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Back to Nature: The Final Experience

// Posted by on 11/26/2014 (12:40 PM)

Well, believe it or not, this is it. It feels like it was just yesterday that we were on LA Live Chat talking about Digimon and Full House. Since then, we’ve had some great experiences, from the cybersecurity simulation to

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Well, believe it or not, this is it. It feels like it was just yesterday that we were on LA Live Chat talking about Digimon and Full House. Since then, we’ve had some great experiences, from the cybersecurity simulation to the digital divide experiment to the #CleanURlake movement. I remember the pressure that my group felt in putting together the second experience after Dr. Rosatelli covered the first; to have to move in a completely different direction, planning an activity without knowing exactly how it would turn out and to an extent setting the bar for groups to come was intimidating. But in actuality, there was no reason to harbor such fears, as the class grew with every experience. I had high hopes for how the experiences would turn out, when students used their creative abilities to put together a truly amazing, memorable experience that would leave a lasting message, but I could not have imagined they would be so effective a learning tool and so memorable in the long run. With such sweeping success as the backdrop, the group tasked with putting together the final project was under an enormous amount of pressure, just as my group was in putting together the first student-run experience. The only difference is that while the pressure we had felt was in setting the bar, the final experience had to manage to exceed the high level to which the bar had been raised over the past three months.
For the most part, the plan put forth for the final experience did commendably in meeting the high expectations, though it, like any other experience, did not go 100% perfectly or as intended. Nonetheless, the questions raised, as per usual, were immensely valuable and it is of the utmost importance that they be considered. In fact, this final unit as a whole pushes us to ask ourselves questions about what it means to be in the digital age, and whether the implications of that are as positive as we had always believed them to be. We began this course by experiencing the simple, transcendent joys of cyberutopianism. Now the veil is pulled back and we realize that everything is not what it seems, that these wonderful new digital technologies may not be as wonderful as we thought. But, lest I should digress, we will get to that a bit later. Before then, I want to analyze specifically this final experience and the questions raised and how it applies to the unit.
The intention of this experience was to gather students, simply enough, at the James River for a picnic; but as with every experience, there is always a catch. Luckily this time, the catch was not as stressful as—just as a hypothetical example—having to run to the law library to research digital copyright. The first half of the class involved simply sitting by the river and talking, while enjoying some delicious snacks, a pretty perfect experience on a sunny day with highs in the 70s. The catch, then, was that halfway through, our phones would be taken away, so that we could analyze how the conversation changed and discuss what that means for digital technologies and their impact on communication. It was a deceptively simple plan with very meaningful implications, but it did not completely work as planned, for several reasons.
As we were driving back to campus from the river and Emily explained the purpose of the experience and what she and her group had wanted us to take away from it, I realized that the conversation had not really changed too much—or not in a manner that could be easily and directly attributable to the presence or absence of our phones—and I began to think about the reasons why such might be the case. As I pointed out to the others, it is difficult to pull off such an experiment during the course of a class period, since the conversation we would be having would be different from any normal conversation, a form of class participation as opposed to merely a voluntary social encounter. The difference between the two must doubtless contribute to the discrepancy between expected results and the actual results. Speaking from experience, though I may from time to time pull my phone out in any normal conversation amongst friends, knowing that I was taking part in a class project shifted my attention and my focus solely to participating and being present, not distracted by my phone, which I figured would hurt my grade anyway. When the fear of a lower grade impedes the casual use of a cell phone, the results of such an experiment as laid out by the group will not be as intended.
This is not to say, however, that this experience was bad; because I was extremely impressed with the group’s ability to turn a simple picnic at the river into something much more meaningful. I am not honestly sure what more I could have thought up, and I am sure that the rest of the class would likely agree. Coming up with an experience is difficult enough in a normal classroom setting; having to do so at the river and make the setting seem logical as opposed to contrived is another challenge altogether, and I commend the group for managing to make it work as they did, even if the results, as I explained before, were not as expected, for a variety of factors including the matter of grading and class participation.
