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.
In another era, WWF stood for the World Wrestling Federation. Still does, I suppose, although today those initials are more commonly known by online gamers as Word with Friends.
Somewhere around Thanksgiving I got hooked into this addictive game which, along with other games like Hanging with Friends and the (non-interactive) Angry Birds are taking up a lot of people’s times these days.
With its ubiquitous accessibility, via terminal, laptop, notebook, or smart phone, Word with Friends seems, indeed, to be everywhere. And with its links to Facebook, many of the moves you make show up on your wall, thereby advertising its presence to many others and the many others who have befriended those many others.
Who wouldn’t want it known that their best achievement of the day was scoring 131 points by their adroit playing of the word “djebel?”
A domino effect
It’s the well-known domino effect, and it now has more than 3 million Facebook users “liking” this game, and probably wasting a lot of otherwise productive hours playing it.
Those prone to finding their glasses to be half-full as opposed to seriously leaking, would point out that you can increase your vocabulary with such word games as this thinly-veiled version of the classic game of Scrabble.
I suppose my reaction would be, True if you think any of the following kinds of words will be useful for you in the conversations of life:
Qi, qat, xi, vodoun, oedemas, yegg (egg with an extra-large yoke?), quin, jeux, nixe, nae, qua, tael, ratel, eclat, recta (2 rectums?) and quean.
Or how about rec, rem, urd, mae, ecu, kex, kae, and jauk?
All these and many other wonderful words are legitimate parts of the King’s speech, according to your friends at Words with Friends. And of course we use these gems all the time in our everyday chats. These are the words that come tripping off our tongue when we are confronted with six consonants and a vowel (or, worse yet, the opposite). Right?
Well, only right if we are using a handy-dandy word unscrambler. Or is that descrambler? Neither seems to find favor with the text program I’m using now.
These descramblers bring up a serious ethical issue, of course, to players of WWF: Is it cheating to
use a crutch like that? Or is a descrambler really a crutch? Might it merely help you to unclutter all the knowledge of universe you already possess so that you can get right to these words that you already knew so well?
The tree and the thud
And, like the tree no one ever saw or heard falling in the wilderness, does it matter if no one hears it? Would Aristotle or Immanuel Kant insist that you come clean and tell your opponent you’re using a descrambler before starting the match? And if BOTH of you use that aid, does that negate the ethical quandary and create an even and virtuous playing field? Or is it that you are both now cheating?
But if you’re both cheating, why play the game at all?
The game of life
The backers of WWF would say that playing this game allows each of us to come face to face with deep and important ethical principles which can only help us out in the rest of the game of life.
This all, of course, presumes that people are actually playing WWF and not just logging on to use the chat box, which is one great way of getting around paying for a text package on your cell phone, especially since you can access WWF on that very phone and text until your heart’s content — or until you run out of words — for free.
A serious side
Proving once again, however, that there is an upside to everyone wasting time on the Web, consider the following story posted just today by CBS News:
“Beth Legler, of Blue Springs, Missouri, began playing Words with Friends more than two years ago on her cell phone, reports KCTV CBS 5 in Kansas City. That’s when she met an Australian couple named Georgie and Simon Fletcher of Queensland, Australia.
“One day during a game, Georgie told Beth that Simon was feeling under the weather, so Beth asked her to describe his symptoms, since Beth’s own husband, Larry, was a doctor.
“When hearing that Simon was experiencing fatigue so severe that he couldn’t walk to his mailbox and burning in the back of his throat, reports MSNBC, Dr. Legler had some words of advice for his wife’s online friends: get to a doctor immediately.
“Legler thought Simon was experiencing angina, a condition that occurs when your heart doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. That causes pressure or squeezing in the chest, but could cause pain elsewhere in the body like in the shoulders, arms, neck, or back. What usually causes angina? Heart disease.
“Simon was reluctant but went to the doctor, and as it turns out, Dr. Legler was right: Simon had a 99 percent blockage in his artery and was on death’s door.
“Simon had two stents implanted through emergency surgery, and has recovered. ‘I owe Larry everything,’ Simon told KCTV. “I’m really lucky to be here.”
“Said Beth, ‘It’s been a wonderful experience to have had made some great friends and know that Simon is well because of a word game.’”
Wow. I’m speechless. Or is that aphonic?
I say I don’t want or need love in my life. Truth is, I lie to myself because I’m afraid to end up alone. – Anonymous.
There isn’t a time of day I don’t think about killing myself … I try to be the fun-loving, lighthearted nice guy. But who is it I’m trying to deceive? – Anonymous.
Question: What might happen if we were to use the worldwide public stage of the Web, in all its openness, to expose our deepest, innermost secrets? Would anyone actually do that?
Answer: Yes Many Web users are venting their personal longings, embarrassing moments, quirkiness, complaints, fears, and angst on sites designed especially to reveal secrets. The two comments that begin this blog post are two of those actual secrets posted within the past two weeks on sites set up for this purpose.
