Monday, September 15, 2008

Connective Tubes

Hey y'all,

I'm working on a lay service on technology. The specific topic I'm going to be speaking on is the ways technology brings us together and connects us. Yes, I know some people isolate themselves with technology*. I plan to sort of address that, yet I have been repeatedly struck by how the computer and the cell phone have been two of the most revolutionary technologies in recent memory and they are both fundamentally about bringing people together.

When I was a kid, the Chalicemom casually mentioned that once you got out of high school, you pretty much never saw your high school friends again. The inconvenience of mail and the cost of long distance made that simply the way things were when she was a young adult. By the time I was in high school, everybody had e-mail and I did keep in touch with a fair number of people. Now Facebook has brought me back in touch with even more of them. And calling plans abound where you pay a flat amount per month and can use all the long distance you want. How has it changed us that losing people when we move is now a choice we make rather than a reality we are forced to face?

A good friend of mine is in contact with his Mom every single day on Yahoo messenger. He keeps it on pretty much all day and she can message him, one assumes, anytime she needs something or even if she's just lonely. (Though I'm sure he says "can't chat now Mom, gotta work" if she messages at a bad time.) He genuinely thinks it's great to be in such constant contact with his mother. That said, not all of us would be unreservedly delighted to be in that situation.

How about being able to find people who believe or enjoy the same things you do with a few keystrokes on google? How about being able to blog and kick ideas around just as I'm doing here? What's the personal and spiritual upshot of all of this connection?

Mostly, I think it's all about having more choices and I think it's great.

But I'm still thinking through this stuff and fleshing it out.

Any ideas? Any questions for me on these topics? Any thoughts on the spiritual dimension of these connections?



*I tend to think those folks would isolate themselves anyway, just another way, though. The world didn't lack for isolated people before technology, after all. If anything, it's better for isolated folks to be having suboptimal contact on the internet than to be reading books or working on model trains or something all day and have none at all.


LinguistFriend said...

One initial objection, to wit, against the term "technology", which is not properly synonymous to computers. Most of the people who use the term in the sense of computers would not know a transistor (the base of computers) if they saw one. Earlier more people had an idea of how the devices around them worked. Now fewer of them do, so your connections depend on magic, so far as individual comprehension of their basis is concerned. End of sermon.

Chalicechick said...

Do you think people not knowing how the things around them work is significant to their worldview?

Most of us don't know how lots of things in nature work. How is this different?


PG said...

Have you read the recent Times article about the effect of this connectivity? For a Times lifestyle piece, I thought it was reasonably accurate. (I live and work in midtown Manhattan and I find most of their lifestyle stuff to be absurd -- "who are these people?")

The connectivity with people we already know is pretty much always good. The connectivity with strangers is more of a mixed bag; people are willing to be more angry, aggressive, etc. when they haven't met you IRL. This isn't just on political sites and such either; I got a really nasty e-mail from an eBay seller when I gave him a negative and stated honestly that he had failed to send the item on time and had charged me $10 in shipping for a magazine, yet refused to provide a tracking number that would prove he had sent it on time. The nature of eBay constrained my ability to provide much nuance; I would have liked to give him a rating somewhere between "neutral" and "negative" (since I did ultimately get the item), and would have explained the transaction further but ran out of characters. So he's angry and sends a poisonous little email about what a horrible person I am.

epilonious said...

Good things about the proliferation of communications technology:
* Reconnection (old friends, teachers, family, etc) for no extra money.
* Organizational bliss (We're all going to this restaurant, here is the address and a link to the Google map and here is their menu...)
* full scale, so you have your "I hafta talk to you right this second" cellphone and your "here is a note for when you get around to reading it" email.

Bad things about the proliferation of communications tech:
* Stalking, Libel, and Slander are just that much easier.
* DramaLlama feeds on your angst.
* Not enough time in the day, and sometimes you really do just need to be alone for a bit. Nowadays if you cut off all communication for 24 hours without some sort of notice posted weeks before hand, people think you died.

LinguistFriend said...

Up to about the the 1950s and 19060s, many people learned something about mechanics and electricity by being able to fix their car. More recently, people learn how to operate computer-based devices by learning rituals, some of which have a logical structure. That is a regression towards a view that the world is operated by verbal magic, so that one affects the world by verbal rituals rather than using hands and reasoning. Put those two different groups on a desert island, and the group which is not oriented to how things work on a simple level is more vulnerable.

Chalicechick said...

LF, I am seriously skeptical of that on several levels.

I think most of us do a lot of both. I recall being a kid and taking the lid off of the back of the toilet and instantly seeing how it worked and that if I reconnected the little chain to the bar attached to the handle, the thing would flush.

