In this new post Dr. Dennis discusses the concept of “networked individualism” which is put forward in the book, “Networked: The New Social Operating System” [NSOS hereafter] (and its website and an amusing blog post, “If Romeo and Juliet had mobile phones“). Authors Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman promote the term, ‘networked individualism‘. Dr. Dennis is reading the book and commenting whereas I only have various reviews and net sources to consider. The general gist of these is that NSOS is very positive:
The new social operating system of “networked individualism” liberates us from the restrictions of tightly knit groups [from Amazon review]
… does not support the fear that the digital technologies are killing society. Our evidence is that these technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems. They are being incorporated into people’s social lives much like their predecessors were. [from book’s website]
whereas Dr. Dennis takes a closer look:
So, for me as a psychologist with a clinical and neuroscience background, their methods and perspectives are quite different from mine. This makes reading about their research, and the conclusions they draw from it, very interesting but I often have lingering questions about what their data mean. [my emphasis]
Dr. Dennis first describes the concepts, including networked individualism, presented in NSOS, esp. clarifying the distinction between network and group (a distinction I still have trouble grasping), the connection to family, and then introduces her concept of “electronic leash”, an excellent metaphor for describing the consequences of always being connected. She says:
I also find sometimes that I get in a mode of texting or emailing things to my close family and friends rather than talking. That’s fine for the sake of efficiency much of the time, but I can’t help but feel that I’m losing out on something more satisfying and on what I think of as the alchemy of face-to-face conversations – the unpredictable creativity and clarity that can happen when you just have an old-fashioned conversation.
The unbridled enthusiasts of wired_world, such as Pew and these authors do focus on the positives and tend to show the predecessor world as inadequate or antiquated and thus replacing it with the new world is a forward leap to be celebrated. Dr. Dennis and other professionals (and amateur me), while not coming from some Luddite POV, also point out the potential losses (the old world had its advantages too). Certainly the commercial side of Web 2.0 wants to push us forward into a new day, no questions asked, but those involved in forming social policy and attitudes (or the study that underlies policy and viewpoint) need to be more restrained, neither Polyanna’s or Cassandra’s.
Previously this blog has pointed out an old example, that the rise of printing led to the decline of the tradition of oral (even singing) storytelling that not only conveyed information but led to a positive group bonding experience. Even the loss of aesthetic enters as well in comparing the hand-produced illuminated manuscripts compared to the sterile “efficient” modern typesetter. We gain faster information transfer we lose art, the personal connection to the media, and the connection to a shared group experience. Are we stripping so much of human experience from information in the name of efficiency?
Dr. Dennis introduces the idea of electronic leash in her post but I think this shows a potential flaw in NSOS. Somehow they perceive it to be liberating that we can participate in networks instead of restrictions of tightly knit groups, but don’t also consider how much this electronic leash effect is tying us even more slavishly to our networks. Presumably by groups they mean actual physical people in real world setting where membership in the group is largely defined by who you are, not your choice as perhaps networked individualism supports. Groups, families, can certainly be stifling but there is perhaps often an element of affection and caring in these “old” structures that is missing in the new ones. If I stop talking to family that will be quickly noticed but if I drop out of an electronic conversation who will care? Since the networks can easily be joined and/or created, they can also easily be disbanded or abandoned. How far before only the “individualism” part is all that is left or we really are “alone together”?
In final part of her post Dr. Dennis suggests a list of questions. Dr. Dennis promises to soon report back on some of these questions and I look forward to her response, but I’ll enter a few comments, hopefully in a novel direction.
Some of this sounds good to me, some not so good. But there are some questions ….
- is this shift towards networked individualism really inevitable?
- What exactly are the costs
- Are social media just helping us to stay connected or are they actually a powerful force in moving us towards more networked individualism?
- For whom are these changes good, and for whom are they bad (i.e., are there network mavens and network Elmer Fudds)?
- What is the difference between size of network and the quality of the network?
- What about the burden placed on us to keep up with large, disparate social networks, which for many people may be largely comprised of acquaintances?
- Is there less time and energy left over for “quality” interactions and true intimacy?
