Vinoth Ramachandra

Network Selves

Posted on: January 8, 2011

One of the characters in the film The Social Network delivers what is intended as a generation-defining line: “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re gonna live on the Internet.” A scary thought.

What kind of life is it that is lived on the Internet? In my post of 31 October 2009 (“Becoming Faceless?”) I sketched how we are changed as persons by the technologies we use; and also gave my reasons for being a recluse in the world of social media. Most of my colleagues in the organization I work with are more “plugged in” than I am. They have strange cords and gadgets semi-permanently attached to their ears, and much of their waking hours are spent on Facebook, Twitter, Skype and e-mail. With the click of a button they can send off comments and replies to a large and anonymous audience. But I have ceased to expect a thoughtful, considered reply to any of my own e-mails. It may be that my letters disappear under the sheer mass of “information” with which my colleagues are inundated. Or, as is more likely, they simply do not have the time to switch off and think before they click the reply button. This does raise the important question: how is human communication suffering as a result of the widespread use of the new communication media?

If anybody is tempted to dismiss my comments as the nostalgic rants of a Luddite, let him read Jaron Lanier’s recent book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Penguin, 2010). Lanier is no technophobe or ignoramus. One of the pioneers of virtual reality (indeed, he was the one who first coined the term “virtual reality”) Lanier belongs to that rare breed of engineers who reflects philosophically on their work. He is cynical about the reductionist tendencies prevalent in the field of computer science (for example, reducing thinking to “information processing” and prostrating oneself before machines). He points out that every software program embodies a personal philosophy. “It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering.”

The slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use of a button can sometimes completely alter behaviour patterns. For instance, Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has demonstrated that changing the height of one’s avatar in immersive virtual reality transforms self-esteem and social self-perception.

Lanier points out that “anti-human rhetoric” abounds in the world of computing. Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, has stated that we don’t need authors anymore, since all the ideas of the world, all the fragments that used to be assembled into coherent books by identifiable authors, can be combined into one single, global book. “People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time,” writes Lanier. “Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm.. The attribution of intelligence to machines, crowds of fragments, or other nerd deities obscures more than it illuminates…Treating computers as intelligent, autonomous entities ends up standing the process of engineering on its head. We can’t afford to respect our own designs so much.”

His most scathing comments are directed at the developers of what has come to be called Web 2.0. “It breaks my heart when I talk to energized young people who idolize the icons of the new digital ideology, like Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and free/open/Creative Commons mashups.” In the preface to the book he states: “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” But for Mark Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing whatever they do) is being somebody. When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she shrinks. We are squeezed into “multiple-choice identities”. Wikipedia obliterates context and personal perspective- without which information can be dangerously misleading. Yet research any topic on an Internet search engine, and the first site you be will be referred to is Wikipedia.

Recent political and legal debates in the US over the Wikileaks “revelations” has perhaps obscured other serious threats to freedom- those posed by the advertising industry and credit card companies that can buy and manipulate personal data for private profit. In an article entitled ‘Generation Why?’ the novelist Zadie Smith, who teaches English at Harvard and is only a  decade or so older than Zuckerberg, complains that “our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”  For her Facebook reflects a sad reality: “500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a ‘life’? (Prove it. Post pictures). Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books, and television, but not architecture, ideas and plants.)”

Given the huge numbers of Christians involved in the world of computers and information technology, especially in India, South Korea and the USA, why is there so little critical and theological reflection of this nature emerging in our churches and seminaries? Christians, of all people, should be profoundly interested in communication, given that the self-communication of God in human flesh is at the heart of the Gospel. Why has it been left to secular humanists and others to articulate the prophetic insights that we desperately need in our technology-driven environment?

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24 Responses to "Network Selves"

[...] posts are almost always worth the time to read and require time top reflect upon. His post today Network Selves returns considering  the way the technologies we use change us, and some of the dangers associated [...]

Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking post. I am still beginning to mull over the big issues, but I have written a short post that suggests an answer to your (probably rhetorical?) final question. Since it is quite long for a comment (another example of the way these technologies risk trivialising?) I will provide a link here: http://bigbible.org/sansblogue/digital-life/882/

Appreciate this post greatly.
“Christians, of all people, should be profoundly interested in communication, given that the self-communication of God in human flesh is at the heart of the Gospel.” This incarnate communication of God also critiques the disembodiment of our digital selves – the detatchment of our words and endorsements (‘likes’) from the capacities and limitations of the senses, and consequent de-concretisation of our relationships.
I am challenged by the lack of accountability to ethical consequences and to one another as humans that is normalised through existing relationally, financially, educationally and so it would seem, theologically, online.

