Monday, 12 September 2011

Victims of the Modern Age

Thank you for reading Lacking Credentials. Today, I am totally off topic from the Ontario Provincial Election that I am supposed to be covering for the Star, but I can assure you that I will be on track very shortly this week. You will be able to read all those postings here on Lacking Credentials as well as on the Speak Your Mind site, but today I've been hit out of the blue by a bolt of divine inspiration. It happens. I want to talk about one of the very powerful ideas of our time that I think is oversimplified and flawed. The idea of global, computer-driven Interconnectedness.

In this month's Walrus, I read an otherwise thoughtful and introspective piece by a gentleman named Adam Sternbergh in which he reflected on Sept 11, 2011, which happened 10 years ago yesterday. I appreciated everything the author had to say, except for one comment he made. I don't know if his comment is related to the change in his place of residence (he mentioned he was living in Toronto at the time and in New York now), which may have increased his uptake of the New York Times and the Thomas Friedman columns in it. But I heard the same thing from this Canadian guy that I've been hearing from Friedman ad nauseum for years: Technology has made the world “flat”, “hyperconnected”, an “even playing field”, a “village” à la McLuhan, or whatever adjective you want to use (the Walrus guy who set me off on this used the term “hard wired”) and this is related to everything you see unfolding around you. Radical, rapid, accelerating change has occurred in the world due to internet, email, social media, search engines, and cellphones or smartphones.

My response to people making this statement is on the one hand, “Yes, of course”, but on the other hand, “Really?” As much as I agree with you gents that I am “hyperconnected” in theory to some 21 year old guy in Qianching, China, I wish to argue that I am not, because why the hell in a million years would we ever want or need to speak to each other? All that bucket of stuff that makes it easier for me to get in touch with a guy it never would have occurred to me to think of 100 years ago still does not change the fact that me and him have no reason to get in touch with each other. This is a basic point that people pointing to this inescapable reality of hyperconnectedness seem to miss. It means an intellectual laziness is creeping in which is making us start to take this idea for granted as being totally true without thinking about how it plays out in real life.

It is, in substance, the same thing I have wanted to write about Facebook for many months, but the damn thing changes so fast that criticizing its awfulness (which most people are now unanimous in noticing) gets hard because there is a new thing to dislike every day. This time four years ago, I couldn't talk to any of my friends without it becoming the principle topic of conversation. My friends have moved on but their profiles are, for the most part still there,. The site may be useful for other things, like promoting your blog. But whenever you get used to the latest 1200.0 setup, they change it and send you these really airhead sounding messages with a creepy Brave New World aura about them (you can just hear the writer repeating “Everybody belongs to everybody” whispers to him or herself) about how the latest changes are the greatest thing ever. My current disgust with the site is mostly due to the growing number of middle-aged people on it who have fecklessly neglected their networks and friends for years and now creep their old acquaintances for a rush of schadenfraude upon observing their body types (overweight) or marital statuses (divorced). Who knows where it will all end up? I would have got rid of it but I actually needed it for my first unpaid writing gig, which may make you think this is just sour grapes, but its not. I'm not on there because I personally need to be on there. I'm on there because everyone thinks everyone else has to be on there, including the people who launched the forum I'm blogging on for the Ontario election. But humans survived for 42,007 years without Facebook. And they will survive again.

My beef is not with Facebook or Twitter or Linked in or mobile apps. It is with the idea that they have changed the world by making us all one. I say they have added another thing to the world and they exist in it now just like everything else. Of course they are useful and have all kinds of possibilities to help you, and that is why I intend to continue using them. But opportunities have always existed for the humans willing to create them for themselves, and these technologies do not, by virtue of existing, create new opportunities for every single person on earth. There are two reasons for this. Lack of usage, and lack of time.

Lack of usage.

This one is a simple fact that I think everyone knows. Not everyone has a Facebook profile, not everyone has a twitter feed. Believe it or not, millions of people still function with no email address. But, the “hyperconnected” say, television and telephone were once new technologies, and ended up in every home. Yes they did, and now they are on their way out. People are cancelling their cable packages and land lines in droves. I know as many people my age with tv as without. Its taken 50 years but a growing number of people realize there are better things to do.

It does not necessarily follow that technologies are adapted worldwide once implemented. I think the fact that there are more cellphones in the world right now than toilets (proven technology for 150 years) sums that up better than anything I could say.

And within the population that does use these technologies, there is a big chunk, maybe even a majority, of zombie or passive users. Tell me honestly, do you have a relative or friend to whom it is just pointless to send an email? Day after day, crickets chirping, sun rising, no response. You write it off. But then six months later you're standing beside him in someone else's living room drinking beer, talking and you say “Yeah, I actually emailed you about that but I guess you don't check it” to which they answer, almost indignantly “No, I got that. What are you talking about?” People read their emails but have no interest in responding to them, even when it behooves them to do so Now survey the wreckage of abandoned blogs, never-checked Facebooks, and one tweet twitter feeds online. That's all those people who never got past the two-way nature of email.

