Suppose you are one of the diehards spending a couple hours browsing through the stacks of a bookstore and come across the following titles: Life on the Screen, The Second Self, and Alone Together. You might reasonably assume that you have stumbled into a section on movies and, maybe more specifically, what it’s like to be a Hollywood actor.
In some ways, you’d be right if you consider each of us to be actors on the world’s stage as we go about living our lives, interacting with others, and trying to project a self that rings true — or not.
Yet each of these three books is not about movies, but about what has happened to our lives in the age of computers, the Internet, and the Web 2.0 media.
The books are about how we go about defining ourselves, to ourselves and others, in the age where RL meets VR in the MUD.
For the yet-uninitiated, that means Real Life meeting Virtual Reality in the Multi-User Domain.
The books are all written by Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor of Technology and Society, and they span the years of 1997-2011. Taken individually or together, they show how our current age is different from any previous era humankind has ever encountered.
A nicely written excerpt from Publisher’s Weekly presents the gist of Turkle’s latest work, Alone Together, which has the provocative subtitle, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
“Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other.
“She encounters dissatisfaction and alienation among users: teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration but by how they are perceived by the online collective, mothers who feel texting makes communicating with their children more frequent yet less substantive, Facebook users who feel shallow status updates devalue the true intimacies of friendships.”
A sobering thought
The disturbing conclusion is, “Turkle ‘s prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.”
On several levels, that seems so. Anytime we see two people who are presumably on a date at a restaurant, yet there they sit more engaged in their I-phones or Droids, we get the picture.
Indeed one of the funnier commercials on television depicts two of these individuals. The woman is trying to have a real conversation with her date while suspecting he is more involved in checking game scores on his smart phone. And the reason it is so funny is because it is so true. We’ve all been a part of this scene, no?
Things that aren’t real
Carl Hays, a writer for Booklist, notes the following irony found in Turkle’s examination of the interface between humanity and technology:
“Turkle suggests that we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.
“In her university-sponsored studies surveying everything from text-message usage among teens to the use of robotic baby seals in nursing homes for companionship, Turkle paints a sobering and paradoxical portrait of human disconnectedness in the face of expanding virtual connections in cell-phone, intelligent machine, and Internet usage.”
When we are in the presence of a friend or loved one yet choose to focus our attention on the machine in our hand, we are in fact treating the machine with more respect; treating it as if it is more real than the person sitting next to us.
What makes Turkle’s observation more intriguing is that she has been making them for so long. Life on the Screen was published in 1997. How computer-savvy were you fifteen years ago? Did you even have an Internet connection in your home then?
Still, in that book Turkle posited that the Internet, with its bulletin boards, games, virtual communities, and private domains where people meet, develop relationships or emulate sex, is a microcosm of an emerging “culture of simulation” that substitutes representations of reality for the real world.
What we had in 1997, Turkle said, was a new way of developing an identity. This new pathway was “de-centered and multiple,” meaning it was created outside of our beings; that we used multiple Internet means and models for creating a sense of who we are as unique individuals.
If it was true then, especially for the more malleable minds of the young, how much more true might it be today as the Web has gone through mega-changes since 1997?
As one college student put it, “RL is just one more window, and it’s usually not my best.” The haunting thing here is that he is considering the worlds he inhabits through his computer as real life. He is discussing the time he spends as four different characters – avatars – in three different MUDs. Add in the time he spends doing his homework on his computer, and he lives more of his life there than apart from it.
This kind of life requires people like this student to split themselves into different selves, turning on one self and then morphing into another, as he cycles from window to window on the screen. He believes it allows him to explore different possibilities of who he might be.
Some simply say, “The Internet lets you be who you pretend to be.”
A 2001 flashback
And, in an unsettling flashback to older generations of scenes from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we seem to be losing our self-control to computers. As those space travelers did, we no longer give commands to our computers; we have dialogues with them.
And often, the computers seem to have the last word.
Experts in intercultural communication remind us of the importance that narratives and rituals play in our lives and in orienting us to our own identities, history, the norms and expectations of our society. Each society uses rituals and narratives for this purpose, and they combine to form powerful tools to teach us.
I’m thinking of the opening scenes of the Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It, where Norman MacLean describes beautifully how he and his brother learned at the feet of their father, a Presbyterian pastor who taught them the value of faith, fluid writing, and fly fishing, in equal measures.
As Norman said:
“We were left to assume, as my younger brother Paul and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John was a dry fly fisherman.”
Learning the values
Hours of painstaking practice, on a daily basis, reinforced their father’s instructions on these three values which had long been central characteristics of this Montana family of the early 20th Century. Norman and Paul learned the lessons well.
When I see that film, I can’t help but think of the times my own grandfather took me trout fishing, and of the times I took my own two sons to hunt for the big bass on Indiana lakes. Then I think about the much greater amount of time the three of us have spent apart, glued to the computers.
The stark truth
Let’s face it: You don’t get much connection to the family or your own identity from the Internet. You may learn about them, but they don’t become ingrained in your DNA as Norman’s and Paul’s lessons did.
