Eccentric Flower:200912/Fugue

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Fugue

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:

Ten years ago we made a conscious effort to connect. Today, if you’re an urban dweller in a city like London, New York or like me, living here in Tokyo you probably make a conscious effort to disconnect. For many of you reading this fully disconnecting is no longer a viable option or at the very least a deeply discomforting one - so ingrained are communication technologies in our daily life.

[Emphasis his.]

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:

That explosive growth coincided neatly, he argues, with a fundamental transformation of post-Reagan American culture: "the near wholesale replacement of civic society by a rapacious consumer society." More than ever, Simon writes, we were living in an era where buying stuff offered "an expression of longing, a source of entertainment, a strategy for mood management, and a form of symbolic communication about class and social standing."

Starbucks was all too happy to try to fulfill those aspirational desires. Simon correctly pegs that frothy coffee as an "affordable luxury," and quotes one regular who described the place thusly: "successful people go there."

Meanwhile, he writes, there were more fundamental changes afoot in how Americans lived and work:

The go-go lifestyles of stock analysts, drug company reps, and suburban moms translated into chronic sleep deprivation and an ever-present need for sugary, caffeine-laced pick-me-ups and a place to go between business meetings, sales calls, and errands. With more people traveling, working from home, and telecommuting, fewer people had offices, but they, too, needed a clean and predictable place to meet and talk. At the same time, affordable laptops and the Internet made it easy for chemistry students, short-story writers, and middle managers to take their work with them, wherever they went, including the coffee shop.

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:

"One of the things that Starbucks was really good at was creating a predictable space," says Simon. "By using the price filter to narrow out the poor, by locating [stores] in primarily white middle-class neighborhoods, they sort of managed diversity."

That gets at another, "more fundamental point about the nature of America," says Simon. "We're only really willing to gather when we know that the people there are going to be relatively similar to us. What Starbucks did is manage who goes there. You make the product cost enough that only the people who can afford it will go there . . . [and] you only locate where the people you want are actually gonna be."

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.



<< older | © 2009 columbina | newer >>




Jette:

"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 ..."

Ahem. My husband and I are active on Twitter and Facebook. He is running for president of our neighborhood assn next year and I ran the neighborhood garage sale. In addition, he is on a city commission about technology and meets regularly with a variety of people on related issues. We know who our neighbors are and sometimes we even invite some of them over. So I don't think it's as simple as you are stating.

Obligatory "this reminds me of a movie" moment: You might want to see "Up in the Air," which deals with some of these issues in some ways. Also, there is George Clooney, and the movie would not work half so well without him. And Vera Farmiga too.

-- 21:31, 10 December 2009 (GMT)


Columbina:

Now, now, I didn't say it was an absolute. (And I don't think your counterevidence disproves my thesis.)

And I have decided I really won't be able to sit through that movie, as good as Clooney is in it. I suspect the earnest young ponytailed ball-busting executive lady will make me insane.

-- 21:33, 10 December 2009 (GMT)


Columbina:

Actually, an addendum: I think, based on my knowledge of you, that the drives that have led you and your husband to community involvement would have existed regardless of the information technology. The technology may have helped facilitate that drive (and I've not argued that it can't be a tool for good as well as for evil), but it didn't create it.

I stand by my idea, based on observation: There are a lot of people in my peer group who find it easier to establish online interactions with people they think are "their people" than to have interactions outside their door with real people they may find more challenging to interact with. Again, the technology is not intrinsically evil, but here it acts as insulator - by opening up a universe of connections electronically, it ironically has the power to blind people to real connections locally.

If you do not feel that you are getting that insulating effect from your electronic interactions, more power to you! (But you are also not necessarily 24/7 connected, either, nor do I sense you've ever felt a burning need to be.)

-- 21:53, 10 December 2009 (GMT)


Jette:

As someone who lives in Texas, I find it dangerous to be too insulated. I don't want to be one of those people who thinks that Austin is nothing but geeks and high-techies and bleeding-heart liberals. There are many people in my neighborhood who don't have computers at all, who have computers but check their email once a week, who are upset about people like me moving into their neighborhood and driving up property values and using a computer instead of phoning and opposing a nice convenient Wal-Mart where they could easily grocery shop. Movie critics wonder who the hell could possibly like the recent "A Christmas Carol" -- well, my famiily members, and probably some of my neighbors. The Wal-Mart lovers and Garfield 2 lovers are real people, and one thing Chip and I have found from getting to know our neighbors better in the past two years is that they are people just like the rest of us, and we often enjoy talking to them and working with them, rabid football fans and computer-less little old ladies alike.

