I recently changed my Facebook status to say something like, “A good cup of coffee and stable wifi and I’m unstoppable.” It made me smile to see that a surprising number of people connected with the sentiment. Today I find myself workshifting in one of my favourite places to work in public, Tryst in Washington, DC, suddenly with only one of those things. It seems unreasonable to go from unstoppable to useless just because my Internet connection has ground to a halt and, having felt thoroughly told off by a great recent post from Copyblogger on Blogcrastination in the last couple of days, I thought I should pull together a post that’s been bouncing around in my head for a bit. So…
This blog was sparked by a colleague leaving me something snipped form the Guardian on my desk recently. It was an opinion piece called Face to Faith from Julia Neuberger on social networking and, very basically, how it is threatening our ability to connect in person. (Do read it, it’s short and is food for thought.)
It generally got my back up and I’ve been mulling it over to try and crystallize exactly why it did that, even apart from the wild conjecture on religion making us happy, balanced people – too big a concept to bandy about unsubstantiated. Anyway I worked it out and the answer is that I struggle with personification of things we use in our lives – especially when it means demonizing whatever it is you’re talking about. Struggle is probably inaccurate, even. I can actually find it almost unbearable. And that’s what this bit of writing did for social networking, forwarding that any web-based connections are not real and therefore mean we don’t make real friends.
The article reminded me of a similar argument made a little while back by a couple of musicians (shame on you Nick Mason) who had rallied to take pot shots at Guitar Hero*,complaining that the game was stopping young people learn to play real musical instruments. They were looking at the hours people (young people, especially) put into the game and seeing their passions and livelihoods as being under threat – and so, kind of naturally, they were irate.
I almost don’t even know where to start with how flawed and unhelpful this thinking is, but the ethnomethodologist in me wants me to start with the premise that it is useless to see technology as something that happens to us, as opposed to something we create by interacting with it. It’s particularly useless because it washes our hands of power to change what we’re complaining about and of any responsibility to do so. I mean…. argh.
Let’s be clear: we do not, as far as we know, in fact have A.I. yet, so we can put to rest the notion that Guitar Hero is trying to distract our youth from becoming meaningful musicians or that Web 2.0 is making us sit in dark rooms with no real friends, okay?
Good then. Next...
I could say a heck of a lot on either of these positions but, for brevity’s sake, I’ll stick with the most important thing to me. (I’ll try to not even go near how offensive it could be to state the relationships I have built via any medium aren’t real. Come now…)
What is key to me is that these arguments both seem to have jarred part-way through – at the bit where they could get useful – and bedded in right there for a good old complain. Which is just, well, boring.
I am incredibly taken by Seth Godin’s writing on the resistance and the lizard brain just now and both of these reactions reek of archetypal lizard brain knee-jerking to me: We fear change, so how far can we push out the things that are changing please..?
How’s about this instead: Could a more interesting, more positive reaction be to use the things that are changing to leverage the change that we are after? This is no doubt the wrong place for a full tirade on, for instance, how easy and how much fun it would be to use online social networking to drive the local community action, volunteering, your congregation, whatever it is that you want, so I’ll just suggest that it could be a better place to start than a disconnected, dystopian denunciation of it. (Sorry if that’s just too much alliteration there. I can get excited about words. Back to the point...)
If people seem more interested in a game about playing instruments than actually factually playing them, then surely that can tell us loads about what might be missing in the way we teach or try to inspire people to want to learn an instrument. Instead of stamping out a passion because it doesn’t fit with how you are used to looking at things, isn’t it a bit more strategic to look at ways to transfer that passion across and take advantage of the fact that people are engaging?
If interacting with new tech is helping highlight some issues, in any industry, then it’s unreasonable for the first response to be to complain about it. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot this week, but it has fitted a lot – usually the solution is to engage and be clever, not to grumble and try to maintain the status quo. The former ups your chances of removing the thing you want to grumble about, too.
*Shameless plug for a friend’s band.