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I’ve been away from my beloved blog here for so long, I feel as though I should sing a chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

But I’ll spare you.

My primary academic interest is examining the ways we create and recreate our lives in virtual spaces. I come from the point of view that technology like a hammer or saw;  fantastically useful tools that someone can decide to pick up and use as an implant of construction or destruction. It’s not the tool, its the end user.

Virtually every new communication technology from the alphabet (Thank you Nancy Baym for that great quote from Plato!)* to the airplane (because you do realize that transportation is a type of communication tool, right?) to the Internet has been decried as that thing that will make our society dystopic, make our society utopic, make us smarter, make us dumber, foster connections between people, drive us farther apart. And someone will always proclaim that it somehow makes us less human and our youths sex mad, .

Poppycock and Balderdash.

This is why I disagree with authors like Robert Putnam and Sherry Turkel. Yes I think society has changed, but I think it was and is still doing just that: changing.  Every age has its affordances and constraints from its technology, but technology is just the tool, not the determiner of the world we live in.

That is completely up to us.

Anyway, for the uninitiated among you, xkcd is a thrice weekly web comic written by Randall Munroe.  It is funny, highly geeky, and at times head scratchy. A few days ago, he absolutely nailed how ridiculous the moral ( and every other) panic associated with technology is.

(BTW: if you are not familiar with the comic, I suggest checking it out. It’s great!)

* In her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym quotes Socrates’ warning‘, by way of Plato,  that the creation of an alphabet that allowed people to write instead of extemporaneously orate would make us all dullards. Makes me chuckle every time. 

(Link to this comic: http://xkcd.com/1289/)

xkcd Simple Answers

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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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I stumbled on this via on of the Twitter feeds I follow (Barry Wellman or danah boyd maybe?) and found it an amusing trip in a time machine.

January, 1983, Time Magazine declared that the personal computer was Time’s Machine of the Year for 1982 (beating out, among others, Steve Jobs). They stated that 4 million Americans were online, which was about 1.7% of the population. By 1995, the year of this PSA, Internet adoption was still only 14% (The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Internet Adoption 1995-2012). Rereading the articles from that 1983  issue of Time,  it showed that the landscape of computer users was a place that was predominantly white, male, economically advantaged and technologically elite[i]. The majority of people they spoke with saw computers as becoming as ubiquitous any other households appliance but it doesn’t seem that they saw it as a replacement for their media sources such the radio, TV, etc.

By 1995, a personal computer was still primarily an information tool, an electronic manifestation on Vannevar Bush’s memex; a replacement for the family typewriter; and a novel (and economical) way to instantaneously communicate asynchronously across town or across the globe.  However,  the script for this PSA projected that by the time these 10 year olds were in college (2003-2004ish) the Internet would be the TV, phone, shopping mall and workplace.

I see this as bolstering Tim Berners-Lee’s expressed opinion that the term Web 2.0 was jargon and that the whole purpose of the World Wide Web[ii] from the beginning was to be a collaborative space that facilitated human interconnectivity.   In 2005, he said about blogging (perhaps the poster child of Web 2.0), “Every person who used the web had the ability to write something. It was very easy to make a new web page and comment on what somebody else had written, which is very much what blogging is about”. That people saw the Internet as place to connect socially, professionally and commercially would have been no surprise to Berners-Lee.

I got online back in 1991 and I recall that my social circle was amused that my sister and I (she had gotten on the Internet about 4-6 months before me) had home computers. The most common question I got was, “what do you do with it?” Email and productivity software was common in the workplace and that was how I primarily used it at home: sending email to one of the few people I knew online, following a few Usenet groups, writing, doing some work from home.

At the time this time this PSA was made, I think I had already moved from CompuServe to AOL (or was about to)[iii]. Amazon.com came online in 1995 but was still just a book seller. Classmates.com also came online that year (which I would cite as being *the* FaceBook). Sixdegrees.com, which I would peg as the first social networking site most of us today  would recognize as such, would launch the following year, 1996, but sputter out before the turn of the century. YouTube was still a decade away as was Facebook (and guess who was a 5th grader back in 1995?).

However, as prescient as the writer of this PSA was (the YouTube description give the name Cindy Gaffney), the Internet was still seen as a tool, a service provider that built on existing existing communication tools. However the fruits of these predictions were there but in their infancy.