1, I’d like to address, “is shift … really inevitable?“. For me this is something that permeates all my discussions of social media and that is we’re looking at it from a very short-term perspective where we haven’t (yet) fully adapted to it. In that regard I would almost say “nothing is inevitable” as we can and will learn to deal with technological change and incorporate it in our lives. It’s there and very pervasive and persuasive, but it’s still our choice. Do we abandon groups just because we now have networks – No, not inevitably, at least. Does real life and family fade away to be replaced only with glowing screen and mobile device – No, not inevitably, unless we choose to permit it.
In the short time, esp. mobile devices, have been available we see change in behavior. When they’re first introduced people use them as they will, but if irritating behaviors result John Stewart will happily ridicule us all back into some sanity. Do I think that 10 years from now teens will have then faces buried in texting on their smartphone or move on? (the rebelliousness of youth gives me confidence today’s fads will go out of fashion). So I don’t believe it is inevitable BUT it will be incorporated, just as print, TV, cars, etc. And certainly discussions by the involved experts can offer us guidance to adapt so we get the good that comes from the new and minimize the loss of abandoning (some) of the old.
And, 6, “the burden placed on us to keep up“. I think I see ample evidence this is a serious challenge. First-hand I know that business worries about the volume of communications (just as everyone complained of too many meetings) and the need to manage email and texting and calls better since it’s now consuming too much time (I always found, as a paraphrase of a cliche (no time to do it right but time to do it over), no one had time to listen long enough, but always had time to listen again and again again because everyone was too busy to get anything resolved). In the social arena I think most families are now dealing with the issue that all family members are spending too much time online and not enough with each other and looking at ways to solve this (the new “quality time”, hopefully not as awful as that was). Tourism suppliers are now advertising vacations where you can unhook and have an excuse to everyone why you can’t be reached (the top of Bighorn mountains, where I was in July, is still a deadzone, but as I found creating drafts to be sent as first connection with a tower is almost the same as being online, so it is up to us (me in this case) to unhook).
Oh, I must digress on personal anecdote for a moment. Way long ago before any of these communications I was the manager of “systems programming” (roughly equivalent to sysadmin today) for a large corporation. I had taken off to Canada for a weeklong backpacking trip. Despite leaving plans for how to handle issues in my absence, a crisis erupted and panic ensued. In that process my employer actually called the RCMP (“mounties”) to see if they would go retrieve me out of the wilderness. The mounties politely explained they didn’t do such things, esp. just for an “emergency” in a computer center. So even getting away decades ago had its challenges but we found solutions then.
So my point is this is an issue we (each in our own way and own environment) are recognizing and beginning to deal with. Even on the technology side, IIRC, one software feature Google+ pushed over Facebook was the ability to tie your networks together in categories instead of all one big tribe. So technology (smart agents, maybe even autonomous chatterbots to mindlessly pretend we’re still part of the conversation; a lot of texting sessions I’ve seen with teens could easily be done with today’s level of AI) will be part of the answer, but our adapting our behavior will be most of the answer. This incessant buzz can sink us or we can learn to compartmentalize and sort through it.
And finally, 7, “less time for quality and intimacy“. Again I think this is like #6 but goes beyond mere efficiency into deeper human experience. And this is why I think these kinds of questions, in addition to the positive advocacy of something like NSOS, and most importantly real research (not just to whether something is happening or not, which NSOS seems to have done, but what it means to us as human beings) are required. wired_world can be like high fructose corn syrup and Big Macs as gradually bloat our sizes to obesity (I should talk). Like the good nutrition advocates (kudos to Michelle Obama) telling us about “good eating” someone has to be telling us about moderation and “good netting” and why (since cutting back on anything tasty requires some strong arguments). Quality interactions and loss of intimacy can be an outcome of networked individualism and I don’t think it’s hard to say there is a loss there if that happens, so we have to recognize it is our choice and to choose appropriately.
So we need the full-speed-ahead, damn-the-icebergs types to keep things moving along and we need the thoughtful and concerned types to ask why, what are the consequences, and how do we properly regulate this, as individuals and as a society.