Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Future (of Communications) ain't what it used to be...

Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time, and for a brief moment, we have been among its many passengers.
(quotes transcribed from this youtube posting )

I’m one of those kids whose parents took them to Disney World. Not once. Not twice. Nearly every summer for the entirety of my life. My mom and dad, it seems, really bought into the idea that Disney World is a place where children and adults can laugh and learn and play together – words that should sound familiar, as I’m clipping them from Walt Disney’s opening day address at Disneyland. I think what was most interesting about my young life as a Disney World devotee was that I wasn’t quite the Princess-waiting-for-her-Prince type of girl the Magic Kingdom always catered to (but never more so than now, it seems). I wasn’t so much into the “Dreams” camp. It just didn't cater to what some might call my tomboy nature. What I really loved was Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – EPCOT Center. Yes, I was a science geek at Disney World.

What I loved about EPCOT was the promise of the future it seemed to portray. Dispensing with the character based rides of the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT center was a place to play but more importantly a place to learn. I learned about energy and non-renewable resources at the Universe of Energy long before it was home to Ellen’s Energy Adventure – and I wasn’t only in it for the all-too-short dinosaur portion of the ride, in which travelers through the Universe of Energy came face to face with those creatures whose deaths currently fuel our global energy economy. I learned about the formation of the Earth’s oceans and the endless variety of life that inhabits them at the Living Seas, long before it became “The Seas with Nemo and Friends”, back when the focus was still on the operations of SeaBase Alpha, and the care of the many aquatic inhabitants who live there, from sharks and rays to manatees. But what captured my imagination the most was Spaceship Earth – the attraction housed in the gigantic geosphere that is EPCOT Center’s trademark symbol.

On this visit to EPCOT Center, however, I felt conflicted about the possibilities for the future represented by this guided tour of the development of communications. For the first time, it didn’t ring true to me. Rather, the whole enterprise seemed profoundly sad. An excerpt from the end of Spaceship Earth pinpoints the moment where, dulcet tones of Jeremy Irons aside, I lost my faith in the narrator’s vision, for the first time in the 20 or so years I’ve been visiting EPCOT:
Today, we possess the ability to connect with one another instantly, anywhere on the planet. A new communications super network is being built before our eyes. Spaceship Earth glows with billions of interactions, carrying news and information at the very speed of light. But will these seemingly infinite communications become a flood of electronic babble, or will we use this power to usher in a new age of understanding and co-operation on this, our Spaceship Earth? Physical distance is no longer a barrier to communication: today the entire world is our next door neighbor. Our news is their news, their news ours. We share our hopes and concerns with the whole planet. We truly live in a global neighborhood.
For nearly 20 years now, Spaceship Earth has proclaimed this very message: Communications – and more broadly communication – is not simply a tool used to build our future. Rather, it’s the only real future we have, and our increasing technology entails both “the ability and the responsibility to build new bridges of acceptance and co-operation between us.” The outlook of this very Disney-fied vision of the future is interested in a causal relationship between human communications and human connections, averring that “by using our new communications tools to build better bridges between us, we will discover we all share the common bonds of hope and sorrow, dreams and joys.”

Put bluntly, I felt as though I’d been betrayed, experiencing this ride again at nearly 25. We live in a world of instant communication, and being “in touch” is, as I like to call it, the nervous tic of our society. And yet, it seems like the entire world is collapsing all around us – wars, terrorism, hunger, homelessness, natural disasters – everywhere I look are people and a planet in pain. The assuredness of a Disney ride – telling me since I was 5 years old that, as “Tomorrow’s Child” (the former theme song to the ride), I’d be part of a better future, a future in which humanity would finally have the tools to communicate with one another. In so doing, we would find a way to connect that would allow for both the acceptance of our differences (cultural, religious, linguistic) and the acknowledgement of the things that we share (and the order of those two is important).