I assume kids today still do that. Even if we're not fixing cars, I think the line of thinking is still available to us.

Also, I can't say I would be awesome on a desert island, but I would propose that my husband, who is surely a wizard at the computer's verbal magic, would be better than almost anyone else I know once he adjusted to the conditions.


Joel Monka said...

LF- I can flake a flint to a cutting edge, start a fire with a bow, use both bow and sling, and field dress a rabbit or deer, so the ability to fix a car doesn't impress me as a survival skill on a desert island.

CC- My first experiences with this electronic connectivity were with BBSes, and I'm not sure it's a stretch to say it saved my life. It's an odd dichotomy... I became cloes enough with some of them for them to worry about me, and yet because they were not face to face, it was easier for them to suggest counseling than it might have been for someone I was seeing all the time. And then, of course, there's the factor of meeting my wife online. Again, that dichotomy- I would not have met her without the electronic forum, and yet because BBSes were limited to one area code, it was still a small community, made smaller by the fact that there much fewer people online in the days of C-prompts and hayes commands.

I found in both romance and forums online that I was forced to be much more precise in my thinking and writing without vocal cues, body language, or any other subliminal clues to how people were reacting to my words.

Chalicechick said...

PG, that was fascinating and right was I was looking for.

Thanks Epilonious! I loved the "organizational bliss" point. I do that all the time when I'm hosting an event.

Joel, good point about it being easier to talk to people about some things. I think that's kind of the silver lining on PG's point about it being easier to irrationally insult people.


LinguistFriend said...

I certainly concede that people who know both ways of functioning are the best off. The CSO would do very well on a desert island (I had thought of that). People with hunting skills are well off, but those with some knowledge of mechanics can reinvent those specific skills and others. My students who just look things up with computers are useless and don't learn how to think. Probably the most fortunate live on farms where they do get an idea how things work.
I like your idea about the toilet. One I was at a meeting at Yale medical school, with mostly MDs, and the men's toilet mechanism was broken, so the bathroom stank. MDs and researchers went in, did their business, and came out, commenting on the non-functioning of the toilet. When my turn came, I took the top off like you, and fixed it easily. When I told an MIT engineer friend (now a researcher at Cambridge University) about it, he was amused, indicating that I demonstrated a practical instrumentation orientation typical of where I was trained scientifically (Iowa).

Anonymous said...

Another aspect to online communications is how easy it can be to totally reinvent yourself in the online world vs. your in-person personality. Many people are way more outgoing online than they would be to your face, particularly in the area of meeting new people. And then there are people who feel no qualms about ripping a person apart online, when they (probably) wouldn't use the same degree of vitriol in person.

I think internet communication can do great things for connecting people, but it can also dehumanize us to a degree. There's something about the relative anonymity to being limited to words on the screen that makes it very possible to forget that there is an actual *person* on the receiving end. How many people dash off an email barb in a fit of pique, without bothering to reread it before hitting "send?"

And on the other side, I think it's easier to cultivate a false sense of intimacy online than in person, as far as getting to know someone -- or thinking you know someone. I know I have very specific pictures in my head of how some of my blogger-friends are in person, pictures that have little basis in reality beyond what they chose to display on the internet. And I've seen I can't count how many people who have gotten burned in online romances, when the person they thought they knew through a chat room was someone else entirely.

All this to say that I think technology, specifically internet communication, is a double edged sword, and that I find great value in the nuances of in-person communication that get lost so easily through the media of FaceBook, blogs, email, etc.

Sounds like an interesting service, that's for sure!

Robin Edgar said...

"If anything, it's better for isolated folks to be having suboptimal contact on the internet than to be reading books or working on model trains or something all day and have none at all."

Then again "isolated folks", or not so isolated folks, can be playing with suboptimal model trains on the internet. . . ;-)

Anonymous said...

And I've seen I can't count how many people who have gotten burned in online romances, when the person they thought they knew through a chat room was someone else entirely.

This happens in real life too. How people present themselves when they are trying to impress you is often pretty different from how they are when they relax. Plus, how people think they are is often very different from how they really are. For example, the two most judgmental people I know are the two who say most often that they are not judgmental.

Anonymous said...

When you move to a new city and you spend lots of time using technology to stay connected to your family and friends in your hometown, do you have as much time to "act locally" in the new city? To get to know your neighbors, get involved in the local congregation, volunteer with the local charities, etc.? What about after you've moved two or three or seven times and are keeping up with friends from all those previous places? (generic "you", not CC personally)