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Archive for May, 2013

The dichotomy of the virtual world versus the real world is a lie.

Now that I have your attention, let me explain.

There are no longer two separate spheres of existence. Activity online has become more ubiquitous, commonplace. There is only one real world and online interactions are just one of the many stages we perform upon within it. It has become another venue in the same way we in habit other spaces such as out home or the bowling alley or school.

Nancy Baym, Microsoft Research principal researcher and author of Personal Connections in the Digital Age is an active tweeter. Recently, she tweeted a link to an article about by Paul Miller about what happened when he decided to unplug from the Internet for a year.

Talk about unexpected consequences.

The second sentence in his essay is, “One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.” This statement isn’t shocking, we’ve heard people say variations of this before. What is more telling is his first sentence,

I was wrong”.

Why his experience didn’t work out the way he thought it would is played out in this passage, “I drew her [his young niece] a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.”

Internet I

He made a mistake that all but doomed his experience to end with a feeling of desolate isolation as opposed to the  feeling of freedom he was thinking. When he illustrated the Internet for his niece, he showed it the way an IT person might, a network of various bits of electronica connected by cords and cables.

But the Internet is far more than that. A more accurate depiction would have been a network of all of the family, friends, and acquaintances in his life linked together by lines of varying thicknesses. Some lines might be doubled or tripled, and maybe even different colors.

The Internet isn’t about computers and smartphone and tablets; it’s about people and how we connect with each other. It’s about the myriad types of relationships we can initiate and maintain with keystrokes, images and sound. It’s about who we contact and why we contact them

Internet II

At the end of the day, the Internet is about people and their process of using the technology to connect, not that machines that facilitate the act of connecting. This is true whether you are talking about the alphabet, train travel or email.and  how often; it’s about how close we are to them and what methods we use to contact them

Miller’s experiment ties back to a tweet that Baym posted later on, “So important to study old media because otherwise we think everything is new and we are historically special. That’s me talking.”

In the same way that living without a phone is hard for most of us in the First and Second worlds to imagine, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine life without connection through the internet: email, social networking sites, message boards, etc. While Miller initially enjoyed things he felt he was missing, he ultimately found that he was engaging in the same behaviors he blamed on the Internet. He stopped leaving the house and would passively watch TV all day. Without tools such as Skype, email and Twitter, he began to feel the social disconnect that would occur for many of us if our Internet access was cut off.

The lesson learned is that while the hardware is new, the attitudes and behaviors are the same. From the alphabet to television people expressed concerns about how a particular communication technology was going to degrade the quality of our relationships and civilization  itself.

What Paul Miller discovered is that once a new technology becomes integrated into society it becomes enmeshed in the fabric of our relationships. It is the rejection of new communication technologies that can have a negative impact on our ability to be fully present in the lives of those we know and love, not new technologies.

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