The earnest chick in "Up in the Air" grows on you after awhile and she's not the focus of the movie. I've seen it twice, it's got a nice old-fashioned feel. (Although why I"m not strenuously persuading you to see "Me and Orson Welles" instead is beyond me ... I think you'd like it better, and Zac Efron is not annoying.) But, um, this isn't a thread about movies, is it?

-- 22:30, 10 December 2009 (GMT)


Columbina:

Actually most of the reviews I read were surprisingly positive about A Christmas Carol.

Reason I am tempted to see Me and Orson Welles: Christian McKay.

Reasons I am not tempted to see it: Zac Efron and Richard Linklater.

-- 23:27, 10 December 2009 (GMT)


Bunny42:

I freely admit to not knowing my neighbors, except for two or three, and I've been in this house for over 20 years. My late husband knew everybody and could be seen conversing with 'em all the time. He was a people person by nature. I am not. It can be that simple.

Nor do I have any social networks except Live Journal, and that one only for a year or so. I'm constantly wondering (idly) how it is that I can communicate with total strangers in a forum such as this, on aspects of my nature that I don't usually talk about at all. I wouldn't even be here, had I not followed you here from LJ. You have an interesting and diverse group of readers/friends, and I enjoy the commentary every bit as much as the articles themselves. But even then, I'm mostly lurking. I appreciate our acquaintance on many levels. And, from what I've seen, I'd rather palaver with you and your circle than with most of my neighbors. I find that intriguing, but don't try very hard to analyze it. I figure it's just my nature. I'm a third category, that's why I bring it up at all.

Once in a while, the sheer weight and volume of today's social networking is abruptly brought to my attention. Sitting in the movie theater, Star Trek, I think it was, I was appalled at the number of tiny glowing screens all around me, as the teens sat texting one another. During the movie! Texting? About what, pray tell. It's a whole new world, out there. I begin to feel like my grandma.

-- 14:44, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


Mrissa:

When one of our neighbors at the end of the circle went into the hospital, the rest of the circle used their CaringBridge site and e-mail to coordinate who was making them what food when.

The next door neighbor, in addition to stopping by to ask people to the neighborhood ice cream social she was throwing, put it on her FB page.

Probably we behave like this so that we don't eat each other in case of a blizzard. Still.

-- 16:36, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


Lisa:

The localvore and farming movements are really active on Twitter. If your baler just broke, it's going to take someone very local to help you out. I had three people within 25 miles offer to help when I got a flat tire on the tractor and Frank wasn't home.

-- 16:47, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


Columbina:

And these are both good and shining stories, nor would I detract from them. But note: These are cases of online connections improving ties to the real-world neighborhood, the physical contacts, you already have. You're not making the mistake of assuming that just because you are in contact with all kinds of cool people all over the world, they will be willing or able to act as a support network. You are being wise enough to make and preserve the distinction between online people and the real people you can depend upon. That's all I'm asking, is for people to keep that distinction clear and use common sense. Clearly you have mastered this. Some people have not.

My point is that there's an illusion of closeness here. I cannot provide in-person emotional support to Mrissa, much as I'd like to, because I simply can't - it is a physical impossibility. Email and electronic support are nice things, but they aren't the same, and if you think they can serve the same functions, you're setting yourself up for a rude shock. There are going to be times in life when you're going to need to look around for actual, in-person physical support - and I don't care how many people are in your friends list, they will avail you not. Similarly, if Lisa has a crisis on the farm and needs help - well, she can call me on the phone and I'll dart up readily, but for some crises that is not fast enough, as she notes - and if I'm not fast enough two hours away, what good is someone in Norway going to be except for advice?

You know, it's a funny thing: I think that the longer and more carefully I make my point, the stronger the point is - but I find that often the longer I make it the more it vanishes (apologies to you all, but I really am becoming convinced that I lose everyone after about the first three hundred words).

So here's an executive summary, AKA the TLDR version:
1. Real physical support network good.
2. Online virtual support network also good.
3. Don't confuse the two.
4. Lots of people seem, in my observations, to be confusing the two.


