From Eccentric Flower
So, this line of thinking began when I was reading an essay by Jan Chipchase today, of which this may not have been his actual thesis, but which certainly is the main point I took away:
I am not disputing Chipchase's point above - far from it! - but merely suggesting that he doesn't take it far enough. Chipchase, I gather, is peripatetic - possibly not by choice; his job and his lifestyle essentially force him to be highly invested in mobile computing whether he likes it or not. But he doesn't seem particularly unhappy with being forced-mobile, or one assumes he wouldn't be doing it. The thing is, because he is looking at this from the mobile-lifestyle standpoint, he throws up a few warning signs about ubiquity of connectivity without bothering to properly make the case for the fixed-position lifestyle, without ever really mustering up much of a defense for not being fully networked.
(He might, with justification, say that was out of scope for what he was trying to say in that particular essay, and I will agree that's valid.)
Still, this wouldn't make an essay, and it was about to not be one, until I also - by sheer coincidence - the same day read a story from the Boston Phoenix about the sociological aspects behind the rise and popularity of Starbucks, the coffee chain.
Now, this may seem like a sudden left turn, but bear with me. The period of the chain's most rapid growth (I typed "rabid" there first and had to correct myself), the 15 or so years "from the dawning of the Clinton administration to the gloaming of the Bush regime," were a success for the chain because they gave the public something very specific that it craved:
Starbucks succeeded because it invented a "third place," a locale that is neither work nor home where people can gather. (At this, I note wryly, I consider it an advancement over what was classically the "third place" until fairly late in American history: the church.)
But that "third place" was/is flawed:
In other words, Starbucks appears to cater to people who are desperate for an external hub to decrease their social isolation ... but in practice it increases their isolation, by separating them from the unpleasant parts of the real world, the idea that it's necessary sometimes (and even positive) to interact with people who don't necessarily look like what they see in the mirror. Starbucks actually puts up fences while acting as if it is taking them down. The drive that made Starbucks possible was "the replacement of civic society," but Starbucks in no way acted to bring civic society back.
I don't mean to single out Starbucks for sole attention. They are no worse, and in some ways better, than a number of other similar phenomena. The point is that I see this trend again and again - where we are given a new phenomenon which promises to increase and improve interhuman interaction, but instead tends to have a very severe hidden pitfall of one kind or another.
I am no psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, or anything really - but I am a keen observer, and what I observe of people's interactions tends to closely match this multilayered model of various "circles," each a superset of the one before it.
Please stop and read that article. I will wait here.
OK. So here's the thing. I believe we form into natural, almost tribal units about the size of what that author describes as the Emotional Circle. This is how we clump - in macro social units of around 300 people. The Dunbar theory would make that clump about half that size - about the size of the Trust Circle - but the Dunbar theory was based on primatology and relatively primitive social groups, not a modern, highly networked, highly urbanized environment.
What I see in the use and expansion of extremely mobile, constant-connectivity technology is an ongoing attempt to expand the limits of the Trust Circle to meet the size of the Emotional Circle; and, in extreme cases, to ask/expect inhabitants of your personal Trust Circle to act as if they are members of your Sympathy Circle; and in the absolute worst cases, to push the boundaries of your personal Support Circle out to the size of a Sympathy Circle or beyond.
In short, what I see from the way a lot of people appear to be using constant-connectivity tech is to allow themselves to indulge in the notion that they can get support from more people than they actually can; that they have more close friends than they actually do; that their social circle is bigger than it actually is.
Constant connectivity promotes multiple misapprehensions. It promotes the idea not just that you are of interest to the world all the time, but the idea that the world is of interest to you (or, at least, should be of interest to you) all the time. Both are equally seductive ideas, for different reasons. Both are equally dangerous.
It is a tempting myth to believe that one can exist as a citizen of the world, constantly in motion, no fixed location, and yet maintain all one's emotional and social ties in various places without any decline, decay or downside. We would all like to believe we can juggle eight balls at once, and constant connectivity gives us the means to believe that lie, but in truth most of us can't really juggle at all.
Meanwhile, while we are giving into the lure of being able to have chats as if we really know each other with our friends in Tokyo or feeling as if we really understand the sensation of being a protestor on the ground because of the tweets we've seen from Iran - while we are succumbing to these falsehoods - we increasingly neglect to tend our own fields at home.
Neighborhoods everywhere are dying. Civic involvement at the small level is practically moribund. The same people who stay inside and keep their Twitter feed and their news feeds up all day long are the people who have never taken the trouble to find out who their neighbors are or who neglect to do the upkeep on their personal relationships in their own Sympathy Circle and sometimes even their Support Circle. They're avoiding or forgetting to do the basic maintenance.
The thing is, real-world interactions are messy and take effort and are sometimes a little frightening and may involve pain. They may be with people who don't look like what you see in the mirror every morning. They may not go the way you'd like. They may make you feel uncomfortable. Online interactions are much neater and cleaner, and if they turn out not to go the way we'd prefer, dismissing them is as easy as a Block or Unfriend button somewhere. But those online interactions, tempting as they are, are intrinsically shallow.
