life online.

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I finally watched “The Social Network” last night. I’ve wanted to see it since it came out in theaters, but I waited patiently for it to go to DVD. I thought the plot seemed intriguing because I started college about a year after the site was created, but I was also intrigued by the production of the film and the overall visual quality. Plus I’m a big fan of Jesse Eisenberg.

First of all, I did find the movie to be fascinating. The evolution of the internet, specifically through social media platforms, is incredible. The rate at which our society propelled itself into virtual communication and online social environments is astounding. Throughout the movie, you periodically see the date at the bottom of the screen, showing just how quickly Facebook came into existence.

The most important message I got from the film can be summarized by this quote from Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” (Quote from imdb.com).

I don’t recall the main characters at any point in the film discussing the ramifications of the network they were creating. I’m sure it was difficult to summarize the beginning of Facebook in its entirety in 2 hours, but I wonder if Mark Zuckerburg and Eduardo Savarin ever considered what this leap would mean for our generation and our future. I suppose the quote above, if it portrays reality, indicates that there was some thought behind the transition.

Don’t get me wrong, I use Facebook frequently, but now I’m talking about the overall online experience. The internet has become a massive resource containing answers to virtually all of our problems. Search engines have played a huge part in this. Just yesterday, I Googled “replacing cup holder subaru forester” (I think my dilemma is pretty obvious) and the top results were discussion board conversations. Not only was it my instinct to search for this answer online, but the most relevant pages were online chats in which various people took part. This solution was incredibly convenient, but are there downsides to using the internet excessively? This was only a small, somewhat insignificant, example, but as a society are we fostering certain social inadequacies by “living” online?

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3 thoughts on “life online.

  1. Dave

    In a fascinating, bitingly insightful, and (in some ways) scary book, psychologist Kenneth Gergen is able to step away from the majority current and identify a number of serious issues with technologies such as online social networking. He begins by noting the presence of significant and substantial changes all throughout society on a number of levels.

    “To be sure, the fierce debate in the academic sphere is a ‘social indicator,’ pointing out the more general conditions of social life. But what explains the simultaneous upheaval within the two spheres? … As I hope to demonstrate, this massive increment in social stimulation – moving toward a state of saturation – sets the stage both for radical changes in our daily experiences of self and others and for an unbridled relativism within the academic sphere. … In effect, I argue that what is generally characterized as the postmodern condition within the culture is largely a by-product of the century’s technologies of social saturation.”

    In his introduction to the updated edition of “The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life,” Gergen again opposes popular perspectives and explains how there is a dark side to the proliferation of social networking and increased communication. He deftly perceives that while communication technologies offer us an ever-developing ability to connect with ever-expanding social networks, they also serve to lay the foundation for social barriers and social isolation. I again, unashamedly, quote Gergen at length:

    “Burgeoning technologies did pull us together, but I did not predict how they would also erect walls between people. There are two important ways in which this happens. First, in spite of limitless opportunities for enriching understanding, adding potentials, and cocreating new worlds through the expanding arena of relationship, many people seem to vastly prefer using these technologies to cement their relations with those who already share their ways of life. Certainly one can appreciate the sense of security and support to which such tendencies contribute. But the result has increasing become a dangerous distancing. When congregating with others who already share one’s realities and values, strong tendencies are unleashed for such groups to seal themselves off from the rest of the world, to develop a sense of a superior good, and to brand those outside the network as a problem if not downright evil. The technologies of saturation thus lend themselves to islands of self-righteousness in a sea of antagonism. … A second tendency toward isolation has also crept into consciousness since the first edition of the book.l It has to do with people for whom technology is a means of relating not to flesh and blood figures but to the imaginary beings produced by technology. These are the scarcely noticed denizens of a mediated world of television, film, magazines, radio, and novels. The socially saturated world of daily life is not easy to navigate. It can be hard to read others’ signals, or to gain a sense of security and acceptance. If you have a problem you may not find others helpful or nurturing; in a saturated world there is little time available for such luxuries. Thus, for a certain segment of the population it is imply easier to retreat into worlds that offer round-the-clock entertainment, beautiful and talented people, and a bevy of folks who seem to have your good interests at heart.
    This trend toward individual isolation has its sinister side. I recently had the opportunity to study the lives of a group of people who write threatening mail to celebrities. In several of these instances ‘celebrity stalkers’ succeeded in harming – even murdering – their targets. One of their most salient characteristics is that they are loners; they do not live in families, and they have few friends. Vast amounts of their time are consumed with following the media. The isolation that characterizes this population is not unlike that of serial killers and psychopaths. They live in techno-reality where there is no one with whom to construct a world of meaning, reality, and value. There is no one with whom to negotiate issues of expression and control, good and evil, and thus nothing to cement them to the world of common morality.”

    While social networking technologies like Facebook undoubtedly increase our relationships quantitatively, they are indifferent to determining the quality and character of those relationships (I think of Postman in “The End of Education” —-> “…at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living. Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since our politicians rarely speak of it, TECHNOLOGY IS INDIFFERENT TO IT, and our commerce despises it. Nonetheless, it is the weightiest and most important thing to write about.”). There is, I think, a gravely under-appreciated significant difference between the quality and quantity of things. Our culture (rooted in the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, both of which led to an emphasis on taming and understanding nature) values precision, certainty, predictability, and objectivity. Numbers (so it goes) give is those things. The structure of Facebook gives us that rigidity. Making a living (very quantifiable, in terms of income and material possessions) is vastly different than making a life (which includes such intangibles as character, virtue, values, passions, dreams, hopes, etc.).

    So while social networks can certainly enhance the quality of some relationships, such a positive effect is far from guaranteed and, given our propensity to see the quantitative aspects of a phenomenon over against the qualitative, I think we need to adopt a cautious attitude toward technologies that are billed as purveyors of an unqualified “better” life.

  2. Wow, such insightful information. I’m interested in reading more from Gergen, especially after reading the second block of text you quoted. I find the psychology of our draw to online living fascinating.
    Your point about making a living versus making a life is an important distinction and it is, as you said, gravely under-appreciated. I think this topic can lead to many more discussions, and I’m sure it will – thanks for sharing all of this information! I feel like every time we talk I add a new book or author to my reading list…

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