’t use satellite as much as we do today, but there are still a lot of computer chips involved in those! The point is that Douglas Adams saw the power of being able to communicate with people remotely as a powerful tool.
Yet when we look at this great age where the world is being connected we tend to get overwhelmed by stories of social media addiction, the loss of time spent in the physical world, face to face communication, and some often harmful interaction.
It is this last one that is on my mind right now. I watched the interview recently with Jon Ronson on The Daily Show and he has a new book where he talks about internet shaming. One of the people he focuses on in his book is Justine Sacco. You may remember her, she was the one who made a joke tweet on her way to South Africa from Heathrow and from only having 170 followers to a landslide of people waiting to lambaste her at the end of her flight. His book looks at the history of shaming and what it means in todays day and age. He wrote a good piece in the New York Times if you don’t want to read the book. It’s a great article, long, but most definitely worth a read.
After years of using digital media for communication there are many challenges to overcome. I think that ultimately when you write things that people are going to read, you have to be a great writer. Without our physical gestures and voice intonation it’s easy for meaning to get lost. It’s easy for a joke to sound serious. It’s easy for well meaning advice or information to sound condescending. It’s easy for sincerity to be taken as sarcasm. But I was thinking that good writers are not so unambiguous and we pick up things like sarcasm and sincerity better. Maybe when we communicate through writing we need to think about how we say it more deeply before we do so. I think part of the illusion lies in the fact that we think we are actually having a conversation and try to type out things like we are, but in fact communicating through writing is not very much like a face to face conversation at all. Justine Sacco’s life was destroyed for making a joke to her few twitter followers, poking fun at white privilege and walked out of a plane into an absolute hellscape of a virtual mob who wanted her to hang. Someone on twitter was even there to take her picture as she walked off the plane.
This story also reminded me of recent events concerning the pizzeria owners who said they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. A friend of mine linked me an article about how we really don’t benefit from publicly shaming those owners regardless of how discriminatory and prejudiced their views might be. Seeing that those bigots had over $800,000 raised in their name infuriated me and I could feel the anger rise in me and wanted to join the mob of people shaming the for their views. Luckily it occurred to me that being upset and shaming bigots doesn’t really change anything and that it would be better to put goodness into the world instead and decided to set up a fundraising account for an LGBT youth group in Indiana that does a lot of good work in schools and for young members of the LGBT community.
It’s amazing how easily we can succumb to being part of “the mob” through digital media. I’ve been caught up in it and I am sure many who read this have as well. When you reflect on it, it’s an empty feeling though. You get to feel bold for being part of
a righteous fight, and yet remain anonymous in that sea of virtual people calling out for someone’s blood. This is the other facet of the age of the internet is that posting comments behind the veil of a computer screen, or smart phone screen is that we feel protected and thus we say and do things we wouldn’t normally do. Everybody is familiar with “trolls” and the divisiveness they cause with their comments. In the end best advice really is “don’t feed the trolls”, but someone always does and arguments ensue. I know for me the internet allows me to be bolder than I am perhaps in real life and while sometimes I think it helps me gain some additional confidence in myself, more often I just use the internet as a shield to give compliments and say things I am too shy to say in person. Too often I also find myself assuming a more negative intention in the comments of others because the internet is full of people saying things that I don’t think they would say to your face. It’s kind of like how drinking affects people. Some people become open and honest in a kind way, others become belligerent and mean. For me I feel that it’s something I have improved on and need to keep improving to be the man on the internet that I am in real life.
I am not down on the communication age, I just feel like we’ve invented an important bit of technology that we haven’t figured
out how to use to the best of its ability yet. I think that there are a lot of important ways that the internet can be used that our too valuable to ignore. We can learn about issues all over the world that can foster our love of humanity and can help us see that we do truly live in a global community. Social media was used to organize a revolution in Egypt to overthrow a terrible dictator (sorry Egypt it hasn’t gotten much better), when in the past there would have been no easy way to send the message to everybody simply through a land line. Social media has been used to bring things to the light that would have caused more harm. A video of cop shooting a man in the back, racist chants from a sorority in Oklahoma, a video of a NFL football player knocking out his wife (not really about exposing the football player, but how it helped exposed how the NFL organization tried to cover up evidence they had about the incident) are examples of how the sharing of certain information has value. But I think we owe it to ourselves to try and take ourselves away from the mob mentality. What if Justine Sacco had made her joke to your face. Even if you weren’t clear that it was a joke would have you ran down the halls calling her a racist? You probably would have just removed yourself from her social circle, but you could have also taken her aside and turned it into a teachable moment about why her joke might not be found as funny, or asked follow up questions to understand her intention. Shaming is a terrible thing and how many of us have made jokes or comments we regret? How many times have we been wrong in our attitude or thinking and needed a chance to learn from our mistakes to come out better on the other side? Doesn’t everybody deserve that chance? Is it necessary to traumatize somebody for a few thoughtless words? Let’s instead try turn negatives into positives. Let’s try to teach instead of shame. Let’s try to understand instead of judge. I am no saint in this area, but I’m going to keep trying, because the benefits of this communication age I think are enormous. It is our disconnection from each other that leads to fear and mistrust I believe, and we can know and understand so many more people and issues today than we could 30 years ago and I truly believe that the power of the internet can lead to a new golden age for humanity.
I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately. I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing. His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future. To me that
is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.
One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series. In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people. The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware. In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human. Robots do everything. Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need. It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding. And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.
Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more. While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact. Not overly different from today’s city life really.
Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted. We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival. Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance. As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people. The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained. It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.
In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street. Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well. I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past. I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it. As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet. I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship. Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face. Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?
And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways. I can still conduct
my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me. You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door. Banking and paying bills can be done on-line. As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher. And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary. Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others. The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be. Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.
For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species. Is it simply not part of our
mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities? Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man? Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it? What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others. In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way. Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way? Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.
If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more. But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace? Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen? I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder. It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.
For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance. I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