I'm not saying it's not possible for an online interaction to develop into something genuine. It has happened before and it will happen again. It may even happen a whole lot. Nor am I arguing against online interaction as a blanket rule - that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am saying: Moderation, moderation in all things, and don't trust what looks so tempting. A great deal of it is a lie, and cannot possibly deliver what you hope it will.
I believe in fixed-point computing. I operate heavily at two computers: One I sit in front of all day at work, and one I sit in front of all night at home. I do not attempt to communicate with the electronic world outside those two computers. There are no communications with the electronic world I feel strongly I need to receive when I am on the toilet or in the subway or waiting for something or having lunch or walking home or even sitting watching television downstairs, where the computer is not. I simply can't imagine very much that is so important that I need to know it so urgently or so constantly.
I carry a cell phone for the sole benefit of the one person who is both entitled and may have reason to be in contact with me twenty-four hours a day. I am married to her. There is no one else entitled to call me at three o'clock in the morning for any reason, not even a medical emergency (not that their medical emergencies aren't serious and valid, it's just, why would the person they call be me?) I think there are a whole lot of people who overestimate the size of that circle (let's call it the 24/7 Cell Phone Circle). For most people that circle is not going to be any bigger than the Support Circle (three to five people) and for many of them it is probably 1-2 people. Yet it seems like many people are secretly self-flattering, wanting to believe that that number is larger than it actually is.
The benefit of connected vs. disconnected compartmentalization goes far beyond Luddite drives (although I will admit I have those sometimes). I think it is psychologically good to be able to say, "OK, I'm going to not look at the electronic world for a while now," and mean it. There comes a time when you need to go take a walk in the park or build something or just go stare at the stars, and I am increasingly suspicious that my peers don't do this nearly often enough.
Oh, believe me, I understand the lure. Almost all my recreational activity these days is conducted on the computer. I have a friend I talk to nearly every night while playing multiplayer online games with her, and when we don't get that contact, we both miss it. I only recently adopted Twitter and I'm rather fond of it. But I see through it. For all the good parts of constant online availability - and I don't argue there aren't plenty of good parts - there are also plenty of dangers, and we need, collectively, to be more aware of them. When one is gallivanting with tempting online friends and shiny objects all over the electronic world, what is one neglecting in the real world, the physical world? Ask that. Ask it more often. Ask it a lot.
The final issue with constant connectivity is that it is a double-edged sword. There are a handful of people who have been arguing this for years (Bruce Schneier comes most readily to mind). In general, the people in this camp grew up in, or were heavily influenced by, a time in the 1960's when it was sound policy never to trust the government to act benignly in anything. Hippie paranoia can easily be overdone, but it should not be discounted. Too many people these days are still far too blithe about their privacy.
I work and play these days with a lot of people who are very enthusiastic about matters of geolocation, geotagging, and GPS information. These people are innocent in their drives, for the most part: They just think it is keen to have data that enables them to Know Where Stuff Is. I am a certified cartography fiend. I understand the appeal. I like Knowing Where Stuff Is too - very much. But the fact remains that I was reluctant to take even so tiny a step as geolocating my Flickr photographs. The problem is one of analysis. I don't like saying in public where I work; it has a chilling effect on my words. I certainly don't want anyone knowing where I live. Both of these drives to conceal are, I think, sane and obvious. But if you had full access to the geotags of my Flickr photos, you could deduce where I worked and where I lived, from the probability clouds, simply because I take more pictures where I work and where I live than anywhere else. I don't like that. I don't think it's unreasonable to dislike that.
(As it happens, I have tagged a great number of my photos, because Flickr has sanely provided the option to make tag knowledge private on an individual/lockable basis. I mention this to show that it can be done right fairly easily, and to show that I'm not arguing prohibition, just care and concern.)
There are people who are, in essence, making the argument for complete openness: When we have all bared everything, there will be no security or privacy concerns, because no one will have anything to hide and we will all dance happily together in the flowers tra-la. There are others who are arguing basically in favor of openness-with-wider-protections: We don't like you having the ability to lock information at your own behest, because that is the sort of tool The Enemy uses, but we do advocate broad protections to keep anyone from misusing the data. This strikes me as only slightly less naive and impractical than the tra-la camp.
Any data I have, I must have the ability to control who sees it. To me, this seems an absolute and sensible rule. Unfortunately this rule is nowhere close to being a reality, and this just increases the importance of being able to temporarily opt out of the system entirely whenever one likes. Your cell phone insists on calling the mothership every so often? Turn that puppy off. Take its battery out if you have to.
Point is, it's often difficult enough to maintain some semblance of privacy in this world without having to deal with the gung-ho types who see no problem with their movements and activities being a matter of public broadcast 24/7. If we could train those people to step away from the computer every so often, or that once in a while it actually might be useful and beneficial not to post your location or status data - that sometimes information blackouts are just as useful as information access - then we'd have a much easier fight getting privacy during the times when it's really necessary. As it stands now, some people who would make the best and strongest privacy advocates are, in essence, subverted by their own conflicting desires to have an Internet Drip 24/7 in a pulmonary vein.
I can understand that desire. But it's a bad idea.