Instead, our time spent in the virtual world of the Web provides us with narratives that are snippets or soundbites, constantly interrupted by hyperlinks to “related stories” to which we happily leap, distracting our attention from the main story or narrative that — frankly — was getting a little too long anyway for our short attention spans.
Welcome to the virtual world
And instead of the rituals of the family dinner, learning writing or fly fishing from Dad, we spend hour after hour vicariously living others’ experiences, often with a stand-in avatar for us as we get lost in some online video game or doing armchair traveling around the world.
We already know we have become more splintered as families as everyone heads off to their own laptops to explore their virtual worlds which may not be representative of the corner of the world we inhabit at all. That being so, how do we expect to understand that culture as our parents and grandparents did?
It’s not just family members going their own way, but also members of the same culture or society doing the same thing. The younger we start out exploring the world on the Web instead of the real world in front of us, the more time we spend away from the rituals and narratives that teach us about that culture.
And, since we learn a lot about our own identity from our culture, we make it harder to discover that identity.
No mall directory
Is it surprising that we wake up one day to discover that, like the first-time shopper in a huge shopping mall, we have no idea where we are in relation to the places we want to be or how to get there? There is no mall directory, because there have been no narratives and few real-life rituals to point us to our destinations.
The other day I was watching a TV commercial for one of those online services that helps you track your family tree. Something like Ancestry.com. There was this woman who was talking about her great-grandfather as if he were someone from an alien planet whom she knew absolutely nothing about until she paid this online service to discover his identity.
Then I realized, I don’t even know who my own great-grandfather was. As a child raised on television, I can tell you the name of Tonto’s horse, but not the name of my grandfather’s dad or mom.
A telling sign about how we’re losing our sense of our own culture? Wouldn’t our grandparents chide us for side-stepping the importance of knowing our own family history?
Is our time spent in the virtual world, as opposed to the real one, exacerbating that disconnect from our own culture? At best, it doesn’t help.
Thanks to all of you who have dropped me get-well e-mails and posted comments on Facebook and on this blog showing your concern. I am pleased that you’re glad I am still among the living, despite how the computers at Capital One and the credit bureaus have been reporting my demise.
Actually, I feel something like Superman, defying the fate of mere mortals. How did the line go on the old TV series? Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound…
My prognosis is as good as can be expected in my corner of the virtual unknown, as the C-One server has now accepted the fact I am alive. That company has so issued e-mails, finally, to the three credit agencies (Experian, Equifax, and Transunion) that rule our lives. The first two of those agencies have acknowledged that by resurrecting my credit files, and I am in hopes the third will do it in time for me to close on a home.
A few of you have actually chimed in with stories similar to mine, wherein computer glitches have erroneously wiped your friends or relatives off the planet, or have confused you with someone else who has the same name but a vastly poorer credit rating, sticking you with his rating.
Misery loves company
Apparently it’s not just me that Capital One is somehow targeting out of spite or, more assuredly, incompetence.
One (hopefully) final snafu did pop up early last week, however, when a very self-satisfied Capital One worker from the Probate Services Department called me to announce that my request had been handled successfully. “That’s great,” I said. “You mean you have notified the credit agencies I’m alive?” I realized I was being unrealistic, however, when she replied, “Oh! Is THAT the problem? I was just calling to tell you that we are sending you new credit cards.”
Do you need credit in the afterlife?
Thousands bite the dust
One writer commented on my post a couple days ago that his brother – and a lot of others like him – had gone through the similar experience of being declared dead prematurely. He wrote, “My brother Barry went through this same scenario, but with his military retirement and the Social Security Administration… Seems that during a ‘computer upgrade’ they ‘killed’ about 85,000 vets! Working through personal contacts, he was able to find what actually happened, but had to do some of the same things you are doing albeit w/o the call center routings. Glad to know you are alive.”
That post came from a friend I haven’t seen in decades, and it made me realize how my premature funeral had reconnected me with long-lost buddies. So I guess I have at least one thing to thank Capital One for.
A soul mate in SFO
I was not surprised to find another situation identical to mine which occurred earlier this year in San Francisco. You can find the full story and a KGO-TV video on http://www.walletpop.com/blog/2010/02/11/woman-mistakenly-declared-dead-by-credit-reporting-agency/ Here is how writer Mitch Lipka reported this story:
“Anne Howe is not dead, but her credit report said otherwise. So, as far as the bank refinancing the mortgage on her Bothel, Wash., house was concerned, there would be no loan. After all, she was dead. If you’re dead you don’t have a credit score. Without a credit score you don’t have a loan.
‘Never mind that Howe was a regular at the bank, had an active account there and signed a notarized statement that read: “The report of my demise is inaccurate information.’”
A final irony
I do find it ironic that the same new-age communication environment that can bring lost souls together via Facebook and computer dating sites, can also cause our world to become so faceless and nameless where, at the absolute best, you are talking to a powerless first name and I.D. number. And this individual works where? At a corporation’s forgotten and underfunded department carrying the name of the most absurd misnomer ever devised: