stay human

by smb on May 31, 2009

Today I say an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about how people who are homeless are becoming more of a presence online.  Robert Livingston, one of the folks who provided statements for the interview, said something particularly striking:

“It’s frightening to be homeless,” he says. “When I’m on here [the Internet], I’m equal to everybody else.”

Often, technology is  described as a threat: it is the borg, the T-100, the matrix.   Technology at its most insidious aggregates, assimilates and anonymizes — in all the wrong ways.  Occupants of cube farms decry the depersonalized office.  Parents worry that Facebook  and Twitter have killed the possibilities of meaningful friendships.  Attention spans have been replaced with multi-tasking.  Research has been replaced with web browsing.

But I think they are mostly wrong. The Internet (and the technology that drives it) doesn’t make us less human, it reflects humanity — in all of the best and worst ways.

Wikipedia has (largely) credibly democratized the organization of knowledge, and what in fact knowledge itself is — but more importantly, expanded public engagement with the acquisition of knowledge.  It doesn’t matter if anyone can contribute to a collection of ideas if nobody does.  This process of community dialogue, debate and revision is the original way communities created knowledge before the responsibility for gathering and shaping knowledge was ceded to formal institutions of learning and corporations in search of profit.

Twitter isn’t a new method to destroy our already meager ability to communicate, I think that it has filled in the void left by the death of small talk.  Once, when our ancestors wandered along the streets of their villages and towns they exchanged pleasantries.  They inquired into the details of each other’s life.   The point of such talk was not the literal-bottom line of information dissemination – it was a subtle way of checking in; of communicating interest in another person’s well being.  In the US, I’ve heard it said that in the South they have 100 ways to ask about the weather – I’m absolutely certain that most of the time the question had noting to do with barometric pressure or the possibility of rain.

Today, in a world where communication is associated with productivity, interacting with people means that you talk about the big stuff – and avoid the little stuff.  Too often, there is a disproportionate premium  placed on listening to people when they are saying MONUMENTAL THINGS, and making EARTH-SHAKING REVELATIONS.  Phone calls are short (and often even avoiding the most rudimentary salutations), and to the point.  This is great news for business – terrible news for the humans who make business happen.

How many times after a tragedy does someone utter “if I had only known”: that he was depressed, that she was scared, that they were alone, that she was angry, that he was at the end of his rope.  Information like this is often not shared in big declarations – it’s eked out in small moments and benign statements – exactly the kind of thing that can happen on twitter, or facebook, or myspace.  There is already one very public story of this happening, I suspect there are many more quiet moments.

Social networking sites connect to that fundamental human desire to speak, and to listen.  And we don’t just mean when we are talking about the meaning of life.   We also want to talk about movies, we want to talk about our pets, we want to talk about what we had for dinner – we want to talk about the experience of living.  And, as the exponentially exploding number of participants on these sites seem to indicate – we are also listening.  We listen when someone across the country tweets that they have had a bad day.  We listen when a long-lost friend from high school reaches out after years of silence.  We listen when someones kid just scored their first soccer goal.  We listen when someone we don’t even know posts about a tragedy they witnessed from across the world.  We listen to political rants, and philosophical raves.

We use technology  fill our lives with the very noise some technology was originally created to filter out – the noise of the public square, the noise of other people living their lives.

And like the rest of human interactions, not all of these communications will make us smarter.  Not all of the words posted online will be true. The Internet won’t make people harmeless or eliminate greed and treachery.

In fact, the internet doesn’t make us anything – it only connects us, as we are, to one another.

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