Information Soup

We talk about providing access to everyone —  the life-sustaining basics like clean water, air, food, health care. But we also provide community access to information, and that includes electronic access.

Joshua Meryowitz discusses the homongenizing effects of such unfettered access to electronic information and experience. He suggests that because the electronic information and experience is available to most people, regardless of demographic and geographic lines, we have come to believe in a broader yet shallower definition of ourselves.

To me, this is another way to look at information overload. Because we have access to a seemingly infinite amount of information, we value our access to it more than we actually process and digest the information itself. In a similar way, we value the overarching commonalities we have with people halfway across the globe more than the unique characteristics that make us individuals. Jason Lanier warned against this thinking as well. He suggested that electronically, people are considered merely a part of some sort of information soup, where everyone’s the data and information simmers together, and then is ladled back into spoons and called an identity.

I’ve always believed that leveling the playing field is way to promote the ideas and contributions of people who might not otherwise have their voices heard. But now it seems that we can’t hear anything of substance above the (electronic) cacophony.

It is certainly important to find broad connections to each other as humans, but it’s equally imperative to find out and celebrate what makes each person unique. So we need to learn when to be still and quiet. We need to learn to stop filling electronic space with words and images just because we can. We need to try to first understand ourselves outside of technology before our identities are comprised of a compilation of electronic bits.

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The Reinvention of Intimacy

“Intimacy without privacy reinvents what intimacy means.”

Sherry Turkle explores this concept among adolescents – one facet of this research seems to suggest that teenagers avoid intimacy in favor of being in control. Buffered by their mobile media, many teens feel that they can control their friendships and their image best by texting, Facebook, IM, and email instead of answering a phone call or having a potentially awkward face-to-face conversation. In fact, Turkle says that for teenagers, what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet. No one will “call you out” (I assume she means in real life) on the truth of what you say online or on Facebook.

At the same time, it seems that people are craving the very intimacy they are losing through technology. Consider the millions of people who log on to confessional web sites, where they can anonymously divulge their most personal secrets. These secrets have the ability to reach “everyone,” yet they are directed at no one. Perhaps because the confessions are not without fear of judgment (others can log in and make comments) users may feel they are being vulnerable. I agree that vulnerability is one part of intimacy, but only a part. To me, these confessional sites reveal desperation for true relationships; and further, the false sense of intimacy perpetuates the myth that technology can facilitate true human connection.

I believe that true intimacy involves vulnerability, mystery – and the ability to surrender and allow for mistakes. Distracted by sights, smells, sounds, we try to articulate our feelings to another person – and we may trip on our words or be betrayed by our body language. We gauge what kind of physical space we will share with another person, and this physical proximity makes a statement.

If we are not held accountable for our words or actions — to our friends on Facebook or to strangers on a confessional site — how can we expect to build trust, the foundation for intimacy? In spite of and because of our human nature we are able to experience moments of connection when someone puts a reassuring hand on our shoulder; we feel the pain of rejection when someone can’t quite meet our gaze; we can even feel true joy simply sitting side by side in silence.

Turkle says that venting our feelings comes to feel like sharing them, which reduces our expectations of people and increases our expectations of what technology can do for us.
Technology has created a society of distracted users who find it difficult to concentrate on one concept for very long. Is technology truncating our emotions as well? Will technology also eclipse our intimacies, reduce deepest feelings to Facebook posts and text messages to be processed and then crossed-off our “to do” lists? People may feel like they’ve accomplished something after posting to a confessional web site or ranting a frustration on Facebook, but the truth is that the difficult psychological work has yet to be done.

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Hunting and Gathering

I have been thinking about the degree to which I depend on technology – and further, how this dependence has changed the way I think.

In the past ten years, my mental processes have changed quite a bit. When I consider how simple things like making a grocery list or deciding on a movie become events to plan and research, I realize that I have lost the ability to trust my instincts. Do I want green apples or red? If I’m not sure what sounds good, I don’t think about it for a while, or even just make an easy 50-50 decision – I look to technology. I can research which apples are healthier, or which are cheaper, or which will make the best pies. I’m positive the banality of this decision is given time and importance it doesn’t deserve. What I’m not sure about is why I continue to behave this way – do I want to be distracted from my thoughts, fears, obligations, or does this behavior provide me with some other mental “reward” that I’m not even conscious of?

Nicolas Carr suggests that we have reverted from an intellectual civic society back to hunters and gatherers — of electronic data. This analogy suggests a primal state, where people’s very lives depended on successful hunting and gathering. I don’t want to believe that my existence is as dependent on the hunting and gathering of information as my ancestors’ lives were on hunting and gathering for food.

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Out of the Loop

I’ve been thinking about my feelings of being “out of the loop” after the class conversation a few days ago. Because there is so much information from so many sources, available in so many media, I have “opted out” of keeping up with pop culture. As I lamented how this sometimes puts me out of the loop in casual conversation, one classmate made the astute comment that that there is no “one loop” anymore.

People have always sought friendships in people with similar interests and values, but now where you exist on the social hierarchy is determined by what “loops” you pay attention to. For example, if I were to use msn.com to get my news and information, I would probably find no social currency in common with my colleague who gets her news and information wired.com.

