Impact of wired world – 4

Continuing with my own exploration of my thoughts on this thread I move on to the second post of Dr. Tracy Dennis. This certainly has some ideas to consider, but I thought I’ll ramble off in some unexpected directions.

First, Dr. Dennis says:

The digital divide typically refers to the gap between those who do and do not have access to information technologies, most notably the internet. But I think a new kind of digital divide is emerging – one focused on the use of social media and computer-mediated tools for social interactions. The gap is not so much based on socio-economic status, or geography, or race and ethnicity. Rather, it is based on a set of beliefs about human interactions, self identity, and technology.

I agree with the idea of the gap but I’m reluctant to it as equivalent to “digital divide” for several reasons. First, conventionally the “digital divide” is a haves and haves-not kind of argument (not a choice to use or not use). OK, so what, the metaphor doesn’t quite fit. But I think the distinction is a difference, to choose something or not is very different than to be denied that something due to some circumstance of your life. Second, typically the “digital divide”, like any inequality, is a call for some sort of political action, like subsidizing poorer areas or physically distant ones in remote parts of the country and I’m confident Dr. Dennis wouldn’t want this gap closed by some meddling government. So am I nitpicking the use of the metaphor while missing the central point of the blog? Perhaps, but I think both of my nitpicks should be subtracted from the central point.

Next I kept thinking about this a lot:

Social media can be polarizing. As I see it, people tend to fall into one of two basic camps. Let’s ignore those inhabiting the middle ground and think about the extremes for a moment:

I had a kneejerk reaction to this, esp. the actual dichotomy Dr. Dennis suggests. I thought about multiple ways I’d try to reformulate it and couldn’t get a better fit. My two discrepancies were: 1) some of us have to do some of the “social” things (like checking email as first thing in the morning, in my case working with people in different timezones, esp. including customers where some “emergency” might have arisen while I was sleeping, just forced me into round-the-clock alertness; yes, a choice, but in this case a choice to keep my job not worry about my social network), and, 2) conflating not using social media to being hostile to it (the “worried outsiders”). So I fiddled with multiple axis as a way to resolve it and didn’t come up with an improved split, so I’ll just stick with the dichotomy presented and then quibble with it a bit.

I do think it is important to distinguish between those who buy into the always-connected mentality and those who are required to do it. I was thinking, well, not many teens have global jobs, so their use of social media is probably almost entirely voluntary. And the general concern of Dr. Dennis’ research is impact on socialization of teens so I see the connection. In the program digital_nation I was amazed that today’s MIT kids have to work so much harder on staying in touch with their friends than I and all my generation there had to do – gosh, my calendar was never that complicated that I had to find some way to communication about it every 15 minutes. So some examples of teens using social media is just, well, make-work, with a pretend busy life.

But teens are only one possible problem. I tend to see the impact on adults, esp. knowledge workers in global world. And I might believe the impact is even worse on them. For one thing, there is no such thing as “time off” any more and I think that’s a problem, not just degrading people’s lives, but also numbing their minds and making them less productive. Also in my career I have seen a drastic drop in the quantity and quality of analysis applied to business problems. The reduced attention span required forsocial media (and I do mean more than just email and texting) has also degraded thinking and the quality of many solutions, the first bumper-sticker idea that comes to mind is immediately adopted in some hurry-up virtual meeting. So, if anything, the teens by using social media voluntarily, are free to turn it off (although I understand peer pressure stops that, just as much as job requirements do) whereas adults are now stuck on this treadmill of never ending crisis and urgency. And it’s killing them, their personal quality of life and their actual real productivity on the job.

Second, being concerned is not the same as worried. There are a lot of things I do worry about today, esp. those where the political arena is trying to sort them out by simply being in polarized camps maximizing their own power rather than addressing the people’s issues – that’s “worry” because it means something real and negative could clobber me. But concern, in my view, is looking more at an absence of a positive than looking at something definitely negative. I am concerned about the reduction in attention span that I think few doubt is a consequence of modern technology, plus simply too much digital noise. I am concerned that the sole purpose of Facebook, like any other corporation, is to make money (not provide teens a fun service) and that they are particularly oriented to slimy ethical tricks to do that, even more insidious than drug dealers. But I’m not particularly worried about these things because there are a lot bigger problems facing our future generation than that. Wall Street can collapse the entire world economy and put us back in the dark ages; Facebook can merely be irritating, invade our privacy, and turn us into consuming robots.