So what were the expected results? Perhaps before delving into that issue, it is important to understand the two texts underpinning these key questions about digital technologies and communication. Sherry Turkle contends in her op-ed “The Flight from Conversation” that while we may live in a “technological universe in which we are always communicating… we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection” and that we are now effectively “alone together.” She paints a disturbing picture of the twenty-first century landscape, in which friends and family members lose the ability to communicate face-to-face, eye-to-eye, in which they fall back upon the comfort of their phone to divert their attention from the uncomfortable nature of genuine conversation with another human being. As if her dystopian point of view were not terrifying enough, she writes of an encounter she witnessed between an elderly woman and a robot, and the fact that the woman was comforted by the machine. “[W]e… collectively seem to have embraced,” Turkle writes, “a new kind of delusion that accepts the simulation of compassion as sufficient unto the day.” To Turkle, such a development is an indication of the fact that humans may well have “lost confidence that we will be there for one another.” The ties that once bound humanity together in conversation now seem are now being broken by digitization.
Zeynep Tufekci disagrees. “Social-media users,” she insists, “are having more conversations with people—online and off!” In her estimation, the fears of individuals like Turkle are overblown. Digital technologies “are not displacing face-to-face socializing—on average, they are making them stronger.” For shy individuals, for instance, digitization opens new pathways to conversation that might not have been opened heretofore. Tufekci goes on to argue that minimizing the use of Facebook or Twitter might even leave a person at a “major disadvantage,” like someone who could not use the telephone in the late 20th century.
I would love to be able to stand on Tufekci’s side, as she offers such a beautifully idealistic vision of the digital age, but I cannot. I am in the Turkle camp. I recall vividly my first moments here on campus, at freshman orientation. We were grouped into orientation groups, and we would all eat meals together at the dining hall. It was an admittedly awkward experience, since I had nothing in common with most of these people. But whereas in a different decade I might have sucked it up and been forced to engage in dialogue with my peers, I took out my phone and texted. It was easier than looking up, making eye contact and small-talking my way into a conversation. And I wasn’t alone; everyone did the same. For the better part of a week, my meals consisted of getting together in a large group, sitting at a table together, and then taking out our phones and ignoring each other throughout the meal. We truly were alone together.
It is a terribly depressing viewpoint, and I am loath to consider the world so darkly, but to some extent it’s undeniable that Turkle is right. The human connections we once shared and valued in our society have been undone and superseded to a degree by connections with digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Tufekci insists when we text or use iMessage, we are talking to a real person, as opposed to a bot, and she’s right; but what is the difference? When conversing on iMessage, some of the most pivotal components of genuine communication are eschewed, from eye contact to body language. Even phone calls, which eschew those components as well, enable an understanding and exercise of meaningful tone of voice instead of the cold monotony of a text message. When someone texts you “Okay,” do you know how they’re feeling? That message can be placed in context to help understand the feelings, but the true emotional connection, communicated through tone, is gone. A person might as well be communicating with a bot at that point, and that’s the disturbing point here. Tufekci insists that for “shy” individuals, these digital technologies enable a healthy alternative to face-to-face communication, but I don’t see it that way. Text messaging is barely human communication, so should we be justifying it as an alternative to actual conversation and socialization, and—as I am wont to ask— what are the implications?
I have written rather extensive responses, and my response to this unit, and just the core questions raised by the Turkle/Tufekci debate, could be longer than all of my previous responses combined, but I think it’s wise to temper my loquaciousness and keep this at a moderate length. Nonetheless, I do want to elaborate on the wrongness of Tufekci’s assertions, from personal experience, and I want to return to some of the early ideas we discussed, specifically regarding social networking.
danah boyd in “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately” analyzes the context collapse of the Internet and the imagined audience on social networking mediums like Twitter and Facebook. Imagined audiences and “authenticity,” boyd finds, are extremely subjective notions. How can we possibly aim at our tweets and Facebook posts at every group of individuals who will read them? Though outside of the digital realm, in the confines of the physical, we are able to change the way we communicate based upon the context in which we find ourselves, the Internet leaves us with a far more trying task, of convincing a litany of diverse individuals to interpret our posts as authentic. I find almost everything about this discussion to be troubling, for reasons so wide-reaching and intimidatingly broad in scope that I will not attempt to handle each and every point.
