Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The romance of life without tech

You've probably seen the video going around of someone reciting 5 minutes of soulful couplets about the problems of modern technology, over footage that cuts between him looking sincerely at a camera and some images of pretty people using and not using phones and computers. Did I mention the cheesy emotive music? There's cheesy emotive music.

If you've read much of this blog before, you won't be surprised that it made me quite wrathful. Let me start with one particularly irksome rhyme:

All this technology we have, it's just an illusion:
Community, companionship, a sense of inclusion

He asserts that the sense of community and social connection we experience using virtual technologies is just an illusion; this is factually incorrect. And not just a little bit incorrect, it's the exact opposite of a really fundamental truth. It's a lie on the scale of climate change denial.

Virtual socialisation has been the subject of a vast amount of academic research. And I mean vast. I spent years studying it at uni and only scratched the surface. There are dozens of peer-reviewed journals and international conferences every year dedicated solely to online society. While the work done in this area has covered a huge scope and there are many different theories and models that have been advanced, there is one issue on which there is complete consensus: virtual socialising is real. It is meaningful and important for those who engage in it.

It's interesting, therefore, that no one questions our youtube poet when he flat out contradicts the mountain of evidence. In fact, I think the analogy of climate denial is quite apt - saying that socialising online is not real makes intuitive sense in our culture in the same way that saying climate change is a conspiracy makes intuitive sense among certain conservative cultures.

Yet when we think about it for a moment, the idea that social interaction that occurs using virtual technologies might not be real is clearly nonsense. For one thing, why would so many people do it if they didn't find it meaningful?

There are several factors at work. One is a culture that has deep roots in a tradition which sees technological change as automatically bad. Socrates thought writing was a terrifying, unnatural technology that would send the world to hell in a handcart. Multitudes of writers and filmmakers have reinforced similar notions through the ages, to the point where suspicion of change - and its association with evil forces - just comes naturally.

Secondly,  there's the Golden Age Fallacy, one of my favourites. The poet assumes that ever since we started using computers and such, we've started isolating ourselves and started having less real-world social time. In the old days we would have spent the time we now spend texting hanging out in the park instead. This is again a factual error. Phones, computers and such are almost entirely used when we would have been alone anyway. For example, there's a bit in the film where a girl sits down at a bus stop and the two other girls at the stop ignore her because they're on their phones. The implication is that without phones, the three women would have burst in to spontaneous and joyous conversation.

No. Obviously, in the old days, they would have still sat ignoring each other, but they just wouldn't have had phones to use in the meantime. Do we really think British people used to talk to strangers on public transport?! LOL! In fact, this is a classic situation in which the phones allow us to be more sociable, because we can use our downtime to socialise when we would otherwise be bored.

Similarly with going on facebook while alone in your room. In the old days, you would still have been alone in your room, you just would have been staring at the ceiling rather than at a screen. We still go out to see friends in the real world whenever there's a social reason to do so. In fact we probably do it more than in the old days because of our shorter working hours and better transport connections. But we can use our alone time to stay in touch, which we couldn't do before.

The dude says he has 422 friends yet he is alone. The figure caught my attention because I happen to currently have 420. Maybe there's some magical barrier around the 421 mark, because I am not alone at all. That's because I contact my friends fairly regularly, using facebook and yes my phone, and I reinforce my friendship with them via the age-old method of talking to them and sharing stuff. Sometimes I do this while they are physically close to me, sometimes I do it while they're far away. In both cases I feel equally less alone.

If you want to build a case that a technology is bad, you have to ground it in real, research-based evidence and not instinct. As a culture we simply have to get over this idea that there is some qualitative difference between virtual and actual socialising. There is zero evidence that one is better than the other. If you think about it, what factor could there possibly be that could make one better than the other? They're both about connecting with other people. That's what humans do.

In his groundbreaking study of the virtual world Second Life, anthropologist Tom Boellstorff points out that his findings (which show that Second Life society is very similar in every fundamental way to offline society) might be explained by a simple truth: socialising has always been virtual. The psyche that constitutes you or me as an individual is formed by billions of neurons. These receive signals from the outside world and interprets them. Other individuals that we encounter are nothing but concepts put together in our brain - we have no experience really being them. We have a concept in our mind for "friend", "soulmate" or "that guy I know" - all our interactions with these concepts take place via some kind of intermediary communication system, whether it be touch, language or social media. In this sense it is absolutely fair to say that there's no real difference between talking to someone using the sound waves your larynx creates over short distances and talking to someone using fibre-optic cables. The media are not important - or at least not compared to the content that they are communicating.

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