>This floated up on Digg this morning: Switched On: Radar Love. It’s cute, but there’s an aspect of it that makes me sad. Culturally, we seem to be barreling down this avenue of considering communication via devices to be a suitable analog to real person-to-person connection. This is not a new development. It’s not a new topic. However, for the first time, I find myself standing on the pessimistic side of the discussion.
From my childhood through my teenage years, I was always afraid of the telephone. In particular, I was afraid to call anyone but close friends and family on the phone. Receiving calls was no problem, it was just the outgoing ones that scared me. Even the simplest call would inspire me to feel a little bit of terror. This is despite the fact that I was not at all a shy individual. After all, I’m a redhead. We learn to love attention at a young age. I can only assume that it was the tentative quality of the exchanges that disturbed me. There is no no way for body language or eye contact to inform the situation, only tone of voice, inflection, and overall pace of speech. I couldn’t get used to it. Whenever I had to make a call to an institution or a vague acquaintance, I would procrastinate as long as I could, or try to get other people to make the call for me.
At some point I adjusted and got over my phobia, but I definitely remember that feeling of fear and to a great extent I still empathize with it.
Ironically, while I silently grappled with my fear of the phone, I actively embraced Prodigy, AOL and online chat rooms. I scoffed at people who would kvetch about these new channels of communication signaling a decay in our cultural fiber. Those people just didn’t get it. They couldn’t catch up with new technology and they therefore feared it. It was that simple.
By the time I finished high school, I was over my fear of the phone, but I had also stopped visiting online chat rooms. My life was full of real people in the flesh. I had long tired of the faceless, voiceless conversations between my keyboard, the monitor, and the hypothetical strangers on the other end of the line.
Now it’s 2006. I’m 25 years old and a huge part of my life is on the web. Interestingly enough, I never returned to the habit of instant messaging. At one point a former boss wanted me to install Instant Messenger on my work computer. I did it, had one conversation with him, and then turned it off for good. When google launched gTalk, I had a few conversations with friends and then instituted a firm policy of avoidance. I simply don’t like it. The only exception is Skype. It is extremely useful to be able to send text and links to someone as an augmentation to an audio or video conversation, and email just doesn’t provide the immediacy that’s necessary for information to flow naturally.
It’s cold here in Minnesota, so everyone is hiding out in their homes right now. Rather than braving the elements to go out to a bar or a party, it’s easier to hop on the computer and meet people online. As a result, in recent weeks I’ve taken to exploring Gay.com. If you imagine a cross between Friendster, instant messenger, and a gay bar, you’ve probably got a good guess at what Gay.com is. For the first time in years I find myself socially exchanging instant messages and emails with total strangers. To be completely honest, I don’t really like it. It all feels so tentative. So much human expressiveness has been stripped from the exchange that all communication is driven into this tiny channel of social expectations that invariably hasten to the lowest common denominator.
I can’t help but feel sad about this. For so long I’ve imagined that I lived in an exciting world where new opportunities for communication abound thanks to technology. Now I’m forced to wonder what communication is really happening. Thanks to email, VoIP, etc. I am able to stay in touch with dear friends all over the world, and in my work I am able to collaborate with people spread across eight time zones. This is wonderful, and it makes my life richer. I foolishly assumed that this enrichment reached equally across all new channels of communication. How wrong I was.
Now the new generations of music players have added a social networking element to their feature sets. We envision cute exchanges like the one Ross Rubin depicts in Switched On: Radar Love. We imagine that meaningful human communication will occur through these new channels. I beg to inject a bit of pragmatism into that flight of fancy. The quality of communication that occurs through these new channels will always be proportional to the expectations that we uphold. In modern civilization’s righteous crusade for freedom of information, we seem to have forgotten the importance of that factor.
We are so hung up on the idea of the internet as the bazaar that we we have neglected to develop meaningful notions of ethics in the online sphere beyond the most basic constraints. This neglect has not gained us anything. Meanwhile, we’ve lost almost all formalism to our interactions in person. Yes, the formalism that was in place was based on messed up notions of class and gender. This doesn’t mean that formalism in and of itself is worthless.
We’ve all got to start sticking our necks out a little bit further and talking in real ways about what we want civilization to look like in 10, 50, or 100 years because nobody understands the prospects better than us. It’s an extremely vague horizon, but to some extent that’s our fault. Morality has become a dirty word amongst those ‘in the know’. The only people who seem to give voice to demands for human dignity in our everyday networked world are social conservatives and technophobes. We are lost in an ocean of free information and this is a dangerous thing.