-- 17:14, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


ProfRobert:

A couple of things: 1) (And I don't think you'll disagree with this), the internet and electronic networks are tools, nothing more, nothing less. In competent hands, they can be a real boon to creating and maintaining a network at any of the levels described in the article you linked to. In incompetent hands, they can be used to isolate or self-delude. I gather your argument reduces to some extent to "most people are incompetent, and these tools allow them to self-delude themselves even more than in the days of yore." But I file that under "people are gonna do what they're gonna do," or as Yogi says, "If people don't want to go there, no one's gonna stop them."

2) What do you do with a major category in my life: People I've met IRL first, but who live far away? I'm thinking about people I met in college and law school -- people who were at the time very good friends, and whom I still consider to be very good friends, even though we see each other in person once a year or even less. We stay in touch by e-mail, basically, and without that, it's be down to a holiday card a year (assuming I could ever get my act together to do the cards). Did those friendship -- which stretch more than 20 years back -- suddenly not become as "real" (or whatever word you want to use) or become more illusory because we happen to live in different states?

3) I'm not going to bore you with anecdotes about how I know several of my neighbors, and how we have a community -- including a mailing list -- through which we plan the annual street fair and potluck because you'll correctly dismiss that as anecdotal. But there it is.

4) I've said before and will say again that the internet, and your journal in particular, has introduced me to a bunch of wonderfully fascinating people, some of whom, like Jette and Mrissa, I've met in IRL a couple of times, and others, like Bunny, whom I know only from here and LJ. And let me tell you, completely unexpectedly, after my father died, Bunny sent me a long, thoughtful, kind note -- the kind of note that *I* would try to send under reverse circumstances. What made it really great was I read it, and I thought, "Yeah, she gets it." I don't think I have to explain to you that having someone who "gets it" is a key element to feeling you have support from that person.

So in summary, we're talking about a tool -- admittedly a powerful one -- that people can use or abuse just like any other. No new signs of the apocalypse that I can see here.

-- 17:53, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


Columbina:

I was not heralding the apocalypse. I was calling for caution and discretion.

An ancillary discussion to this - one which I've been venting about in short bursts elsewhere today - is that, in general, my peer group is SO technology-positive that when I point out the bad sides to technology and advise caution, everyone reacts as if I am calling for ashes and sackcloth.

Several people have made the "the technology is only a tool" point, which is a little annoying, because I felt I made that SAME point fairly directly and obviously in the essay above (in more than one place!) - so if people missed that entirely it means either I'm not being lucid or the reader isn't paying attention, and either conclusion is unpleasant to me.

-- 18:40, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


ProfRobert:

That's why I started out point 1 with "And I think you'll agree with this").

-- 19:16, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


Columbina:

True that.

-- 19:26, 11 December 2009 (GMT)


Danima:

I feel like weighing in on Columbine's cautionary side of this, but my thoughts are rushed, disorganized, and just a shade personal. TL;DW (too long; didn't write): I refer in ftf conversation to people I interact with online as my "fake internet friends" as a necessary (and inconsistently effective) prophylactic.

-- 00:32, 12 December 2009 (GMT)


Ursula:

We actively avoid our neighbors because, in a relatively yuppie/hippie LA neighborhood, we have somehow managed to be surrounded by gun-toting aggro hillbillies with WHITE BOY stickers on their cartoonishly oversized trucks. A nest got established next door, and then a whole colony built up around it. I wish we could be MORE insulated, frankly. There's no escaping these people.

I don't know if this sympathy circle business was meant to apply to me at all or if you had somebody else in mind, but while I have always appreciated whatever kind thoughts I've gotten from the ol' "flist", I've made it pretty clear that I don't write my rants seeking people to send me e-hugs. Sometimes I'm hoping for some sort of advice, and I'll ask for it. But often I'm just spouting off because I just sort of have to. My head gets swelled up with bad stuff, and it's gotta come out. People are free to read it or not.

Where I get angry with people is when there is no response, of any kind, to anything. When I write something I know actually doesn't suck, and I don't hear a freakin' peep. That makes me realize just how much I've been wasting my time. (And then I get a flurry of responses on something else, and it confuses the hell outta me.)

This business of sympathy circles and support circles sounds a lot more complicated than what I'm seeking online, frankly. I keep things on a certain level with my friends list, and will pull back if somebody is trying to get too close. I really don't expect anything more than I'd be willing to give. Somebody I know online writes something interesting, I comment. If their dog dies or something, I express sympathy. I don't think it needs to get any more complicated than that, and if I've done that stuff for people often enough and then they're not returning the favor, I don't feel out of line accusing them of mule ball suckerage.


-- 06:55, 12 December 2009 (GMT)

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