Friday, November 26, 2010

The Internet, Part Deux

So Christmas came early this year.

I was talking with my dad this evening about wanting to buy a MacBook Air and he got the brilliant idea to head over to the Apple store to get some hands-on playtime and expert opinions. After 20 minutes in the store, Dad and I decided that it wasn't a bad idea to go ahead and buy today. The Air was $101 off for Black Friday - a "promotional price reduction" (but never a "sale." Apple doesn't do "sales."). They threw in a printer for good measure. All the signs said, "Buy today!"

I'm in seventh heaven, even though the I won't actually switch to the new Air until Christmastime. The poor thing will have to sit in the basement unloved and unused until I've got the time to transfer all my files, but I can certainly wait for such a good thing.

So here I sit, spending a few moments with my new favorite 2.9 pounds of plastic, aluminum, and lithium polymer before it's goodbye for another three weeks. I'll survive.

As I was setting up Google Chrome on my computer, though, I stumbled across this highly entertaining and educational ebook called 20 Things I Learned About Browsers and the Web. One line really struck me, especially after my musings in my last post on the Internet:

"The movement of many of our daily tasks online enables us to live more fully in the real world."

The idea is intriguing: because we can pay bills online, make dinner reservations online, submit homework online, and check the score of the Mets game online, we have less to worry about offline. Cooking from is simpler, in theory, than looking up a Betty Crocker recipe in a book that cost you $17.98. Shopping online is, again in theory, less complicated than dragging your screaming toddler around Macy's.

Okay, sure. In some ways, the Internet really simplifies the daily processes. I am Wikipedia's #1 fan. I love reading the Times online. All this information is at our fingertips, just waiting for the right Google Search.

But while the Internet is really liberating in lots of ways, I actually feel like I lose a lot of autonomy to it. By no means do I consider myself a slave to the Internet, but having so much information so readily accessible means I'm less active about going out and looking for it.

For example, the Internet has radically changed the way college students write papers. While my parents were in college, writing a term paper involved trekking to the library, pulling dusty back issues of scholarly journals of the shelf, pouring over page after page looking for just the right word. Today, I can access a sizable portion of the materials for my own research from my laptop from the comfort of my own bed and use the handy dandy command+f function to search for keywords and phrases. From this angle, I'm apparently more "free" than my parents were; there is more information that is way more accessible to me.

But at the same time, how much do I let convenience restrict how adventurous I am, how much liberty I take in the real world? If all the information and services I could need are a click away, why would I ever even leave my house?

So the Internet provides a place where we're increasingly more free to say what we want however we want to and gives us a certain freedom in the real world, but the convenience of it all can limit and alter our interaction with that world.

The Internet is ultimately a tool we can use to expand our "freedom" (wow, what a loaded word) or limit it, but it's not inherently anything, right?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Internet.

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave this address on internet freedom. The gist of her speech is this: open up access to the Internet and you open people's minds and eyes. She cited events like the "birth of citizen journalism" during the 2009 elections in Iran to point out that social media websites - like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube - can be used to open channels of communication when a government is trying to restrict what information gets passed around.

With these kinds of websites, you're putting the "means of production" and distribution of information into the hands of the masses. Anyone with a video-capable camera or cellphone - quite a sizable number of people - can create videos, upload them to a site like YouTube, and share them with an effectively global audience. Anyone with access to the Internet can create a "tweet" on Twitter and share information as banal as what they ate for breakfast or as shocking as the fact that police opened fire on demonstrators. There is an unimaginably large quantity of information getting thrown around out there on the Internet, and I'd argue that the majority of it comes through unofficial channels; while official institutions like the New York Times or the government make lots of information available, the sum total of unofficial sources of information on the Internet - like Facebook status updates, YouTube videos like this one, and my own blog - is immeasurable. We're all putting lots and lots of information out there, and consuming lots and lots of information, and we're using sites where we control the content. Even official institutions like Foreign Policy magazine's site now create forums where we average folk leave comments on their articles.

Put simply, we are an essential part of the information flow happening on the Internet. We're not just passive consumers, but rather we are active producers. As Marshall McLuhan put it way back in 1975, "At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in which there are no spectators but only actors." Interestingly enough, this is actually the title of the article in which he elaborates this idea, but the idea is just as true today if we replace "Sputnik" with "the Internet." As users of online social media, we're all interconnected and we're all creating, be it a new profile picture or a Prezi. In spite of the fact that using the Internet doesn't require you to get up off your couch except to pee and grab a coke from the fridge, participating in Internet culture (which you, dear reader, are actively doing while reading my blog) is an active experience.

I know, dear reader, that this is nothing new to you. "Duh, Grace," you're thinking. "That's pretty obvious. Tell me something I don't know."

What I want to point out is that even though the Internet is making us more and more connected all the time, I think for the average user, online social media is used to reinforce concrete human relationships rather than to forge new ones. For example, my friend Adam shared this video with me this morning in a face-to-face interaction, and then ten hours later, I turned around and shared it with another friend, Jourdan, again in a face-to-face interaction. My relationships with these two people began in the real world, and the social media was used to reinforce those relationships. Further, I think that for the average user, more often than not, social networking sites don't really expand her actual social sphere. The people I interact with through the Internet are people I already know in concrete contexts. I don't think most of us go out looking for new friends on the web. I'm not online looking for new Facebook friends in Vietnam so I can keep up with the political scene there. Rather, I think most of us use social media to solidify and expand on relationships that exist offline.