Anonymity is key
The caveat is that they are revealed under the promise of anonymity.
It is ironic that the world’s most public forum which can and often does embarrass people by making private facts public, is also the same forum that people are relying on to keep their identity secret.
Among the web sites that are available for bean-spilling is PostSecret, which seems to have started the trend, or which as least is one of the most popular of the public secret sites. How popular? As of today, more than 1,066,000 Facebook users alone have “liked” this site.
It’s mission, simply put: “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.”
The site administrators do the rest and post the cards.
An artistic element
Alongside the compelling lure of looking in on other people’s secret lives, the various secret-posting sites also offer the artistic element of seeing how well the secrets match the selected visual elements of the e-cards posted on the site. So these are not just secrets, but expressions of art, as well.
Among the secrets posted on this site’s e-cards are the following:
• I slept with someone so they wouldn’t commit suicide.
• I don’t know how to tell you this, but I can’t become a military wife for fear that you will die.
• I loved giving birth, but I hate being a mother.
• Every time I get into a taxi, I check to see if the driver is the man who killed you … I want to ask him how he didn’t see us.
And the secrets go on and on.
Recently, the concept of posting secrets has moved to Facebook, a site where all wall posts come with names and photos of persons posting them, right? Only partially so when it comes to special “postsecret” Facebook group pages. Like any FB page, you have to ask to become a friend and the person running that page can either accept or reject your request. In the case of a “postsecret” page, the site administrator serves as that gatekeeper.
Postsecret sites on Facebook are catching on at a number of institutions, including college campuses. Earlier this month, for example, some students at California’s Azusa Pacific University set up PostSecret Apu. Within the first two weeks, the site had accepted more than 1,750 friend requests. Some 200 secrets have been sent in already.
The administrator of the site is kept anonymous, along with those who choose to create “postcards” and send them in for posting. However, the identity of those individuals commenting on the secrets, is revealed just like on regular Facebook pages.
College students adapt it
Here is how PostSecret Apu describes itself and its mission:
“This is a student project and in no way reflects the direct values or opinions of any faculty or staff of Azusa Pacific University.
“A place to share. A place to be. A place to express the things holding you back. A place to seek help. A place to help get you to a place of freedom.
“You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to Azusa Pacific University’s PostSecret. Secrets can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. This is meant to be an outlet you might not otherwise have.”
Since Azusa Pacific University is a faith-based liberal arts university, the new site is probably more controversial than it would be on a state university campus. There have been some concerns about the kinds of expressions that might come forth and the possible impact these might have on the university and its efforts at creating a community spirit of believers.
Nevertheless, the site administrator has stated that the only caution the school has issued is to not use the APU logo or to state that this is a university-sanctioned site, which it is not. The administrator also advises users not to name any APU employees in their posted secrets.
Wide range of secrets
The secrets posted on this Postsecret Apu page, cover a wide range of personal aspirations, regrets, complaints, and revelations. Some are lighthearted and thankful like the following:
• Not a day goes by that I don’t miss calling you my best friend.
• On most days I’m too lazy to brush my teeth.
• Come friends. It’s not too late to seek a newer world.
But there are many darker secrets, too, like the two at the top of this blog post and the following:
• People assume I dress modestly just because I’m a Christian. The truth is, I’m ashamed of my body.
• I know I’m as worthy of love as anyone else. But after so many years of telling myself otherwise, I don’t know if I’ll ever really believe it.
• I lost 35 pounds in an effort to be healthy and desired. I’ve never felt worse about myself in my entire life. Life was easier when I was fat and guys left me alone. Since then I have been sexually assaulted … Being thin is not worth this hell.
• On most days I feel … so alone.
The poignancy of these secrets is enhanced by the creative visual imagery that serve as the background for these e-cards. The fact there are so many such secrets posted in such a short window of time is an indication of the private world of pain and longing that many college students carry beneath their smiling faces. Happily, others attest to the positive adjustments other students are making in the world as they grow into their early 20s.
Troubled find support
But several of the secrets are dark ones, and the darkest are those that bespeak thoughts of suicide and of those grappling with their own gender identification.
On the up side, most of these expressions garner many comments of support and offers from others to listen and to be friends with those students feeling lost in their pain and confusion.
One of the 16 people who responded to one secret confessing suicidal thoughts said this: I am so sorry you are hurting right now. I’m so sorry that you feel you have to wear a mask when you are in so much pain. Please know that you are not alone in this place, that you are not the only one who has felt this way.
The site administrator has also posted contact information for a local suicide prevention center.
Like a lot of young university researchers, I once placed almost total confidence in numbers as the basis of knowledge.
If a research study were done properly, the variables were all brought under control, the observations all reduced to numbers and those digits were crunched properly, then the results formed a stronger basis for knowledge than anything else on the planet.
