In 2009 I wrote the blog post below in response to a post by [Wikipedia Co-founder] Larry Sanger. It is dated (of course) but as schools and school systems continue to fight against relevant uses of technology by students and teachers, I think it remains important. Relevant meaning — relevant for learners who may live in to the 22nd Century. One note, in the end Twitter has led to lifelong friendships, Twitter is why I live where I live, where I’ve had the opportunity for great work with children.
Do new forms of social networking help us or hurt us as humans?
Larry Sanger wrote a blog on this, and sent out the link on Twitter. Larry notes his disillusionment with “web 2.0,” with his concerns being (a) “Facelessness. Frequently, we find ourselves in conversation with people we don’t know. We have nothing invested with them socially”, (b) “Groupthink. The second reason Web 2.0 is becoming obnoxious to me is that I really, really hate groupthink,” and © “Such a godawful waste of time. The first time we see a shiny new Internet toy, we are all oohs and aahs. But, OK…isn’t it time to stop it with the “Which Star Trek character are you?” quizzes on Facebook? … Seriously, to my way of thinking, there are worthwhile Web 2.0 projects — like, of course, the Citizendium and WatchKnow (not launched yet) — but it seems like the vast majority of the websites, and many attractive and popular features within more worthwhile sites, are a waste of time.”
Larry sees the creep of technology as the essential problem. When I challenged him on this, suggesting a much longer term historical arc, he said he was dating his concerns back to the early 1990s.
Now Larry, the co-founder of Wikipedia, is no Luddite, but I suspect that Larry misunderstands the role of communications technology in humanity. He told me to answer him in a blog post, and so here I go…
Socrates was right
Socrates was right. When you start to write things down, when humans embraced literacy, they moved away from the natural forms of human connection. Literacy not only limited the need for memory, as Socrates suggested, it debased human learning by separating the content from the person transmitting that content, as he also suggested. [Orality and Literacy. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. The Consequences of Literacy.]
In Socrates’ world human communication was directly humane. You knew the speaker and you knew the listener. You had known them, most likely, forever. You looked in their eyes, you smelled their breath and their sweat. Your informational (and social) trust was built on a very complex, and very ancient, system of clues. Think of it this way, you know a lover is lying in ways very different than you know an author is lying. Socrates opposed writing and literacy because he didn’t want to lose that intimacy.
This is a crucial human question, going back to the very beginning. The first time humans drew on cave walls, and thus created the possibility that some might see this description of the hunt who had not heard the first hand account, technology began to both support, and intrude on, human communication. Is looking at the description of an unknown person’s hunting party a waste of time? Is it disconnected trivia or a way of understanding yourself as part of the world?
Today in History (originally posted May 24, 2009)
165 years ago today Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first public telegram. And today when I woke up I sent this Twitter message, “Something remarkable, almost tidal, watching the flow of tweets from my friends around the world, as some wake while others sleep.”
Morse’s invention appeared at one of those moments in time when technologies were radically reshaping human communication. His telegraph, for example, combined with the new technology of the steam-powered rotary press and machine-made wood-pulp-based paper, to completely alter how humans received information.
Suddenly news of the world, and eventually — via Steam Ships and less expensive telegrams and trans-Oceanic cables — personal news, could move rapidly around the globe unfiltered by the elites who had controlled this since the end of the 15th Century. Other things happened as well: photography began to appear. The railroads began to enable travel. The world, or, as Socrates might have suggested, a disconnected, unreliable, undefined sense of the world, was now available whenever people walked out of their doors, or opened their mail.
Something else was happening as well. People were flocking to cities. Suddenly people were surrounded by others they had not known all of their lives, by people they might never know. This altered social networks dramatically, and people began to organize themselves along somewhat superficial lines. The sports club and football club began to arise in England, for example, fraternal and service clubs in the United States. And social information thus began to spread differently, with a new communication level created between “back fence” and pub communication (on one hand) and news from the pulpit (on the other). People began to desire crime news and odd tales of strangers, things which would never have been deemed worthy of publication when publication was expensive. The first version of “blogging” began as writers penned serial stories or experiences which masses of people could waste time on, day after day.
All of these activities — all of these things — separated humans from the most “natural” communications experiences. Yet all of them also created new forms of human connectivity.