I am a conscientious objector when it comes to social networking. I tweet for the Digital America Journal, but that’s the extent of my involvement in Twitter or Facebook. I avoid them like the plague, and though I once used Snapchat, I have also turned away from “selfies,” embarrassed that I ever indulged that side of myself. When boyd discusses the fact that we change our personalities based on those by whom we are surrounded at a certain point in time, that only serves to affirm my position that social networking is far from the positive force it is so often purported to be. There is a sort of superficiality to contemporary communication, perhaps not unlike the communication seen in previous decades and centuries, but the notion that an individual can be one person at one moment and another the next seems inherently inauthentic. In fact, considering the way humans go about communicating, and the manner in which social networking has served to bolster those practices, I would question whether authenticity is even an achievable end, or simply an artificial allusion towards which narcissistic social networkers work.
Yes, narcissism. This specific facet of my beliefs on social networking is one that has at times gotten me into some trouble with my girlfriend, but she probably won’t read this… I abstain from social networking largely because of the narcissism of it all. In her research, boyd does not ask why these Twitter users believe they deserve followers. She does not ask why these Twitter users have an imagined audience, as if they were the performers, meant to be the center of other individuals’ attention. I said in class that mediums of online social networking are inherently selfish, but I was wrong. I am not a technological determinist; I do not see the Internet as inherently democratic, and I don’t see social networking sites as inherently narcissistic. So I corrected my statement. Humans are inherently narcissistic. It’s not that our self-centered nature emerged from a vacuum, suddenly manifesting itself as an unprecedented phenomenon due to the Internet and these websites. Human narcissism has always been evident, from cave paintings to scrolls to The Catcher in the Rye, and now, to Facebook pages. I’m making quite the statement here, and it requires an extensive sociological examination that would take away from the central focus of this response, but at least that’s an idea to chew on for a bit. What matters is that regardless of the historical context in which this selfishness emerges, it has emerged, and we must ask ourselves what this means for humanity. Further, we must ask why we should indulge it with social networking accounts.
On a surface level, one could confuse Twitter or Facebook for something substantially more other-directed. For those who “lurk” on these sites, simply monitoring what is occurring in the lives of their friends and acquaintances, such actions could not be narcissistic, could they? In fact, I would contend they are. When we “lurk,” are we doing so out of a genuine care and concern for the lives of others, or are we doing so because we want something to which to aspire? Even worse, are we doing so because we want to feel better about ourselves? When we see images of students with whom we graduated high school and they are a drunken mess or have a baby, do we secretly feel better about ourselves? Does it boost our morale to see another individual brought down to earth? Is “lurking” really any better than seeking out attention with superfluous posts and extensive collections of selfies? And what about online activism? Isn’t that most certainly other-directed? Certainly, while no answer here should be construed from an amalgam of generalizations, I would like to think movements like Kony 2012 would have been more successful, rather than fizzling out in the course of a couple of months. Do social networkers have a serious commitment to the causes they follow or post about online, or is that, too, a selfish social statement?
I see social competition in everything that we do, a sort of false socialization that serves not to bring people closer, but to push them apart. From boys at the University of Richmond working out rigorously to tacit competitions to gain the most followers with beautiful Instagram images edited so meticulously as to remove any sense of authentic—there’s that word again—imperfect life and warmth. While much of this competition is unavoidable, I go out of my way to avoid those that are not, and social networking is one of them. I have no interest in competing with someone who pretends to be my friend for the purposes of proving that my Instagram pictures are the nicest, or my tweets are the wittiest, or my Facebook profile preferences are the most sophisticated. I have no interest in making posts to prove that my life is fun and that other people should be envious and want to be me. I enjoy life and I do so on my own terms, without the paranoid need to show it off to the world, and it puts me at no disadvantage contrary to Tufekci’s concerns. I occasionally hear about friends who post images on Facebook of their significant others and they share all of these special moments of their lives, and that is great, but they should have put the phone down and enjoyed a beautiful moment in life without thinking about their phones or about showing it off to anyone else. Turkle really is correct; digital technologies have pervaded our lives to an unhealthy and unfortunate extent.
That pervasion was as clearly evident in this experience as it is in real life, but that is not to say that the experience failed to raise the important questions. Obviously, it has raised those questions, and then some. Do conversations outside of the classroom change thanks to the presence of phones? Absolutely. Pregnant pauses end up being covered up by the tapping of thumbs against phone screens. Glances are diverted away from one another and towards the empty images on our iPhones, and silence overtakes the whole conversation.
