"Wouldn't we be better off without technology?"

I've been posed this question rather frequently lately.

Wouldn't we be better off just focusing on a close community, face-to-face interactions, and localized problems?

It is an important question to think about because it quickly cuts to why we really need technology. I'm not so sure we have always been responsible or reflective enough (which, by the way, is a wonderful goal of the current constructionist movement in education). In the past, I've tried to create intricate responses, and they usually result in intriguing dialogue - conversations swaying back and forth - every counterpoint resulting in a "yeah, but... "

But the more I think about the question, the more I'm beginning to realize that I'm not so sure the question is relevant anymore. Just like the moment when Frankenstein emerges from the dark cellars to first experience light, I don't believe we can comfortably retreat back to the cellar again.

Consider the following story:

Suppose a prince is born in a kingdom with a magnificent castle - the walls are a thousand feet high. In fact, the prince has never left their luxurious confines. He has never felt hunger. He has never seen hunger. He never longs for the outside. He is hardly even aware that there is an outside. For this prince, privilege is the norm - after all, it is all he has ever known.

Photo by conner395

Does the prince have a social responsibility to elevate the poor?

It's easy enough to say, Well, of course. But I would disagree. Were 14th century Europeans responsible for the well-being of natives living in the Americas? No. As far as they were concerned, there was no America. As far as the prince is concerned, there is no poor.

Now suppose that one remarkable day, the prince goes for a walk outside the gates of the castle. He sees pain and suffering. He sees injustice and iniquity. He sees the raw nerves of humanity. Can he shut the castle doors with any finality ever again? Can he ever go back to the way that things once were?

I know that I am only picking on one dimension of technology, but it is central to the way we view our cellphones and laptops. Innovation is closely coupled to communication and information. Like it or not, I believe we have passed a point of no return with our technology. We have opened the dusty, crimson curtains and ushered the entire world into our living room - in all of its unshackled beauty and unspeakable horror.

So we need to stop asking, How do we pack up and go home? It just isn't relevant. "Home" has extended to every corner of the globe. What deeply troubles me is the new question: What do we do now that we're here?


Quotations: Vocation

"The computer stands betwixt and between the world of formal systems and physical things; it has the ability to make the abstract concrete ... The computer has a theoretical vocation: to bring the philosophical down to earth."

- Sherry Turkle and Seymour Paper: Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete


A New Lens for Media

In the past, I've been critical of technology's inability to provide us with deep insights about ourselves. I've also worried that too much of technology is designed as an inward spiral, forcing us deeper into the medium instead of encouraging face-to-face conversations. But this post is about a time where technology did offer an insight (or at least a good reminder), and it was a surprisingly optimistic one.

A little background.

Recently, I've become very aware that media makes me surprisingly pessimistic about the world. In a previous article, How We've Created A Culture Where Kids Need Facebook, I wrote about the increasing paranoia of parents in regards to protecting their children. But the issue extends much further than that. Did you know that there were 8,000 fewer homicides in 2005 than in 1991? Did you know that that in the early 90s more than 9.5 people of every 1000 were victims of a homicide, but in 2005 that number was reduced to 5.6? Did you know that teen pregnancy is more than 20% lower than 30 years ago?

But wait. I thought the world was going to hell in a hand basket. Aren't all teenagers sexual maniacs? Isn't Mr. Jones' gardening business only a convenient cover for a Joker-esque madness?

Isn't everyone a Joker these days? Photo by Jason Mouratides

My point isn't to make this country sound peachy and comfortable (we all know it's not). But I do hope to help us understand that our opinion of the average Joe has been severed by a dramatized, ratings-driven media (And yes, I mean Joe the plumber, miner, construction worker, and every other -er that was uttered during the presidential elections). Thinking about my own tendencies, I know that I can be quick to transform people on the street into villains worthy of cinematic scheming.

So where does social media come in? What have I found out? What has social media helped remind me?

People are overwhelmingly nice.

That's it. That's the big revelation.

It's not revolutionary. It's not terribly shocking. But it is refreshing. I don't corral a group of people on the street and ask for help. For most of us, anything beyond asking for directions is an exercise in the art of awkwardness and discomfort. But if the internet community is any indication of reality, then there is a significant crowd of people who enjoy helping, who want to have engaging dialogue, and who genuinely care.

Ask for directions in an active social network? I receive them within 30 seconds. Wondering what the best seafood restaurant is in Harvard Square? I have a general consensus within the next five minutes. I take this for granted. For me (and for a lot of us), the challenge is reminding myself that there are real people behind the profile pictures. The challenge is fully understanding that these are the same people that I walk past every day in the Boston Commons.

I think we've worked ourselves into a bit of a double standard without even realizing it. We look through the dark lens of media to distort our depiction of humanity, but don't let the positive examples have the same impact on our perception. It reminds me of a friend of mine who likes to wear his sunglasses both day and night - during day we look dark, during night we look black. I'm not pretending that everyone online is good. We all know they aren't. The problem is that we let the misfits ruin the fun for everyone.

The Challenge.

So why don't we ask for help more often? And I'm not just talking about the "I'm lost, help me find my way" type of help. I mean, the "Where can I get a good burrito?" type of help, or "Any good used bookstores around here?" type of help. Or lets extend the idea even a little further. Ask a stranger about that book he or she is reading. Tell a stranger a fascinating quote you stumbled upon.

I know, I know. That last bit sounds awkward. You were probably whispering in your head, I would never do that. But I want to whisper back, why not? I sit on the subway system and watch hundreds of people pretend like they are too busy to chat or even acknowledge each others' presence for 20 minutes each and every day. Then, they go home, turn on their computer, and start sending Tweets to an audience they've never met before. They start participating in a dialogue with complete and utter strangers.

And they love it.

Just keep pretending there is no one else there. Photo by Gustavo Verissimo

I'll be the first to tell you that, so far, I don't practice what I preach. I can be very shy around strangers. I tend to think, Well, I know he doesn't want to be bothered, so I won't bother him. But I will tell you this: I've started to look at people a little bit differently. I've always been the type of person that wants to "see the best" in people, but when I'm bombarded by suicide bombings, masochistic murders, and outright belligerence in the media, it is hard to really believe it. It is hard to let my thoughts sink into reality. Social media gives us a new lens through which we can view people with remarkable optimism - one where people (for whatever reason) feel compelled to demonstrate a friendly nature in outlandishly open ways.

And I don't know about you, but I sure wouldn't mind seeing that friendliness, that assistance, and that camaraderie trickle onto the real streets and highways of this country.


Internet Communities Help Real Communities

I stumbled on a post by David Griner today: 10 ways social media improved lives in 2008. It's good enough to share. For people who ask What good do you see coming out of Facebook/Twitter/etc.?, here are some concrete examples that shed a bit of optimism. Read David's original post for the full story behind each bullet point.
  1. Gamers and developers raise $1 million for children's hospitals.
  2. Social networking helps find potential kidney donors for a blogger's daughter
  3. Kiva users lend $36 million to low-income entrepreneurs in 42 countries
  4. Vancouver Twitter users meet up to help the homeless stay warm
  5. Last-minute Tweetup gets 100 people to donate blood
  6. Tweetsgiving racks up $11,000+ in 48 hours to expand a school in Tanzania
  7. SocialVibe raises $250K by making corporate sponsorship cool
  8. Six Degrees and Everyday Hero help people generate millions for their favorite nonprofits.
  9. Facebook Causes goes mainstream, revolutionizing how nonprofits build support
  10. Disney donates a children's book for every comment on a blog