Monday, June 27, 2011

Long Live the New Flesh: Virtual Social Interaction

I remember my parents’ black rotary phone. As a rather introverted child of the ‘80s, I found it an ominous presence in the kitchen. Sandwiched between beige table top shelving on the left and an ever shifting stack of “stuff” on the right, it was never ignored if we were within earshot of its metallic drone. I was frequently asked to answer it. I hated being forced to talk to anyone, let alone a strange adult. But without an answering machine or caller ID, I had no choice. In my late teens I was working at a video store when “Dan,” a middle-aged, married neighbor of mine approached the register and bought an X-rated movie. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me - it was very awkward. Mostly for him. Experiences like these two seemingly innocuous examples of social adversity teach us valuable lessons. “Dan” won’t have to do that again, I thought to myself a few years later as online pornography was taking off. The internet in its infancy was a communication tool of the U.S. military. Networks like ARPANET in the 1960s allowed for limited data packet transfers across single network paths. Blips on a black screen.  As these networks became interconnected, they spawned discussion forums, or newsgroups, which led directly to contemporary social media.
In the aptly titled book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle examines our evolving relationship with technology.  Turkle suggests, “We’re using inanimate objects to convince ourselves that even when we’re alone, we feel together. And then when we’re with each other, we put ourselves in situations where we feel alone - constantly on our mobile devices”. She describes high-school students “who fear having to make a phone call, and elementary-school children who become distraught when their toy robot pets ‘die’”. Facebook, Twitter,and MySpace allow for real-time, full color virtual interaction. We used to have to answer that black rotary phone without knowing who would be on the other end. Now, with a few clicks and a touch of self-delusion, we’re able to withdraw from our physical reality. But escape it is not. From the moment you’re plugged in you’re inundated with stream after stream of stimuli: post on this blog, buy this product, accept this invitation, “like” this photo, tell us what you’re thinking, feeling, doing. The more we know, the more persuasive our targeted advertising will be! As Chuck Palahniuk writes, “Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing...holding your attention every moment you’re awake.... With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s on your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world”. You wake up and there’s a Tweet on your phone stating an attractive woman halfway around the world from you is enjoying a late breakfast of coffee and slightly stale glazed donuts. Ping!  She just posted a cute “self portrait” taken not 30 seconds prior. She is so hung over. You were so hung over last Thursday. IM her later. How did she become your virtual “friend”? You can’t remember. But her favorite movie is “The Notebook” and she’s upset her enlisted brother was just shipped off to South Korea. Such unprecedented connection, yet this stimulus rich realm dictates interactions have a certain cursory quality to them. Originally utilized as a communication tool for the Deaf, text messaging on cell phones is one of a multitude of addictive virtual phenomena that have skewed “our perceptions of intimacy and solitude”. As applied to contemporary dating, never before has so much casual physical gratification been achievable with so little effort. Feeling lonely?  No need for the potentially mortifying late night phone call. “Test the waters” with a text! Denied? Feign mistaken messaging!
Virtual networking has been cemented into many a daily routine. Are the relatively limited or socially challenging confines of our immediate physical reality by comparison becoming less appealing? Are our children doomed to develop stunted social skills immersed in such an omni prescient and addictive alternate reality? How destructive would a “Google Bomb” be if detonated in a populated area? In the parlance of our times, lol. Consider each successive generation of technologically advanced youth: do they not seem more disenfranchised, more collectivist, more infected with a pervasive sense of entitlement than the last?  Certainly teenagers have always been malcontented and dependant upon the acceptance of their peers. But today these traits are developing unchecked and are more frequently manifesting in adults. Virtual social interaction has revealed an irresistible conduit for our natural desires and subsequently amplified them to unnatural levels. Filmmaker David Cronenberg writes, “Technology is us...there is no separation. Technology is a sheer expression of human creative will. And if at times it’s dangerous or threatening, it’s because in us we have things that are dangerous and self-destructive and threatening”. The subject of Cronenberg’s 1999 film “eXistenZ is an organic virtual reality game made from tissue, proteins and chromosomes. The device taps into a person’s nervous system and subconscious through a surgically implanted port at the base of the spine. Is this the future our children are headed for? Robots, cloning, and the internet are all examples of science fiction evolving into science fact. Faced with so much information and opportunity, the potential intellectual growth of our society seems equaled only by our ability to approach everything as rabid consumers. Consider as well the amount of personal or infrastructural information that’s readily available online. In 2009, Nielsen research suggested that online social activity around the world was up 82% with an estimated 300 million users. Given the right circumstances, we would be at the mercy of anyone able to use this technology against us. Turkle writes, “To me, opening up a conversation about rethinking the Net, privacy, and civil society is not backward-looking nostalgia in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining it’s sacred spaces”.
There are many positive aspects to virtual social interaction - not the least of which is the ability to stay connected with loved ones across great distances. But as with the whole of technology, positive effects should not dictate we ignore all the inherent problems. Parents and educators should refocus on inspiring not appeasing children. Illustrate that technology is a powerful tool that must be used with discipline. In the home, implement small but firm steps like social media free nights.  Encourage more introspective time. Prayer or meditation contributes hugely to self discipline. In the classroom, utilize the internet to research current events, social media to amass a critical consensus, and open dialogue to approach issues from different sides. Challenge kids to be individuals and to understand opposing viewpoints.
Are we Tweeting our experiences rather than living them? I understand the desire to share, to seek peer approval. But if a tree falls in the forest, it does indeed make a sound. So many people are schizophrenic inhabitants of digital microcosms: they function simultaneously as celebrity and paparazzi. Let’s take a step back and get reacquainted with our analog existences.        

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