Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sooner Death than Digital Indignity...

At the back-end of this blog seven draft entries sleep soundly. I never bothered to publish them. The sunset on the way home from work was something else, but it was gone within a few minutes. And so, the moments of those entries have also passed and they will never come into digitial light. Their value drowned as new thoughts dawned.

But the time has come to move and publish something again - mostly to clear my head.
Much has happened in my corner of the world since I wrote here in mid-February, and I thank my online friends for enquiring about the silences and responding so tactfully on my absence. I have been in and out of hospital and had time to think a lot. Allow me to dwell a bit on a the interesting issue of individualism and community that relates to my experiences here in Cape Town and online...and thoughts that fountain from these...

A few of my friends lost an online friend and her reported death sent ripples through the metaverse and networked community. I did not know Rheta Shan well at all, but we met once and we were connected loosely via other people that I do know. I realised in that moment of discovery how vulnerable our digital ties are - like a kite only tied to the hand holding it... and when cut loose (either deliberately or due to unfortunate accident), it slips far away into a world that may very well not be accessible to online friends. It leaves a real sense of loss - irrespective of whether the relationship was primarily digitial or transcended into the physicial world. Much has been said over the years about online relationships and social networks. Our human interconnectedness via technology has become the study of numerous anthropologists, sociologists, economists, (not-so-new-anymore) media experts, community builders and marketing companies. Stephen Baker recently wrote an interesting article in Business Week, "Learning, and Profiting, from Online Friendships":
"Companies are working fast to figure out how to make money from the wealth of data they're beginning to have about our online friendships...(and later), Calculating the value of these relationships has become a defining challenge for businesses and individuals..."
As an academic at heart, I understand the need to analyse the interaction between people and individual choices. It helps us to identity shifts in human behaviour and spot global trends in order to be responsive - either commercially or socially. Speaking of trends, the book by Mark Penn on 'MicroTrends' is an absolute must-read to start understanding new laws of doing business in a very fragmented world: "The argument is that societal fragmentation occurs because, in a post-modernist and individualistic world, people are beginning to make personal choices. In the process, many niches are being created, and the world is becoming more complex".

We instinctively think that multinational companies and global initiatives will set the tone for the future, but Mark points out that there are 'small forces' that become the real trendsetters. In this context, I cannot help to think about Twitter's 'Trending Topics' where individuals use #hashtags in their tweets to effectively! create a trend - organising group-think. (Here's a good piece by Ben Parr on how to use #hashtags). And of course, the same fundamental philosophy is obvious from the thinking of Seth Gordin on the creation of tribes - a social construct giving 'ordinary people the power to lead and make big change'.

And so, our company was approached this week in South Africa to 'build a community'
and make change happen and we respectfully declined. Let's get this right: Communities are not build, communities grow organically when a trend emerges - based on common practice or opinion. And a trend only emerges when individuals speak up through their text messages, their podcasts, their blogs, their micro-blogs, their tweets, their pictures, their songs - conversations with each other about the same shared matter of interest. So, we are back to the 'individual' whose experiences are indeed central to communities and are expressed in many forms online, but could also easily be drowned by the digital noise made by other voices.

"Social media mirror and magnify teen friendship practices", according to research by the respected Danah Boyd
(Digital Youth Research). For many it is certainly true that our digital interaction mirrors our personalities and our practices. I would add that social media - and here I definitely include virtual worlds - also and above all magnifies our values and beliefs. We may not have the benefit of seeing eye-to-eye in a physical world and measure attitude via body language - so we start reading behaviour and trends in how we are treated by others and how they do business with us in a digital format. Practices are under the microscope in a microcosm of communities. And we start to know each other's values through one-on-one interaction. In another book, Structures of Participation, Danah completed a chapter called " None of this is Real" and says insightfully:
"Millions of people worldwide are now connected through networked digital infrastructures in forms that grow increasingly sophisticated and contextually rich. The notion of the global village remains powerful, but individual sociability will never operate on a global scale. Large social networks will always be mediated by and constructed through smaller communities and individual relationships".
Closely connected to the matters of identity, individualism and community building based on common values, is the search for meaning and desire to live with digital dignity. The Yoruba have a saying in Africa which translates literally as 'sooner death than indignity' - "Iku ya j'esin lo" and the African philosopher, Wole Soyinka, points out that this expression "finds equivalents in numerous cultures, and captures the essence of self-worth, the sheer integrity of being that animates the human spirit, and the ascription of equal membership of the human community". Dignity or respect for the individual (also termed 'honour' since medieval times) is a human virtue that carries much priority in many communities. The value that a person places on her/himself often equates directly to 'dignity' (or self-regard) which in turn links to her/his perceived experience and interaction with others. Which brings me to the interesting matter of 'digital identity' again and living or dying with dignity in online communities. What does that mean?? Or is it easy to 'execute' an 'avatar' when her/his reputation has been shattered or he/she has been humilitated by others in a community? Do you step out of a relationship in a different way, because you don't have to face the person on the street every day, but could purge him/her from your 'friends' list' at the push of a button? And how does it affect the person behind the digitial persona? Or does it not matter because it is "only online"?

In the Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), the famous philosopher Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola writes that "after God had created all creatures, he conceived of the desire for another, sentient being who would appreciate all his works, but there was no longer any room in the chain of being; all the possible slots from angels to worms had been filled. So, God created man such that he had no specific slot in the chain. Instead, men were capable of learning from and imitating any existing creature. When man philosophizes, he ascends the chain of being towards the angels, and communion with God. When he fails to exercise his intellect, he vegetates".

Fast forward more than five centuries and the dignity of man comes up in quite a different form: Millions of young people headbang to the lyrics of a song 'Before I Forget' written by a group Slipknot and stating: "I am a worm before I am a man'.... and in 2008, a South African youngster pulled a mask matching the lead singer's over his head and killed a fellow student in cold blood. More worrying are the responses to the killing captured at Metal News (a website for fans of heavy metal). And one cannot help but wonder: How did society get to the point where taking the life of someone else has become a trend? Or have we always had this dark side as a tribe of humans and it shows up in periodically in acts of terrorism, the war against terror, in domestic violance, abuse of children, our indifference to poverty and hunger ... or as simple as spreading a lie, planting a rumour - executing a person's reputation in a digital community.

A co-worker has been the victim of an attempted carjacking in her own drive-way last week, with her two toddlers in the car. A man stuck his arm through the window and held a gun to her head. And she told me yesterday that she felt violated on her own property and her kids now suddenly ask questions like, "what happens with bad people when they die?" Innocence stolen in an instant. Dignity affected?

And how do we get back? Or go forward? Maybe part of the answer is to reconstruct the world we live in according to the hope we believe in. If enough people could have enough conversations about the same constructive solutions and create together; then just maybe, we will gravitate towards the same communities. And we will become the small influences rippling downstream from all parts of the world towards an ocean of global consciousness that restores the value of a human life and dignity. After all, dignity may just be worth more than life itself.

1 comments:

Debs Regent June 1, 2009 at 9:43 PM  

Dignity and life, did Gutenberg ever imagine what he would create with the printing press? All he wanted was to print many copies of his favourite book, the Bible. Did he ever imagine his tool would be used to produce Mein Kampf?

Did Berners-Lee ever think that the Internet might be a place where terrorists trained their recruits?


We should consider this with our communities and realise that our innovations may not always be used to increase dignity.

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