And ultimately, that’s where the bigger picture comes into play, not only with regards to the negative implications of the digital age for communication, but the negative implications for everything.
What, for example, does social networking and digitization mean for the basic right to privacy? Anders Albrechtslund contends that “surveillance… is fundamentally social,” that as humans we have a natural propensity towards the surveillance of one another and the enabling of others to engage in surveillance of their own. Though I never like to assume I know better than anyone else—especially a scholar with years of research, training, and experience—I cannot agree with his assessment, which arguably misconstrues socialization, defining it erroneously in a manner that betrays a sort of misunderstanding of the term itself. The concept of socialization should be broken into two basic spheres: indeed, there is a sort of surveillance component—if we wish to call it surveillance—in which private information is willingly shared and disseminated. But Albrechtslund’s thesis falls apart there, because he stops at surveillance and ignores an equally pivotal component: privacy. Just as every individual has a right to share information about their lives in the social sphere, so too do they have a right to keep certain information hidden, and no one can argue that social networking sites are promoting such privacy rights. Reading through Twitter’s privacy policy, several points become clear. “We collect and use your information below to provide our Services and to measure and improve them over time.” In other words, Twitter takes your private information, grants access to that information to third-party enterprises and makes advertisements more personalized. Improving and measuring services sounds so much better than tracking your information to customize ads. But here’s the real kicker: The notion that Twitter and other social networks are merely selling you a product is wrong. Twitter is selling you, because you are the product. Certainly, such an invasion of privacy is not respectful to the foundations of true, positive socialization. I am sure that Albrechtslund would not endeavor to justify the surveillance of a large corporation as opposed to other individuals, but the problem with social networking is that the surveillance cannot be controlled. Your information can be accessed by anyone, from credit card information to Social Security numbers to the number of drinks you had at that party last Friday, and that neither respects privacy rights nor what it means to socialize healthily. A balance must be carefully maintained, and digital technologies are failing to do so.
And then there are the physical implications of digitization, and this is a compelling argument I had never before considered, but it is of utmost importance and must therefore enter the national—and international—dialogue. As Giles Slade argues in “Made to Break,” computers, phones, and other digital technologies constitute a contemporary form of the decades-old practice of planned obsolescence. Sure, we understand that every September, Apple is going to come out with the next iPhone, barely any different from the year prior, and millions upon millions of iPhones will be exchanged, but we don’t really know what happens next. We don’t understand that those phones are actually toxic and go somewhere—or maybe we just don’t want to. My phone, if I chose to recycle it or trade it in, would go to Ghana or Delhi or Guiyu, China, where children would burn it to extract the metals, all the while coming into contact with materials that are toxic and deadly and scar their skin. The difference between me and the rest of the population is that I will milk this phone for all it’s worth, until the iPhone 10 is released and I am carrying the equivalent of an old brick phone, and that is fine with me. Even afterwards I will not trade it in or recycle it, now that I know where it will go, but in time, this phone has to go somewhere; it cannot stay with me forever, and the fact of the matter is that the product design itself and the materials used to create it are not conducive to a healthy environment. What will decades of this abuse do to our environment, and how can we let it happen? Further, how can we ignore the bloody wars taking place in the Congo over the mineral Coltan, necessary to construct our precious devices? If we express such revulsion at the concept of blood diamonds, how can we use these blood devices, that have cost so many Africans their lives?
As a means to the end of solving the problems with smart phones, Google is working on Project Ara, to design a phone in which all the parts are interchangeable and only the pieces need to be replaced, not the phone itself. Is it a noble intention? I would assume, lest I should begin to cynically doubt their motivations, but will it work to solve any of these problems? No. Those pieces will take up less space in the dangerously makeshift landfill they will inhabit in China or India, but they will nonetheless stack up, continuing to pose a threat to the environment. They will continue to incorporate Coltan, relying on the mineral that has proven so deadly for the Congo. No problems will be solved, but the phone will look nice and sound nice enough, and money will be made.