[...] January 9, 2011 tim No comments This is a first response to Vinoth Ramachandra’s post Network Selves. Ironically, but quite properly, it was thought through first as I was “doing Facebook” [...]

I work at a US seminary and have benefited from your blogs for some time. Perhaps this will be of some interest and encouragement to you, Dr. Ramachandra. Perhaps this is the first conference of its kind?

http://www.sssrweb.org/news.cfm?newsid=144

Thank you, Jenny, for this. But the focus seems to be more on sermons and clergy, doesn’t it, rather than theological reflection?

Vinoth, thank you once again for another perceptive post and comment. One of the sad ironies is that it was another secular thinker who heralded and understood much of what you and Lanier argued years ago. Martin Heidegger made a very similar case when discussing technology in relation to what he called enframement. He was particularly worried about the way in which technology “enframes” being, gradually turning what is part of its networks into resources to be exploited. Perhaps the worst thing about his analysis was the fact that people become reliant on such enframing networks networks. His discussion focussed on the development of of hydroelectric power, but it works even better when looking at modern social media. One of the biggest problems, particularly for those of us under 25 in urbanised contexts, is that much our social lives has been enframed. I first noticed this with cell phones a number of years ago. Until 2005, I survived without a phone and was for a time reasonably capable of organising my life and communicating with others. However, by my second year at university I essentially found managing a social life and social connections, in terms of church, university or leisure, impossible. The same thing is occuring with platforms like facebook, which is now the world’s most popular website. A huge chunk of Gen Y’s social world is mediated by a privately own website…that is frightening. Those who don’t buy in increasingly find themselves disconnected and alienated, while those who do buy in find that communication and relationships become increasingly shallow.

One of the reasons I think Christians have been slow to respond to such challenges is that we are too used to viewing technology as something neutral, a tool which can be used for good or bad but assumes no values in and of itself. This is particularly true within Evangelical churches that are eager to use technology to aid their own mission, to promote the gospel, their own religious communities, and even to regulate and disseminate theological resources. Ill-considered pragmatism, and an uneasy partnership with certain political and economic interests prevent us for seeing things for what they really are. We are often unaware that the medium we use to make our message known enframes and perhaps betrays that very message we preach and live by.

That is helpful, Richard. E-mail has enormously enriched my life. Cell phones (to which I was a latecomer) have been utterly indispensable in certain situations, but I usually have them switched off. I think Europeans are generally more careful in the way they use cell phones than Asians. Here they have only increased rudeness, insensitivity and a deterioration in linguistic ability. I guess “selectivity”, “discrimination”, “reflectiveness” are important terms here. But it well nigh impossible, especially for teenagers, to resist peer pressure and the advertising hype. What I find most worrying is the fact that those university students with the latest and fastest gadgets are often the least informed-politically, historically,theologically, whatever- and impatient with the learning process. Difficult to communicate that discipleship is a long, slow walk. Some things cannot be speeded up without irreparable loss (like physical growth).

Great article and great questions, I have found the reflections of Kester Brewin to be very insightful and have both inspired some of my own thoughts and also pointed me towards resources for further reflection.

http://www.kesterbrewin.com/2010/06/09/serfing-the-net/

http://www.kesterbrewin.com/2010/09/07/you-will-no-longer-be-called-facebook-identity-and-rebirth/

[...] of age on Facebook January 11, 2011 tim No comments Chris in a comment on Network Selves pointed to a post by Kester Brewin ‘You Will No Longer Be [...]

Provoking and disturbing once again. I feel we detest being alone and in case we do it with a “notebook”(-my father would understand it notebook differently). Well no wonder we are connected but i do sadly realise it’s to a virtual world; the very people who are “friends” on my ‘Facebook’ (my mother will think i have spelt it wrong) seldom smile at me nor do I. The irony is that I depend on internet to get this message across-but seldom do I learn that it’s as a means and not the end. Thanks Vinoth.

Hi Vinoth
Do hope you enjoy the irony that I too read your blog on face book. As much I a enjoyed reading reading it it led me to thinking whether we (since I agree by and large with your views) are not being slightly Amish in our response to the web. Perhaps the TV enframed our generation in much the same way as the net does with present generation of young..ish persons.

Then again I wonder if it is fair to blame technology for our own all embracing crassness. I would think facebook is mildly crass compared to say for instance the ghastly crassness of reality tv.

And yet the net offers a danger in that for the first time in human history the individual is not alone. In the web we can find our own communities of interests from the slightly anarchic Anonymous to the Tweets on the Ashes to web suicides. As mainstream media loses out to the fragmented chaos of new media aspirations like balance, independence, centrism may disappear in favour of us viewing & listening to the versions of events that best fit our prejudices a la foxnews.

