Stop Arguing and Change the World
The ideas that Sherry Turkle discusses, both in her Big Thinkers interview and her 2012 TED Talk, would have seemed revolutionary just a few decades ago. The idea that we would turn to machines and objects to shape our relationships would have been a foreign one to a population that wasn’t constantly connected to each other by computerized machines. But, as Turkle explains, we are at a point now where this technology is so ubiquitous that entire generations will only know a world in which these devices are seamlessly integrated into more and more situations. One of the effects of this jumped out immediately to me when listening to Turkle’s comments. Unfortunately the effect was a negative one. This reliance on technology for communication and relationship building has added an extra layer, or buffer, between those who are communicating, which often allows for our more base and unsavory behaviors to come to light.
In seeking evidence of this, look no further than the comment section of many YouTube videos, blog posts, or news articles. Almost invariably, things devolve into arguments, name-calling, threatening, profanity or any number of behaviors that we simply don’t see in the normal, “real world” conversations that we have. As University of Texas Psychology professor Art Markman points out, the internet creates a perfect storm of participants being virtually anonymous, far away from each other, and discourses not taking place in real time, allowing for users to create long monologues that just further entrench them in their own views.
People even exhibit these behaviors in environments like games, MUDs, and chat rooms, where the conversation happens more in real time. As Turkle herself noted in “Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in VR,” the boundaries between self and role become more blurred in these sorts of environments, which helps users address identity and intimacy issues. However, this might not always be the case if users aren’t actively trying to address those issues. In her TED Talk, Turkle recalls an 18-year-old who tells her “someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.” It seems that the very idea of a conversation is changing for the next generation.
The danger here is that this new generation is growing up in a world where these computerized objects have made this buffer layer in our communication a natural part of life. This isn’t to say that we have entered some sort of doomsday scenario and nothing can be done. These objects don’t have to be the tools of our destruction. They were made to connect us and help us, and we should allow them to do exactly that.
As game designer Jane McGonical discussed in her own TED Talk, kids today are spending 10,000 hours playing online games by the time they turn 21. She believes that this level of dedication is actually instilling a number of positive characteristics — the desire to tackle obstacles and believing we can succeed, weaving a tight social fabric, wanting to tackle large-scale problems — into an entire generation.
“These are people that believe they are individually capable of changing the world,” she says. “The only problem is, they believe they are capable of changing virtual worlds, and not the real world.”
But as this generation creates a world where “real” and “virtual” become less and less of exclusive concepts, these characteristics can easily lend themselves to potentially solving real problems. In his article, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” Julian Dibbell says that “the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does.” If this is true, we should be showing our communication the same careful attention as a loaded weapon. This applies in both “real” and “virtual” worlds, because this distinction will soon be a thing of the past.
Instead of seeing the internet as a perfect storm for bringing out the worst in us, we should view it as a perfect storm for solving real-world dilemmas. Being virtually anonymous makes people unafraid to try new things and fail. Being far away from each other allows you to connect with people that have new worldviews or insights. Discussions that don’t occur in real time can allow you to formulate your thoughts and research other ideas. Just because the technology exists to say horrible things to strangers without recourse doesn’t mean it has to be used that way.