Why? Because they have no time. The question nobody asks about the lightning fast grid of social media that allows one end of humanity to know when the other has some pointless and idiotic thing to say is what is the next step. When humans reach an unprecedented level of success, they only know how to ask “more” “next” “bigger” “faster” or “crazier”. The brain is not designed to accept the idea of “less”. Examples include agricultural yields with the latest and greatest biotechnology that are now flatlining, Hollywood's original and watchable output that has dwindled to the smallest trickle of watchable films, and the amount of social media vehicles competing for people's time have reached the (excuse the fake guru expression) tipping point. There is this thing they call diminishing returns once something gets too “big”. Let's pretend that the average forty-something, median income suburb dweller in North America with nothing to say decides to fire up his various social media profiles because he's tired of feeling irrelevant and out of touch. It takes him at least three days to get on Facebook, create a twitter, make a linked in profile, and link them all together. That was a waste of a whole weekend, right? No big deal. It's worth it to be hyperconnected.

Except that all the things that once occupied his normal daily life now want to spend time with him on facebook and twitter. He has to “like” subway restaurants, “follow” his favourite politicians, rock stars, and athletes, “connect” with people he may know but really has nothing to do with and who aren't going to be able to help him improve his career prospects, and that's not including invitations, invites, messages and solicitations (“Make $5000 a week at home! Support my run for toenail cancer!”) from his “real” family and friends. Man! Keeping up with this social media is a lot of hard work, but he manages. Barely. Now you're telling me he's connected to people in Romania, India, and the Central African Republic...he's got to add the CEO of a Swedish furniture firm on twitter and check out the facebook page of the most popular columnist at China Daily?...remember that song “He's got the whole world...in his hands”. Well, look at your iphone. It's true now. Except nobody's giving themselves a nervous breakdown actually acting on it, like my fictional friend here is doing and Tom Friedman would have us believe everyone does. Why? Probably because its not human nature to torture ourselves.

Memo to social media CEOs. Things aren't “must have” anymore when everybody has them. And sites aren't “hot” or “social” when Exxonmobil and Shoppers Drug Mart are using them for cynical marketing plugs People will never have the physical time to keep up with every bloody company, musician, brand, country, news headline, and author they have ever had a passing affiliation with in addition to the comings and goings of every single person they've ever known. We're not “hard-wired” that way. It's a simple question of time. On a wine tour yesterday, I listened to two girls behind me (I guessed they were about 18-20) talk non-stop for 5 hours of highway driving time about their blackberries, and the blackberries' capabilities and apps. They were smart and self-aware and even they seemed to find it absurd that they should spend so much time dwelling over this little device and frustrated with how needlessly complicated it was and their lives were for revolving around it. But, for them it has become an indispensable social appendage and thus a fact of life. Until they realize at what point upgrading to and figuring out “the new facebook” app on it is wasting a whole bunch of their time for no other reason than to tune into rants, silliness and drama coming from people they know whoa are struggling to fill the real gaps (relationships, activities) in their lives.

TV us not dead. Great TV shows still come along even though more and more people realize that most of the time, they've got better things to do. So don't get my critique of social media wrong; social media success stories will be abound for years to come as well, and let me restate that for certain things I find it incredibly useful. But its appeal will where off, not because people have better things to do, but because it demands them to do so many things they never had time for to begin with.

*PS - the title may seem appropriate but its really just a plug for Arjen Anthony Lucassen's latest album. I've already ordered my autographed copy. Hey, may as well support your favourite geniuses on your blog

1 comment:

  1. I like your conclusion. Still, people actually haven't given up on the telephone or the television, they have just found different ways to use them. When you say people have lost use for the telephone, what you want to say is that people have ceased to use landlines and have instead opted for mobile phones. When you say people have stopped watching TV, what you really want to say is that people have found a more convenient way of consuming content produced for television (i.e. on DVD or on the internet, on demand with no commercials).

    I think the concept of staying connected with people online will of course change formats (Livejournal gave way to Myspace which gave way to Facebook, etc..). Nevertheless, people will still find a way to stay connected to the folks they want to keep in touch with.

    Personally, Facebook and I have been in a pretty solid relationship for over five years now, and it's still going strong. Why? Beacuse it eliminates the need for me to actively seek out updates from friends, relatives and acquaintances I have accumulated in the past 26 years on two continents, 5 countries, innumerable states and provinces, etc. I just *know* how they are doing, and they know how I am doing as well. In the likely event that I want more details, I simply have to ask them and I know they'll get the message.

    I think there is a bigger problem than social networking at the heart of your article. The real problem is journalism. Like all other media, it is rife with mediocrity. Journalists are paid to write non-stop. As you know, that is no easy task. The profession of the journalist consists not in regularly producing hard-hitting, pertinent, poignant and interesting peices of journalistic prose. No. It's about producing a publishable piece on a very regular, often weekly, even daily basis. The result is that 90% or more of what's out there is complete garbage.

    Journalists, in an attempt to keep up, often have to blow things out of proportion, seek new points of view on an oft-discussed topic simply for the sake of writing about it and, let's face it, they often just make things up and talk out of their asses.

    That is my suspicion for both the NY Times fellow, and his ex-Torontonian sycophant (no offence intended, just my impression). Classic examples of people talking just to talk, or in the case of a journalist, writing just to write.

    You are right. The impact of Facebook et al. on the world is somewhat important, but it has been blown out of proportion by those whose job it is to do just that.

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