When I was a child “the bookworm” was a commonly derided child. Why waste your whole day with your nose in a book? “they’d” ask, instead of going out into the world and living? Yes, parents — back then — told kids to put down their books and go out and play. Yes, they did.
This was one end of the spectrum. The other, as an historic echo of Larry’s complaint about Star Trek quizzes (which I have actually never participated in), was the concern that students were wasting their time and their minds on inappropriate reading. “A closer look demonstrates that the concern was not so much to interest children in reading as to interest children in reading the books that parents, teachers, and librarians wanted them to read, books that would provide class- and gender-appropriate role models and instill socially acceptable values in both boys and girls,” Suzanne Stauffer writes of the 1880s-1920s period when “sensational fiction” was seen as a critical danger.
The wrong reading could cause groupthink, apparently, “then” as now. In the 1940s Comic Books were blamed for juvenile delinquency. Stauffer again, “Again, librarians and others proclaimed that this type of reading was not only inferior to reading “good books” but was a corrupting and degrading influence.”
So the media forms which arose between 1840 and 1950 were (a) disconnecting people from actual human touch experience, (b) creating groupthink in dangerous ways (think about the United States and the Spanish-American War), and (c) creating massive wastes of time — reading comics, watching movies, listening to crappy radio shows, reading true crime stories and trashy novels, sitting around playing records.
Of course that was also true of the media forms which arose before 1840, and those which came after 1950. As soon as Gutenberg created movable type it was being used to provide sensational stories of strangers to the public. And speeches in ancient Rome may have created groupthink on occasion.
The Flip Side
I don’t really need to go all Clay Shirky on Larry to make my point. Each revolution in communication technologies moves humans in two directions — away from the tactile human, yes, but also towards a global understanding, a global connection, a global knowledge.
So, no, I will not tell Larry about the people I’ve met online who’ve become close, personal friends in person. I don’t really think this has happened for me. Most of my closest friends I knew as a teenager — in person. Yes, we connect constantly via online tools, yes, our relationships are stronger now than they have been in decades because of those tools, but that’s not the point.
But I will tell Larry that my blog, Twitter, and list-serve relationships are not faceless, they do not create groupthink, and they do not waste my time.
“Something remarkable, almost tidal, watching the flow of tweets from my friends around the world, as some wake while others sleep.”
These are real people. We agree and disagree. We share and we argue. I may learn their “group identities” first — teacher, technologist, politico — but then I discover more, be it their poetry, their children, their eating habits, their fears. It is a fully human thing that I help @jonbecker find a parking spot in Park Slope at 1230 one morning, and that I worry about his car parked in the dark alongside Prospect Park. It is fully human frustration when I can not get @chadratliff to understand my argument. It is fully human fun I have with @damian613 over the plight of Newcastle United. And it is fully human friendship which I feel for bloggers from Karen Janowski to Enda Guinan. Bill Genereux has become an important “classmate” though we’ve never physically met, and I worry about Goldfish’s health. They are only “faceless” if we think it is impossible for, say, a blind person to know faces.
More critically, we are a group — or groups. We have powers that humans have not had before. And we’ve been waiting for these technologies to offer us these powers for a long time. Humans have been trying to lower the costs of collaboration and knowledge transfer since time began. And now we can do that. Sure we waste time. Humans always “waste time.” Sure we become “gangs.” Humans always have. But we now have social choices — powerful social choices, which are shifting power in dramatic ways. Democracy could not have spread as it did in the past two centuries without the communications technologies of those times. And neither could knowledge. Both will spread further, faster — are spreading further, faster, even in the United States — because of Web 2.0.
But technologies take learning. It isn’t easy. Early adopters look kind of crazy. “Really, you strung wire from Washington to Baltimore to send a Bible quote faster?”
So we need to learn these communication tools, and make them our own. And we need to help others, especially our children, find their own paths within these structures. Because it is indeed human, and is indeed humane.
I woke up this morning to birdsong outside the window and the smell of encroaching summer. And that tells me about the the preciousness of the planet. And I woke up with the Tweets of Aussies saying good night and Brits eating lunch and getting ready for the last day of the Premier League season. And that tells me about the width of the world.
I’m not wasting time. I’m as fully human as the people who came to read the cave paintings at Lascaux 20 years after they were drawn. I am engaged in humanity.