Life Online: Connected or Alienated?

The first generation of “digital natives” are coming of age, and soon our world will be reshaped in their image. Our economy, our cultural life, even the shape of our family life will be forever transformed. But who are these digital natives? How are they different from older generations – or “digital immigrants” – and what is the world they’re creating going to look like?

In Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil: second thoughts on the information highway, written back in the dawn of the online age (way back in 1995!), Stoll criticises the new online life, saying “few aspects of daily life require computers… They’re irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing, speaking, and gossiping. You don’t need a computer to…recite a poem or say a prayer.” Boy, how things have changed. But his argument remains: does technology connect us or alienate us? There has been much debate regarding both the benefits and drawbacks of living in a globally-connected online world. Critics would contend that our online world allows us to dodge our real world issues and problems by escaping to a virtual world of virtual friends and interests. Supporters, on the other hand, contend that the online world opens up new possibilities for new ideas and points of view. Some believe that we’re ushering in of a new form of global consciousness; others fear the beginning of a modern version of the Dark Ages. We are living in the middle of a transition period, and it’s impossible to know whether new technology is ultimately liberating us or controlling us. With references to Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and supercomputer Hal losing his ‘mind’ in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google joins the debate over whether the Internet is altering our thought processes.

I never claimed to understand Marshall McLuhan, but it does appear to be absolutely true that how we receive information shapes the way we understand and value it. Contrary to an old university seminar discussion that’s been spinning in my mind for 20 plus years, I now think the format DOES shape and direct the content.  It just may be the old humanities student in me coming out, but I can’t help but think that all the texting and friending in today’s society equates to something like an emotional or spiritual quest.  When you see someone physically bumping into someone else on the sidewalk because they were glued to a device, or a driver texting at a red light, it makes me wonder if our commitment to the online world is a double edged sword.

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 There seems to be something about the new online technology that is comforting, reassuring and soothing to its many users. Those same features come to others as alienating and off-putting, cutting people off from real, in-the-moment relationships and issues that demand our immediate attention. The real question is what should demand our utmost attention at any given moment, and living in our online world produces more questions than answers.

 For those interested in exploring those questions further, here are some books that alternately take the skeptical and optimistic point of view of online possibilities:

Nicholas Carr: The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains

Jaron Lanier:  You Are Not a Gadget: a manifesto

Evgeny Morozov: The Net Delusion: the dark side of internet freedom

John Palfrey: Born Digital: understanding the first generation of digital natives.

– Phil D.

3 responses to “Life Online: Connected or Alienated?

  1. Nice writing, Lyle.

  2. I like your thoughts on format and content, reminds me of the process-oriented perspective that Arnold Mindell presents in his post-jungian “Dreambody”.

    Also, as computing becomes ubiquitous and invisible with more natural, gestural interfaces, what will come through more and more, I believe, is those realities that will come through greater organization/connectivity. Something like a gnosphere, like cyberspace only completely integrated with everyday reality. We will be able to access so much non-local information as to virtually transcend time and space as we now know them.

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