Furthermore, people can hone in on very specific news and information from a variety of sources, almost to the point of becoming an expert. Though I do appreciate the opportunity to research and understand more about the topics I care about and ignore the things I’m not interested in, this pattern seems to be fractious, leading society back to village mentality. By this I mean that instead of being part of mass culture, people find niches, or villages, where they can live and associate with similar kinds of people.
Committing to a village, while at the same time feeling pressures and expectations of mass culture creates stress for me. In Laws of Media, Marshall and Eric McLuhan refer to this phenomenon as chaos — and they blame the juxtaposition of linear, left-hemisphere societal context with the all-at-once right-hemisphere electric technology:

“The paradox today is that the ground of the latest Western technologies is electronic and simultaneous, and thus is structurally right-hemisphere and ‘Oriental’ and oral in its nature and effects. . . the overwhelming pattern of procedures in the Western world remains lineal, sequential, and connected in political and legal institutions, and also in education and commerce, but not in entertainment or art. A formula for complete chaos!”

Where does this leave the mindful citizen, who wants the benefits of emerging technology without losing the connections of shared social currency?

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On Efficiency

If efficiency is what drives us – and drives the introduction of new technology into culture – it is worth asking why efficiency has become the most important goal. The inventions of the Industrial Revolution and Frederick Taylor’s organizational techniques sought to streamline labor, of course to the benefit of capitalist society. But perhaps efficiency was also perceived as a way confine work to a specific realm in order to provide people with more leisure time, what we call “free” time — to be human, to engage in relationships, to pursue intellectual thought.

A technological determinist would say that technology created the notion of leisure time – that the clock itself carved out slots of time for specific tasks — but a social constructivist would argue that humans place value on efficiency of labor in order to have more freedom in their personal lives. In other words, that humans created the clock because they wanted a way to understand and categorize divisions of labor and leisure.

Far beyond steam engines, we now have technology like smart phones. Do we text, IM, and email our friends because the technology has afforded us the leisure of doing so at our own convenience, unconstrained by location or activity? Or do we communicate with friends through technology because it is more efficient than meeting in person, because we want more leisure time to pursue other interests?  As people use their smart phones at work to communicate with friends, and at home to conduct business, the line between labor and leisure increasingly blurs. Instead of increasing efficiency, are we enslaved to it?

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Technological Trade-Off

According to Neil Postman, technological change is a trade-off.  Though he does acknowledge that when a new technology is admitted to a culture, the culture needs to have its eyes wide open, Postman doesn’t give any advice on how to do so. Understanding the history of how US culture became a “technopoly” may provide insight, but there are no hard-and-fast rules for weighing the advantages and disadvantages of any given technology in advance.

I agree with Postman’s assessment, and the importance of understanding the culmination of technopoly, but I am frustrated by my lack of power to do anything about it. There are always groups who “opt out” of a given technology, but there is the fear of cultural irrelevance. There are also people who strive to understand technology, as if to conquer its mysteries and gain power over it; these are the people who seem most enslaved.

At this point in my life, I believe I am somewhere in the middle: I use some technology in order to simplify and streamline my life, but I don’t search out technology to help with every issue I face. I’m not constantly attached to my computer or cell phone, but I’m never too far from them, either. Perhaps it would be beneficial to consider how my own life might be shaped to fit the requirements of technology.

–          I have three different types of cell phone chargers, and I’ve had to buy a bigger purse to accommodate both my phone and the chargers.

–          My husband and I have an “emergency rule.” In an emergency, if you call the other person and he/she does not answer, don’t leave a message, but immediately call back a second time. We have both broken this rule so many times for trivial matters that the whole construct of a quick second phone call has been rendered useless. If there was a true emergency, I would need to text, IM, email, and call my husband to convey true alarm.

–          I no longer wear a watch (and I rarely see anyone who does!). My cell provides the most accurate time.

–          I don’t go to the library to peruse for books. Instead, I either email, text, or IM friends and ask for book recommendations or I go online and do some research before I go. (I do not own an e-book reader – all my books have pages!)

–          However, I have not used a single hard copy book from GVSU’s library as a source for my graduate papers. I have found everything I need online, including some books, which were available on google scholar.

–          I text and email more than I talk on the phone.

The list could go on, but the last point really has me thinking. I am an extrovert, a talker, a people-lover — so I have surprised even myself by how often I text, IM, or email instead of pick up the phone. (Of course I am aware that the telephone is also a technological substitution for face-to-face communication, but that piece of technology has always been a part of my life.) Why? Is there something gratifying in being able to send off a thought, and place the responsibility on someone else? Am I afraid of being stuck on the phone too long? What will I miss? (Someone else’s text message, probably!) Have I begun to prefer writing over talking?

Perhaps I should consider the trade-offs. Theoretically, spending less time on the phone affords me more time to do other things. In reality, I probably spend just as much time texting, IMing, or emailing – though I am communicating shorter pieces of information to more people, and more often.  But spending less time talking on the phone reduces the possibility of serendipity, deep conversations, perhaps important questions. Furthermore, the technological limitations of texting and IMing mean that my communication is short, my grammar and spelling not always correct, and my meaning mostly superficial. And yet I believe that short, but frequent text-based communication can strengthen a relationship. A few years ago, my husband and I would try to connect every day via telephone over our lunch hour. Now, we text and IM briefly throughout the day. It helps us feel connected, and provides us with a way to say “Hey. I’m here for you” or “I love you” or “You will do great in your meeting.” Nuanced? Not hardly, but this kind of communication has made our marriage stronger.

In this case, for right now, the positive impact outweighs the negative. If that changes, I hope I have enough perspective to be able to change my behavior —  and the strength to unplug.

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