This week’s installment of You Are Not a Gadget is once again full of interesting thoughts, which I’m attempting to boil down to three big ideas: databasing humanity, the need for extraordinary individuals, and trolls.
Lanier is concerned that much of the social networking attempts to put characteristics of humans into information that can be analyzed in databases rather than understanding the individuals with those characteristics. He specifically mentions Facebook and the way that Facebook allows you to pick from pre-determined choices in your relationship status rather than giving you an open-ended space to discuss yourself. People could search for the phrases “single”, “in a relationship”, “married”, etc. to see how the demographics break down, but each individual would have the ability to be expressive of his/her situation and personhood.
While it may seem a bit overboard to complain about this, Lanier is more concerned with the direction that things seem to be moving with regard to personal expression on-line. As more and more media sites are attempting to appeal to advertisers to become profitable, the more they can describe their users in terms that can be put into a database and analyzed, the more appealing their product is to advertisers. As we become more accustomed to thinking in these pre-determined terms, the more we start to see people in these ways and less as the uniquely instantiated individuals they are.
Lanier acknowledges that we fit ourselves into pre-determined categories when we file taxes each year. However, we see this action as being different from the rest of life. When we’re dealing with media on a daily basis that attempts to lead us to see ourselves and each other that way, the distinction between the two becomes harder to maintain.
While Wittgenstein points out that we make these distinctions in using the same word two different ways all the time, for Wittgenstein, we have to be able to recognize the different forms of life we are in so that we know how we’re using them in each situation. I think Lanier’s concern is that we’re losing the space and time that is spent developing relationships and understanding individuals in their wholeness and that space and time are being replaced with the database mentality. If there are not separate forms of life, it becomes arguably impossible to use the same word in two different ways. The question we have to ask is are we moving such that we are starting to eliminate one of forms of life. If the answer is yes, then Lanier’s concern is valid, but if not, then Lanier is jumping ahead of himself.
Do I think we are eliminating this other form of life? I’m not sure. On one hand, I have the concerns I mentioned in my post about imagination, where we’ve gotten used to working with less information in forming our conception of other individuals. We are used to being unengaged with the human person. However, there’s also the way that social media is being used to enhance engagement, such that we do easily recognize the difference between being friends with someone and being “Facebook friends”. While that may be changing with the younger generation, at this point I am not quite as concerned as Lanier, but I do understand the place from where his concern is coming.
The need for extraordinary individuals
Lanier engages a quote from Shirky (and we now have our first official butting of the opposing views) where Shirky talks about the potential power of sharing that could be employed for little cost. Shirky notes that if we spent 1% of the time presently spent watching television on producing and sharing on-line, in one year, we could produce 98 different Wikipedia-esque projects. Shirky is optimistic about what could be produced by the collaboration of this magnitude.
Lanier is skeptical of these possibilities. He notes that this level of contribution may produce a gathering of information like Wikipedia, but we don’t get the innovations of someone like Albert Einstein. Instead, it is the devoted and focused work of an individual that produces the significant accomplishments. Groups may be able to take them to another level, but almost universally, the significant accomplishments come from an extraordinary individual or small collaboration, not the collaboration of a large, collective group where each person is making a small investment.
I think Shirky is right in the ability of large groups to collect and collaborate on information. I think that small groups may be able to advance a project better than a single individual. But a single individual is often the key in figuring out a step or laying a foundation from which the group can work. It is not that the collective whole can replace the significance of the single individual, but the collective whole may be able to build on the foundation set by the single individual in a way that the individual never could have imagined on his own. In other words, we need extraordinary individuals, but we also need the work of the group. Like Lanier, I’m not sure that the collective whole would accomplish much in advancement without the extraordinary individuals.
The final big idea of this chapter is trolls, and how we each have an anonymous, abusive on-line persona that we have to fight in ourselves. While there is much that could be said about this topic, and I intend to say more later in a discussion with human rights, he has one paragraph that hits it on the head.
“I’ve also found that I can be drawn into ridiculous pissing matches online in ways that just wouldn’t happen otherwise, and I’ve never noticed any benefit. There is never a lesson learned, or a catharsis of victory or defeat. If you win anonymously, no one knows, and if you lose, you just change your pseudonym and start over without having modified your point of view one bit” (60).
I have been guilty of this far more than I wish was the case. There is something about the anonymity of the internet that allows people to forget that they are engaging with other human persons in a way that can’t happen when you’re dealing with someone face to face. I’ve tried to actually engage in anonymous discussions and hear the other person out, but find that most people don’t want to actually engage in a discussion. Instead, they simply want a forum to scream their views over everyone else and to be around like-minded people who will pat them on the back and congratulate them for their screams.
Sadly, actual discussion on-line happens far less than it could. I think part of the problem is that people have a hard time letting their guard down in a public setting. I have a friend who I really enjoy having one-on-one conversations with, who is very open and honest and willing to genuinely discuss things, but once this friend is put in a group, the walls go up and this friend cannot show any uncertainty about the position held. Lanier references this earlier in the chapter when he talks about how so many people don’t want to admit that there is mystery in how the human brain works, and especially don’t want to allow the possibility of something like dualism because by not claiming dualism to be outright impossible is often seen as a promotion of a religious view. Peer pressure seems to be able to shut down genuine discussion.
I think the classroom can become a place full of trolls if the instructor is not careful. If the students come to see each other as objects in the classroom, it is easy to demean each other and not show basic respect. However, if the students talk to each other and get to know one another, it becomes harder to see your classmate as an object. Instead, you start to see them as a human which means that certain behaviors are unacceptable. (This idea will be developed further at a later date.)
This blog has been an exercise for me with regard to issues related to trolls. For the most part, I am incredibly hesitant to post things on-line as far as my thoughts or to comment on the thoughts of others. I’d much rather sit down one-on-one and have a face to face conversation about things. It is an odd paradox of sorts. More often than not, I do not feel like I have earned the place in the life of others to speak to them on deeper matters, especially matters of disagreement, yet, if I have earned that spot, I’d much rather do it in a more direct and private fashion than blog comments. It is incredibly hard to discuss disagreements in a disarming fashion if that trust and friendship hasn’t been earned and when you can lose the fact that you’re talking to another human being. It sometimes feels like airing your dirty laundry (which one could claim I’m doing here to an extent). There are groups with which it is not only acceptable, but can actually be a good thing. However, I’m not convinced the blogosphere is the place to do that. I do recognize good from my blog (for myself at least) and hope that the conversations that occur here can be civil in nature, especially when there are disagreements. When these disagreements occur, you can trust that I will try to hear you out completely and treat you with the same respect that I hope to receive from you, and will try to give you the same benefit of doubt that I hope you’ll extend to me.
I think Lanier is on to a lot of interesting thoughts. He is raising many red flags that should make us stop and think about how we’re going about life. We need to be careful not to lose the individual human in the process. We do not need to abandon the internet, but rather be thoughtful in the ways we engage in it ourselves and the way we engage with other people through it.