Of course, we all hear the "horror stories" of sketchy liaisons between people who meet through social networking sites. Just think of this Fall's film Catfish or for my Mormon readers the story Elder Bednar shared in his May 2009 CES Fireside about the couple who met and married on Second Life.

But that's not what the vast majority of us are using the Internet for. We might keep up with the news online, we might stream Jónsi concerts from NPR, and we might even publish blogs to which we want to attract a large readership of people we don't know, like my friend Tristan does. However, for most of us, we want to establish and maintain human relationships in "unmediated" contexts - in face-to-face interactions with real human beings - rather than in "mediated" ones in which we can only get our hands on 13" plastic boxes and stare into LED screens rather than human eyes.

Online social media helps us reinforce human relationships but doesn't replace them. There's something about breathing the same air as the person you're communicating with - gauging their reactions to you by their body language and tone of voice, making eye contact, sharing a meal. All that is largely lost online. Maybe this comes back to my recent preoccupation with sensuality and my fear of feeling increasingly alienated from my own physical body. I want sensation: sight, smell, sounds, touch, taste. And I'm not going to find that online. Even as I write this blog post - which I hope will generate some conversation within my own preexisting social circle in real face-to-face contexts - I find myself forgetting about my body and wiggle my toes to remind myself that they're still there.

Real face-to-face relationships in my tangible body - I guess that's what I'm after.

Final note: please don't think I'm a Luddite. I'm all about online social media. I think Clinton has a point - online social media is a great way to circumvent government censorship and promote understanding between people who wouldn't otherwise be able to connect. I just want to remind myself - and you all, while I'm at it - about how important our relationships are with the physical world and the other people who inhabit it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

On fundamentalism

That's a pretty formidable post title for a silly little blog like mine, but I've been having some (albeit loosely connected) thoughts bouncing around lately that seem to point back to fundamentalism.

Another controversial "F-word" among many (fetus, feminism).

The other day, my critical theory professor suggested that fundamentalism follows postmodernism.

Rewind. Let's define postmodernism - or at least attempt to. The word's a slippery one, but basically describes the tendency of contemporary culture to reject absolutes. It's all relative, says postmodernism. A good postmodernist "deconstructs" - breaks down and analyzes - the strict dichotomies that apparently define us: black/white, male/female, gay/straight. Postmodernism is all about recognizing the pluralities that exist in the world and turning a skeptical eye on anything that claims to be universal, conclusive, or infallible. It's all about exploring nuance and meaning and category. Postmodern works are always quoting from or referencing other works and movements and themes - a postmodern work doesn't claim to be "original," but rather amuses itself by playing with the preexisting world.

Ideologically speaking, that's a pretty difficult world to navigate. We humans are funny creatures. We like to feel that our existence has meaning. We like to believe that we have a solid, core identity. We like to think there are things that are absolutely true, like that democracy means freedom or that someday, justice will be served.

All that is exactly what postmodernism is trying to debunk.

Postmodernism a reaction to this secure, confident, positivistic worldview - a swing of the pendulum that's been a long time coming. Because denying objective, ultimate truth makes us humans feel so puny and insignificant and insecure, I don't think Marc Olivier (yep, that's my critical theory teacher. Props!) is wrong to suggest that a reaction to postmodernism might be a pendular swing back towards a mentality that asserts that the world around us is ultimately knowable, rational - one that makes sense, one where there are ultimate truths. We humans like to institutionalize those knowable truths: religion, government, political parties. Cling a little more tightly to such supposedly literal, ultimately knowable truths and you get fundamentalism.

But hold up. If defining postmodernism gets a whole paragraph, shouldn't we explore the semantics of "fundamentalism" a bit more closely? After all, the term has a wide range of applications. It was first coined to describe a movement in Protestant theology, but over the last few decades has been reappropriated to describe groups of Muslims, Jews, and Mormons. Strictly speaking, "fundamentalism" should describe the groups' adherence to the most fundamental - that is, the most basic and essential - doctrines.

And here's a whole new can of worms.

What the heck is doctrine? What doctrine is "essential" or "fundamental" to a religious group obviously varies between members of that group. Members of the LDS Church don't believe polygamy to be an essential core doctrine, because we don't practice it anymore. Fundamentalist Mormons, however, have adopted the "fundamentalist" modifier, though, to assert their belief that it is. I'm not going to claim to be an expert on the Muslim faith, but it seems what jihad means is up for debate, and we've assigned the modifier "fundamentalist" to the Muslims who interpret jihad as literal war on unbelievers.

[Brief side note: for some interesting ideas on what essential, or for sake of argument "fundamental" Mormon doctrine is, see this 2007 official statement and Valerie Hudson's close reading of it]

However "fundamentalism" gets applied, it does mean uncompromising adherence to a set of beliefs. Quite the opposite of the postmodern refusal to decide anything for certain. That refusal is unsettling. It's a lot more comfortable to unquestioningly believe in the existence of God than it is to have to explore how and why you believe that - to thrust faith under a microscope.

That said, I'd like to close with this quote from Hugh B. Brown:

"One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking."

That's no resolution at all of the conflict, but I think it's the start of one. More to come in the future, I hope.