In an unsurprising coincidence, Eileen Joy wrote a post on the same day I visited EPCOT, which addressed, among other things, the problem of modern communications and the human subject. I was particularly struck by her final lines, which speak to the problem of “electronic babble” from the excerpt above:
Just after listening to the On Point program I arrived home to find my new issue of Vanity Fair in my mailbox [the special Africa issue guest edited by Bono], in which issue there were excerpts from Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason, where, interestingly, he descries television as the main culprit in the so-called "death" or "decline" of authentic and reflective life and heralds the Internet as perhaps the last place where democracy might still be possible

So, all of this got me thinking and wondering: does too much blogging, life-logging, live-caming, and live-journaling really threaten the cultivation of the authentic and private self? Is "being alone" a necessary precondition for authentic self-actualization? Was it really more difficult in the premodern era to "hide" one's behavior, thoughts, and emotions? Why does a "private self" matter so much to what we think of as "being human"? Could the Internet really be the last safe haven of rational thought, strong critique, and freedom?
So which is it? Is the Internet electronic babble? or place where we might, finally, find a way to connect (...only connect)? Are we not getting enough “alone time”? or is it possible – just maybe – that we’re getting too much alone time? I don’t have any answers in this musing (do I ever?)...but I can’t stop wondering if our exteriorization of our interiority push us closer to babble and further from communication. I also wonder, partially as a result of my currently under-indulged obsession with Levinas, if part of the problem is that modern communications has been reduced to information without a face. Or more precisely: without a face we recognize as not simply (and so not dismissibly) Other – a face which, returning our gaze, sees in us, in what we think of as our collective self, an Other. It echoes something that was said or implied at Kalamazoo (I forget which) – the importance of allowing oneself – or one’s Self – to be displaced.

Update upon further reflection: maybe it also has to do with how we use the technology we have -- i.e., we have to choose to engage in conversation and bridge-building communication.

Partial thoughts, to be expanded upon later, with the introduction of another side of this story – translation. And, surprisingly enough, Augustine. Since I’m happy to announce – I’m done reading City of God, affectionately known in these quarters as the book that never ends...


Joe Fox said...

Your post is very interesting. I was Googling (Google as a verb?) the spiel from Spaceship Earth and stumbled upon your blog. I was writing a response for one of my PhD courses on Information Policy. I came across a fascinating article by Sandra Braman about silence, and how it's missing from our societies. If you can find access to it, it's an astounding read (Braman, S. (2007). When Nightingales Break the Law: Silence and the Construction of Reality. Ethics and Information Technology, 9(4), 281-295.), and it speaks directly to the concerns you enumerated here.

I do, however, want to point out that information technology hasn't increased the amount of suffering and misery in the world... it's just made it more visible to more people. We know about suffering in Sudan, in Iraq, in Somalia and in Africa. We know about AIDs epidemics, blood feuds over shiny rocks and typhoons that sweet away lives like they were insects. These things have happened since time immemorial, but now we know about them -- and generally within moments of them happening. A great example occurred today. An explosion rocked my hometown of Pueblo, CO. I knew about it before the fire was even put out, and I'm 1800 miles away. I had phone calls, text messages, e-mails and IMs -- and there were news stories posted on nearly all the local news stations within minutes, even with pictures and video posted while the firefighters were still searching the rubble.

So this technology isn't an inherent cause of the evils of the world... it just opened them up for our eyes to see them. It's also able to open our eyes to beautiful things like helping Youssif, the boy whose face was burned in Iraq. These stories don't achieve the prominence of the bad stories -- you can blame that on evil media people, human nature or myriad other things -- but the good things happen in equal quantity with the bad. Our world is, for better or worse, a global neighborhood, and just as in your neighborhood and mine, there are good and bad things that happen everyday. If we can use these technologies to make life better, then Spaceship Earth can fly and take us wherever we're destined to go.

I still find inspiration in those words... I also find inspiration in these words from a dreamer and a doer:

"The age we're living in is the most extraordinary the world has ever seen. The human species is still reaching for the stars. Today, we are the shapers of the world of tomorrow. Often we can't explain what we see. But the era we are living in today is a dream coming true."

Do you recognize those? They're also from Epcot -- and from the brain and heart of Walt Disney. If the human species can keep reaching for the stars, we'll find ourselves seeing many more of those happy moments -- and far fewer of the pain and misery.

Keep up your quest for the stars... and the great blog posts! You gave me quite a challenge to my thinking on this one!