MyEverything, Digital Razorwire, and the End of Civilization

Quick now, dear Reader, on a scale from 1 to 10, low to high, how civilized are you?
No need to agonize, just a first reaction is fine. Our privacy policy here at the Analog Underground will keep all responses confidential by not even collecting them. So, from 1 to 10, how civilized are you? Got it?

O.k. Next question. Same scale, 1 to 10, low to high, how civilized are we? Scope doesn’t really matter. If you want to answer for your work place, your city, your country, or the whole world, it’s your choice. Got it?

Are the two numbers the same? They weren’t for me, but how can they be different? Civilization is a joint venture to which we all contribute and in which we all participate.

I don’t hear it much anymore, but it used to be that one of the virtues of a widely available public education system was that it made for better citizens, helped bring us all to a common, necessary level of civic capability. Somewhere along the line that all got translated into the ironic, throw away phrase “Plays well with others,” a measure we don’t often apply anymore.

Oh, I see some of you eyeing the exits, wondering if incipient old-fartism has led me to yet another eulogy of some glorious past showing up our somehow lacking present.
Well, maybe a little bit, but I do believe that any past can be curved to any future with enough patience, thought and heart. It’s an Analog thing, that curve, that unbroken connection of any future to the specific past. Don’t get me wrong. Some futures are a whole lot more likely with a given set of history, but there is some element of decision between wherever we find ourselves now and where we’ll be next and the next after that. Each of us and all of us of together are making the future right now.
Thanks for the civic lesion, you might say. What’s the Analog Underground thread in here? Analog. Digital. That’s your meme, remember?
Ah yes, and what if our little Digital adventure is atrophying some of the skills required for Analog Real-Time civilization?
We don’t hear much about MySpace.Com anymore other than the fact the pre-fix “My” seems almost ubiquitous on the web now. MyAccount, MyThis, MyThat, My Little Pony. O.k. that last one isn’t a web thing, but the general level of maturity is about the same. I’m not holding Digital solely accountable for the generally accepted decline in civil discourse. However it seems that Digital takes as a mandate to customize our experiences to our personal likes and dislikes, to our personal preferences, intimately and without friction.
Carried to its logical extreme, on-line elementary school, on-line work, on-line play all tailored to remove the little inconvenient accommodations of time, cadence, and focus of a shared space. When do we learn to accommodate all the less than perfectly personalized realities that connect us to each other? And if we never learn the skill of those small accommodations, what makes us think we’ll be ready for the larger accommodations necessary to civilized discourse, to civilization itself out on the street?
Digital does enable kinds of connection and encounter that simply were not possible before this information age. As with every other new technology, Digital has been and is hailed as ushering in a new era of global connection, common understanding, and borderless communities.
Whether or not it’s done all that, it certainly has made us more aware of each other.
And apparently scared the hell out of us, given the energy of our reactions and retreat into our respective my-spaces lined with digital bull-horns blasting out our view of the world and, whether we intend it or not, raising a kind of digital razor wire warning away all with divergent perspectives.
Digital has no monopoly on xenophobic behavior. Rodney King’s plea “Can’t we all just get along” was raised in the most Analog circumstances of death and physical destruction. However we Digeratii, the craftspeople of the Digital, must not labor under any illusion that our tools and our systems come without bias or limitation.
Certainly Digital can provide greater opportunities for new and new kinds of connection. Connection is precondition for engagement. And generally engagement is good, a necessary precondition for attachment that leads to affection, and maybe, if we’re lucky, intimacy with individuals, groups and spaces.

In every step of that progression from connection to intimacy, nuance matters. In that nano-second first impression we stir together without thinking, the gaze, firmness of handshake, tone of voice and evaluate as attractive or not. Does it draw our attention, pull us from rude connection to interested engagement or repel us? What is the blend of sound and sight, touch and scent that yields some symphony as opposed to discord? How and when do we then stir in that most intimate spice of taste as we continue on from engagement to attachment, attachment to affection, affection to intimacy?

Every blend is a house blend, unique to you, unique to me, unique to the moment.  Even more so when we set down the endlessly intricate path of somehow comingling our house blends for a moment or a life time. It is in that successful mingling, one to one and across populations that civilization is born and thrives.

And it is to that mingling that Digital creates a challenge. Digital works through economies of scale and it gets those economies of scale through pre-determined rigorous editing, trimming away of nuance. Every preference in every on-line account is based on some engineer’s preconception of what is important. When we get it right; ah sweet usability. When we get it wrong… Facebook.

Well, that’s not fair and I know it. The reality is that the purposes of Facebook’s owners and creators are too often out of sync with the purposes of its various customers and user communities. That feels like poor usability but it’s really a failure of civilization. It’s a failure to gracefully blend the wants and needs of the advertising overlords that Facebook serves on the one hand and the collective individual wants and needs of the masses those overlords are trying to target. Poor Facebook, it really has gotten out beyond the Digital capabilities required to represent all the various nuances necessary to civilized discourse.
Digital is always racing to fill that gap. In one sense all the mega-forms of digital storage can be reduced to an attempt to compile enough data points to make sure no meaningful nuance is left out. Every bump in processor speed, every decrement in the physical size of circuits is driven by the pursuit of nuance, the ability to discover it and to place processing in ever go greater physical (ahem, Analog) proximity to that nuance.
But it is a race without end. As Sherry Turkle documents in her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, even the bleeding edges of these kinds of technology raise more questions than they answer about our humanity in a Digital age. The very nature of Digital is in what it intentional misses. Eliminate that miss, the trimming, the nuance on the shop floor and what do you have? Messy, inefficient, intimate Analog.
We’re clearly working towards some cyborg unity of Digital and Analog. In some ways, we’re already there. It’s just not very satisfying, as if somehow the union is less than the component parts. Unexpectedly, our level of civilization is suffering even as our awareness of that gap of expectations grows. Whatever our Digital skills, it is our Analog skills, our skills in the frictioned, physical world, that will enable us to draw value, create meaning, and find intimacy in that irreducible ambiguity that is life and civilization.

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