Third, and this is the other split I couldn’t fit into this dichotomy is the group that is aware of social media, occasionally uses it (either out of curiosity or requirement), but basically thinks it’s irrelevant or childish or a waste of time rather than somehow evil or damaging. I know a fair number of people in this category, definitely not technophobes, in fact open to trying new things the instant they find them, who simply find most social media silly fads with very little, or even negative, value. When I hear on TV, as I did today while treadmilling, TwitterSphere or TwitterVerse, I have to laugh. If there were a betting site on how long these terms will be in our vernacular, or for that matter, Twitter itself, I’d love to place some bets against them. The idea that news organizations have reduced themselves from Murrow and Cronkite to reading tweets on the air is worse than silly AND I am willing to bet it won’t last that much longer even in our content- and fact-free world of news today.

In fact we’re getting used to a new term, exemplified recently by “Groupon-fatigue” and lots of other xxx-fatigues. These are fads that have worn us out. Most of the hype for these fads is bought-and-paid-for (not viral) in order to hype stocks and try to get another dotcom stock bubble going. The bulk of a startup’s capital is going into promotion rather than development because Net companies depend on critical mass not technology. And the trouble with hype is that it does induce fatigue just like too much drinking or drugs or lack of sleep – sooner or later we crash. Even blogging, look at how many start with a burst of enthusiasm and are burned out in weeks or at most months. How many more baby (or cat or flashing or …) pictures can anyone stand at Facebook. No, this is why Net companies try to go public so quickly: a) they’re running out of new converts, and, b) many of their old ones are dropping out, either for the next fad or just fatigue, in other words, a Ponzi scheme on the subscriber counts. So their span of interest peaks (usually within a few months of the IPO) and then wanes, sometimes quickly, sometimes as a slow decay.

The teens today that are so in love with social media don’t remember Yahoo, but I do and it was the same thing. Or even more dated, AOL. When AOL first came out, really on the cusp of the Net becoming publicly available for the first time, it was remarkable. Teens on chat rooms, movies with the You’veGotMail sounds. Remember that 15YO’s: no, I bet you don’t since you weren’t around then. And guess what your much younger siblings will probably wonder what Facebook is when they’re in the midst of whatever fad is going in their time.

Dr. Dennis worries that social media might actually physically affect a teen’s developing brain and this is what caught my attention – never before, I think, have we had a digital technology with the potential to do that and so this is a new thing. But teens do all sorts of fads and usually grow out of them. So I’d actually predict teens will get bored with Facebook sooner than it gets burned into their synapses.

But none of what I say in this post means I’m less concerned than these responsible researchers, but I come out my concerns from another place. I’ve spent my whole life in digital technology, plus saw the whole birth of the idea of startups and new waves in Silicon Valley. Before the PC we certainly had new companies being born to exploit new technology, but the pace really accelerated with the PC. For the first time we had young people becoming overnight zillionaires (sure we had super-rich before but it took longer) and we become addicted to the entrepreneurial model (me, too, btw, I love new companies but they have their flaws). So gradually the challenge of inventing the impossible, of changing the world was replaced solely by the becoming overnight zillionaire and/or the latest new digital rock star.

And when that happened lots of insidious practices snuck into companies, esp. those involved in the wired world since popularity is success not just an important factor. So I’m concerned about digital_nation because many of the companies really are drug dealers and gun runners and our kids, as usual, are vulnerable. The new drugs may be both more harmful and more addictive than conventional chemicals. And they lull the parents off guard as well since they either believe it’s harmless or critical to their kid’s social development and/or future job skills. And don’t even think about, in the current political climate, talking about sensible regulation of a potentially dangerous product when the majority insists on unrestricted access to as many assault rifles as you can afford and killing people that might trespass “on your ground”. The kids are not being swept up by some new technology that might happen to have some adverse side-effects; the kids are targets of an aggressive predatory system that sees them only in terms of dollar signs. And, on way or another, that’s bound to have some kind of downside that responsible people should try to explore.

So I think both the whole-hearted adopters and the technophobes, people on both the two poles Dr. Dennis defined in her gap are silly (the exemplars of these groups, given they certainly do exist); the people who really get it are the skeptics, neither automatically prepared to condemn nor willing to join the mob. But then, when was the last time you saw a teen make any kind of reasoned decision.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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