Every Christmas I like to have an argument with my mum, usually about technology, and usually conducted like an irregular serial – picked up several times over the course of the holiday. In previous years my Christmas technology arguments have been about kitchen appliances; can you believe we still don’t have a microwave or a dishwasher? Next Christmas it has got to finally be about the pitiful size of our TV, a debate that was this time sidelined by 2009’s topic: social networking.
In a car ride to visit grandma, mum passes this article by Julia Neuberger over to the back seat. (Her producing articles from the Guardian, often snipped out and left on my bed, is a feature of our arguments.) Essentially Baroness Neuberger had summarised what my mum thinks: that social networking is making us less social by wrapping us in a virtual world and isolating us from ‘real’ relationships.
This is of course bunk.
One problem with this criticism of social networking is that it is just such a tired old refrain – one that has so often proved to be inconsistent and alarmist; its intellectual heritage is millennia old: that new technology is rotting the brains of our children and threatening civilisation as we know it. Yawn. (Let’s not even start with Baroness Greenfield.)
Baroness Neuberger says that an email is “not as good as hearing a human voice” which is not as good as meeting face-to-face. I’d probably agree with her sentiment. But then she says, “If you can have an enormous circle of acquaintances on the net, why would you – unless very determined – go out and make real friends?” Unless you have a very low opinion of human beings, your argument can’t be both that being online is so compelling it offers a Soma-type existential threat and that it’s a lesser form of interaction.
But the other problem with her criticism is that it fundamentally misunderstands how quickly technology and our relationship to it has moved in even the last ten years.
There may once have been a time when “virtual worlds” existed; when teenagers withdrew to their bedrooms and entered closed fantasy worlds divorced from real life, but the more that the connectivity of our computers has increased, the less that that has been true.
It was probably most defensible to make the virtual worlds argument before the internet, when to play a computer game was in many cases not a social experience (unless you played it with mates in your room, or went to an arcade, which, um, I think were quite common experiences). And the critique may still have had some weight in the first days of internet message boards, when early adopters were sufficiently few that, so I understand, the internet did feel like a new realm. But the whole point about the success of Facebook, the defining social network, is that it bust open that closed world. Most people’s experience of the internet has become mostly about interacting with real people that they really know in the real world.
What’s important to understand, I think, is that the interplay of technology with new social behaviours has not brought us to a place that many predicted: ever more realistic fantasy worlds that we spend ever more time in at the expense of time in the real world. Rather, the exciting thing about technology today is that it is connecting us with more people more of the time.
And not just connecting us to them online. Look at what’s hot right now: mobile connectivity and geolocation. Look at just a few of the services that are already yesterday’s news: Meetup, Foursquare, the Obama campaign’s social network. These are about using online technology to help us meet and do things offline.
The technology of the new decade is about augmented reality not virtual reality. (See this Tech Crunch article.)
As the best sociologists of the internet age have said (including the mighty Clay Shirky) modern technology is not diminishing our stock of human capital. If Bowling Alone (which kind of said just that) ever had a point, it was because it was written in 2000 before the full effects of what I believe to be the start of a social revolution were evident. In fact the turn of the millennium may be seen by future generations as the cusp between the end of an old social order (which included the hierarchical reassurances of Church and class) and something new. And I for one am optimistic that this society, powered by internet age technologies, will be more connected, more democratic, more decentralised, more open and better.
Which brings me back to Dame Neuberger. Now, I like her – at least the little I know about her. The world needs liberals, and religions need liberals more than most institutions, so she doesn’t deserve to have the full Dawkins/AC Grayling secularist barrage. But I can’t help feeling that an attack on social networks from the direction of religion is less about regretting that young people are “less able to make conversation face to face, less likely to eat together and share a sense of fellowship with others in the real world” and more about regretting that they’re less and less choosing to do those things in the church, mosque or synagogue.
The internet loosens the grip of centralisers and monopolisers everywhere.
Baroness Neuberger does make a compelling point, which I wish she’d spent more time on, when she hints at the existence of a digital divide – the fact that the old and the poor risk being left behind without access to the internet. Martha Lane Fox in January 5th’s FT I think said that 10 million people in Britain have never touched a computer do not have the internet at home. (Can that be right? I would check it but the article is hidden behind a pay wall – you can get to it here. UPDATE: And here’s another source, ‘Digital Divide in the UK?‘)
This is what progressives should really be concerned about.
Because when they aren’t, and instead worry that the internet is destroying the fabric of society, they’re not just misunderstanding the technology. They’re bolstering an essentially conservative argument against a set of tools that, perhaps more than any before them, have the power to further the progressive cause and put the interests of the many on an equal footing with the special interests of the few.