Those results were stronger than anecdotal evidence, stronger than what your mom or dad told you, stronger than common sense. In fact, a researcher once convinced me common sense didn’t even exist. I believed it until a good friend — herself a scientist — pointed out one day that everytime I came in from across a muddy yard, my shoes would leave tracks on the carpet. So take off your shoes.
That, she rightly noted, is common sense.
Since then, I’ve had new respect for that concept. I still place value in well-executed quantitative studies, but I also place a lot of value in common sense.
For example, media researchers will often tell you there is no body of research that proves violence on the Internet, television, video games, or in the movies leads to real-life violence. If young Edgar witnesses a spate of bodies dropping in prime time, it doesn’t follow that he is going to become the next Jeffrey Dahmer. But it is also true that the two young Colorado shooters who left 12 bodies in their bloody shooting rampage at Columbine High School were extremely heavy players of Internet games.
New York Daily News health advice columnist Dr. Dave Moore recently told a reader that the gaming habits of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were contributors to their bloody Columbine act, and explained why their favorite game of “Doom” was so dangerous. Doom was the hottest 3D action game of the time, launched in 1993 and named video game of the year in 1994 by PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World.
Video Game Addiction
Still, Dr. Moore told the advice-seeker, “You, and unfortunately parents, are clueless about what creates the video game addiction. What separates Doom from other video games and toys is one big point. They are deliberately programmed to make the player a ‘first person shooter’. You are not controlling a character, YOU ARE the character. Parents can see that transformation start in their video gaming kids – what addiction specialists call negative developmental changes.”
A quantitative researcher would say there were other variables involved with Klebold and Harris that would not be found in an across-the-board sample of teenagers. That’s true, but there are still a healthy number of kids out there with the unhealthy tendencies and vulnerability of these two, waiting to be triggered by mediated violence. Communication researchers have identified what they call an Aggression Stimulus Theory or Aggressive-cue Theory that shows the media violence can prepare someone — condition him or her — to act violently.
A Literal Defense
On the other side are defenders of the video game, Doom, now in its third iteration. This observation comes from a site called Old.doom.com: Choosing to take a more literal approach to the connection between the features of Doom and Columbine, the unnamed writer says:
“I personally believe that Doom had nothing to do with the Columbine High School attack. I seriously doubt that Kelly Fleming was running at the shooters hurling fireballs from her hand when she was shot or that Corey DePooter was chrarging them with a shotgun. In Doom, Hell Knights don’t comfort each other under the table crying. Humans have been killing each other since the beginning our of existence, before Doom was ever around. Harris and Klebold were going to shoot up their school no matter what.”
Good News, Bad News
Some parents might breathe a sign of relief to discover that heavy television viewing has decreased somewhat among teens, and that some video stores are having trouble keeping the doors open because of lower sales. The bad news, of course, is that young people are flocking to the Internet instead to get their kicks — literally when it comes to violent online video games. So the influence that may have helped propel Dylan and Eric is still there; it has just changed platforms.
Check These Out
If you want to attach some weight to statistics, try these from the Web site, Enough is Enough:
* American teens are more wired now than ever before. According to our latest survey, 93 percent of all Americans between 12 and 17 years old use the internet. In 2004, 87 percent were internet users, and in 2000, 73 percent of teens went online.
* 20 percent of teens have engaged in cyberbullying behaviors, including posting mean or hurtful information or embarrassing pictures, spreading rumors, publicizing private communications, sending anonymous e-mails or cyberpranking someone.
* 48 percent of K-1st reported viewing online content that made them feel uncomfortable, of which 72 percent reported the experience to a grownup, meaning that one in four children did not.
* 63 percent of teens said they know how to hide what they do online from their parents.
* 65 percent of high school students admit to unsafe, inappropriate, or illegal activities online
And the prevalence of Internet gaming?
* The most common recreational activities young people engage in on the computer are playing games and communicating through instant messaging.
Here’s what the site, Teen Violence Statistics says about internet violence, its methods and influence:
“While most people think of teen violence occurring at school or in the teens’ neighborhoods, some teen violence occurs or starts on the Internet. The Internet can both encourage and prevent teen violence, depending on who pays attention or speaks up.”
And the ways that can occur? The same Web site notes:
Teen Internet violence and cyberthreats can occur in many ways. A teen may use the internet to:
- Directly threaten to hurt someone
- Indirectly threaten someone, like saying, “You’d better watch out at school tomorrow”
- Manipulate someone by threatening to hurt their loved ones
- Write about hurting him or herself, wanting to end it all, or feeling that life isn’t worth living
- Read or publish hateful information about a certain person or group of people
- Talk about wanting to hurt or kill other people
- View or post threatening pictures, songs, videos, or other forms of media
- Play games that encourage violence. Studies have found connections between playing violent computer games and acting violently toward other people.
- Visit web sites about violence or self harm
- Engage in cyberbullying
The Best Math
As I think about it, probably the best means of gaining knowledge about issues like this is to combine statistics and common sense. When it comes to the dysfunctional aspects of Web addiction, that’s when the numbers really add up.