  • There were rudimentary phone services (I can’t remember the name but I remember reading about it when I bought a modem, I’m sure it was expensive, complicated to implement and that the quality was poor);
  • There was online retail. Amazon’s 1995 start date was quickly followed up by EBay in 1996.
  • There were brief animations on the Internet. I can’t remember the exact year but I think the Hamster Dance and the Dancing Baby came out around 1997ish. It took a critical mass of Broadband users to make high quality videos (and by extension Internet television) viable[iv].
  • As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I got a computer was so that I could work on extra projects at home. I didn’t have the authorization to upload material directly onto the organization’s server but I could work, save it to a floppy disc and bring it to work with me. The introduction of laptops increased this activity.

The function not explicitly predicted in the video is the Internet as a virtual agora and major role it’s played in the maintenance of social network ties: blogging and social networks sites.

The action of blogging is older than the term, that should come as no surprise to anyone reading this. I remember that some of the earliest personal sites on the WWW were crude versions of what most of us would call a blog: updates on a person’s activity, his (or less commonly her) thoughts and ideas. Some may have had pictures. I’m not sure that anyone realized how much so many of us had to say. In addition,blogging has served the very important function of providing a focal point for societal subgroups and outliers to coalesce around and form their own communities.

While you can build a case for predicting using the Internet for a telephone as a tool for maintaining social network ties, social networking sites have taken it far beyond that. It’s more than being able to shoot an email to a good friend after you’ve moved out of the neighborhood. You can still maintain a level of involvement in each others lives that wasn’t possible before through (a) more frequent incidental interaction, (b) exchanging pictures and videos of important private and public local events (sometimes within less than 5 minutes of an event occurring). So while they might live 1000 miles away, they can see video of their daughter’s 7th birthday party or and annual block party. You can also get to know their friends more easily because you are all sitting in a virtual room together conversing with your common acquaintance.

I’m not sure if anyone predicted this 15 years ago (If anyone reading this knows of anything like this please let me know, I would love to read it).
Finally a few other oldies but goodies:

This is an AOL commercial from about the same time as the PSA above (195)

This is a news segment about high tech gifts for Father’s Day. (I don’t know what I know this but the “Dad” in this piece is Mike Jerrick.)

The First World Wide Webpage

References

boyd, d. (2012). Danah boyd’s twitter account. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from https://twitter.com/zephoria

Bush, V. (1945, July). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly,

Friedrich, O. (2003, January 3). The computer moves in. Time Magazine,

Laningham, Scott (podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks).developerWorks interviews: Tim berners-lee (audio podcast)

Pew Internet & American Life Project. (2012). Internet adoption 1995-2011. (). Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Wellman, B. (2012). Barry wellman’s twitter account. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from https://twitter.com/barrywellman


[i] Although this wasn’t the Internet, I remember using WordPerfect in the late 80s and early 90s. Formatting involved remembering a function key combinations and being able to troubleshoot a document that didn’t look right involved interpreting the code associated with your document. And computers were not cheap. My first computer cost $2100 in 1991. As point of reference, my current desktop, which has the largest hard drive available when I bought it last year, ran about $1200 in 2011 (about $770 in 1991 dollars).

[ii] For context, when I refer to the Internet, I’m talking about the tool that grew out of Arpnet, into academic institutions at large and then to the general public: the interconnected computer networks that connects us through computers, smartphones, tablets, etc. There were several protocols by which a user could connect to the Internet, the most popular one is the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is a term that a lot of laypeople use interchangeably with the Internet. While the Internet allowed us to connect, the World Wide Web enabled hypertext, one click links within a document that navigated the user to another document with related information, and multimedia. Web browsers, from Mosaic to Firefox to Chrome, provided a graphical user interface that which made the WWW more accessible to users who were not as technologically adept as the Internet pioneers. Going onto the Internet became less like reading a book on a screen and more like reading a colorful magazine that may also include sound and moving pictures.

 [iii] In the mid 90s, AOL put on a full court press to get subscribers. In order to used the service you needed the floppy disc (later a CD Rom) with the software to get you online and set up. This media was *everywhere* they would blanket mail neighborhoods, put the discs in magazines, I even remember my local library having a display with the dreaded discs (I suspect they made contributions to public libraries for that sort of access). New subscribers for 10 free hours of AOL access. Back then, they charged you by the hour for access. AOL didn’t go to a flat fee service until Oct 1996 (Wikipedia: AOL)

 [iv] I wonder about the role of Saturday Night Live and music videos in creating fertile ground for the “VidClip Culture” (I should probably add Sesame Street here since I’ve read in a couple of places that Sesame Street was one of the inspirations for the MTV style of short, fast bits of motion, sound, color and music). Do any media scholars have thoughts on this?

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