On the other hand apart from Google and a handful of others, companies dont make much money on the web. While the corporations will do their damnedest to monetize the web it appears, thus far at least, the beast can only be controlled by a theocracy of programmers who like things to be free and open and for who peer recognition is the only real guiding principal. The web is anti-capitalist…for now

Vive la Luddites! Vive la Palestine!!

Cheers

D

I once woke up and what i do next is open my laptop and open facebook. It was a blue day to me.
Anyway, not like to be mentioned not up to date, i enjoy facebook occasionally. I survive without opening it during my working hours, everyday. I just find benefits from facebook to fast contact with old friends anywhere.

Hi Vinoth, and thanks again for another thought-provoking post.

I consider myself, as you will be unsurprised to hear, being somewhat on the other side of the technological fence to you (and most of those who have already commented), so thought it was about time I spoke up and left a comment which, I hope, will add texture to this already fascinating discussion.

I have just started reading ‘You Are Not a Gadget’, on your recommendation. Admittedly I am only into the first chapter, so my thinking will no doubt continue to develop the more I read of the book; and perhaps I will add further comments to reflect this and continue discussion here.

I would certainly agree that Lanier reflects philosophically on his work as a software engineer, but would suggest he does so pessimistically, too.

Lanier builds his argument on the ‘lock-in’ effect of software development, that as a project becomes increasingly complex, the closer it is tied to the technology or architecture on which it is built, regardless of how imperfect that becomes as it is superseded by newer, and better, technology.

He illustrates this point with the example of the ubiquitous MIDI, a means of representing music in a digital format. Its simplicity which led to its rapid and widespread uptake is also its Achilles heel; MIDI can never truly represent the rich texture of real music, and was never intended to do so. Unfortunately its ubiquity means it is used in many less-than-ideal situations, and has perhaps delayed the uptake of superior alternatives.

However, this argument is dangerously simplistic, and used to build a pessimistic case for the application of technology in reducing human-software interaction to a costly, binary relationship that robs humanity of our innate diversity, texture and complexity.

Whilst it is incredibly important to be critical of how technology never leaves us unchanged, I think we can sometimes give humanity too little credit: we are not entirely naive or passive in our relationship with technology, and can even see human ingenuity and creativity in our application of technology as a tool.

Not all software systems are victim to their own success in quite the same way MIDI has been, and systems and architecture continue to develop to face new challenges, and human application of technology adapts to capitalise on new benefits, to overcome old hindrances.

And even in the case of MIDI, it has not replaced the enjoyment of ‘real music’, which I would argue is as popular as ever. The existence of MIDI as an imperfect solution to a problem has not dulled our senses, appetite, or even appreciation of music. Some musicians have even had their creativity sparked to see what they could produce, artistically, with the limited scope MIDI provides. So I think there is an equal argument that humanity is not defeated or dehumanised by simplistic technology.

But that is the opinion of a technology optimist, trying to think critically, even when reading a pessimistically critical voice in Lanier.

And to respond to your last question: if you look in the right places, there are Christians grappling with these issues too. I’ve just finished reading, and can recommend, ‘Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith’, by Shane Hipps, as a good starting point.

Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Andy

Thanks, Andy. I shall look out for this book. I skipped the music software sections in Lanier as I know nothing about this topic….

and thanks Tim; I’m adding your article on virtual theologising to the reading lists for units I teach in both Bib Studs and practical theol.

Dear Vinoth,
Very interesting your post.
I use mainly the Facebook as a blog and as a way of promoting causes and reflection about society, culture and the church role.
The media are discussing the role of social media in the Egipt revolution. It is a danger to make some quick readings of the connection betweem the social media power and the people power.
I recomend this article, that includes a comparison with the role of the Bible in the printing age in the Reformation movement.
Very helpful discussion on this post.
Greetings to all.
Pedro (GBU-Portugal).

A few links for the discussion:

1) A more general rubric by which to judge “cultural artifacts”, which would include our evolving digital ones

http://trevinwax.com/2009/01/06/culture-making-with-andy-crouch-3-critiquing-culture/

2) A new book by Tim Challies that at least is talking about the theology of technology.

His interview about the book here:

http://trevinwax.com/2011/03/24/talking-technology-with-tim-challies/

hi Vinoth,
thanks for writing this post. I’m glad I read it.

Dave

Vinoth, a while back I wrote a comment thanking you for penning Gods That Fail which I was (and still am) reading. You probably wont remember this.

After gaining a little more insight into your thoughts, it occurred to me that you might find a 3-part documentary series currently being aired on BBC2 to be of interest. It’s entitled “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. Assuming you can get access to it, I think the themes explored might chime with some of your observations.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Watched_Over_by_Machines_of_Loving_Grace_%28television_documentary_series%29

Thank you, Bob.

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