This is really the culmination of a major shift I have experienced during the course of this class. I came in—in all honesty—considering digitization with contempt, looking down on smart phones and social networking. The idealism and the cyberutopianism of the first unit got me thinking that maybe I was wrong; maybe the Internet can be a transcendent place where individuals can come together and socialize and find greater meaning and make something amazing out of a blank canvas. It was very exciting, especially after the positive experiences in the LA Live Chat room. But unit two changed things. Suddenly, these technologies seemed to have troubling implications with regards to our privacy—that would be the first time that idea popped up, but as you know from reading this response, it would not be the last—and our security. Unit three really shifted my thinking by raising awareness of the naiveté inherent in “New Economy” ideologies and cyberlibertarianism as practiced in fiscal policy. Allowing corporations to run amok online—and offline—has had startlingly negative repercussions for this country, and it certainly has not democratized as promised. By unit four, then, I was jaded and began to turn against the Internet once again. I doubted that cyberactivism would ever accomplish any of the ends towards which it is used to work, and now, in unit five, I have come full circle.
I do not mean to make it sound as though this class affirmed my dislike of digital technologies and provided no fuller context. In fact, while I am lukewarm on any cyberutopian notions, I still do see glimpses of hope. Perhaps one of those glimpses is inherent in the fact that so many of the problems that have manifested themselves in the digital age are problems that manifested themselves in different ways in different times. When Mark Poster in Information Please speaks of materialism, he writes that “without media the activity of consumption and the figure of the consumer do not take on their current status as major aspects of social life,” but he paints a more hopeful picture for digital media. “Digital media,” he writes, “radically transform both the cultural object and the subject position of the consumer” (244). By rendering the consumer a “user,” and by enabling all users to become creators of cultural objects—through mimicry or alteration of existing objects, or even creation of their own—the Internet opens the doorway to a new form of consumerism so liberating in nature as to lend itself to something other than consumerism, a system in which consumers become creators. Copyright laws, he contends, have been put in place to defend the established consumerist norms; so is the problem really digital media, or the laws that serve to minimize the freedoms of Internet users?
The consumerist society in which we live is one that has been created by conditions that existed before digital media, and conditions that may well exist if we reach a technological point at which we transcend cyberspace. Consumerism, materialism, and planned obsolescence are not created by the Internet. Narcissism is not created by Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat. Economic inequality is not created by a digitalized economy. Abusive government oversight is not a product of the Internet. A weakening of communication skills and a lessening of true socialization is not merely created by the digital age. The Internet is not inherently democratic—or inherently ANYTHING—but it does have the potential to do good if we use it that way, and perhaps that is what I didn’t understand coming into the class; but I recognize it now. If we used the Internet correctly, if we reignited our zeal for activism, for engagement that effects a true change, as opposed to giving into slacktivism and meaningless support for subsequently short-lived movements, if we became more informed about consumerism and planned obsolescence and where our phone pieces came from and where they’re going, if we thought more consciously about the implications of our social networking, and if we fought for privacy rights, could it be a positive force?
I may be leaving the class with feelings similar to those I harbored going in, but that ignores the fuller picture. I needed to experience the full-circle shift over the course of the semester. I needed to see the bright side, the hopeful roots of our society’s techno-optimism, needed to start buying in, and then I needed to have the rug pulled out from underneath me. I needed to see the real reasons why cyberutopianism is so likely an impossible ideal. I needed to recognize more deeply why I opposed digitization in some of the forms it takes. I came in resentful of social networking, fearing the Internet, but not always understanding why. Now I leave understanding the negative implications in a political sense, an economic sense, an environmental sense, in terms of privacy rights, in terms of human rights—a term which perhaps should not even be used if you are in the Poster camp—in terms of activism. I understand on a broader scale what is wrong with digitization; but I also understand what is right. I understand why there is reason to have hope, why not everything is bleak.
As a nation and as an international community we should be engaging in a dialogue—enabled by the Internet no less—about the positives and negatives of digitization, where it will lead us if we continue on our current trajectory. But first, we have to put down our phones for a minute, return to nature, remember where it all came from, where we were before modern technological advancements. Maybe have a picnic by the river.
Sorry if the spacing is off; for some reason this won’t allow me to leave extra space between paragraphs… And for my documentation, here is my final YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLnhjpfTqsk

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