Lost in Cyberspace

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One of the most basic themes of my book is that the use of [modern] technology always distorts reality. Humans first confronted reality with only the most basic of tools available to them. Today technology not only does much more in getting in our way, but can even create virtual realities. Nick Carr had a recent piece about avatar anxiety. An earlier post introduced the subject. Here’s the money quote from Carr’s earlier piece.

Your online self … is entirely self-created, and because it determines your identity and social standing in an internet community, each decision you make about how you portray yourself - about which facts (or falsehoods) to reveal, which photos to upload, which people “to friend,” which bands or movies or books to list as favorites, which words to put in a blog - is fraught, subtly or not, with a kind of existential danger. And you are entirely responsible for the consequences as you navigate that danger. You are, after all, your avatar’s parents; there’s no one else to blame. So leaving the real world to participate in an online community - or a virtual world like Second Life - doesn’t relieve the anxiety of self-consciousness; it magnifies it. You become more, not less, exposed.

Carr’s later post anticipates the conversion of pangs felt by those for whom twittering is always hanging over them to a full-blown pathology.

So far as I know, avatar anxiety has not yet been declared an actual illness by the American Psychiatric Association, but I have no doubt that it will eventually make the grade, particularly after reading a brief article by Steven Levy, called “The Burden of Twitter,” in the new edition of Wired. Levy says that he “adores” social networking but that at the same time he is consumed with guilt and remorse over the activities of his online self. The guilt comes when he fails to participate - when he doesn’t post to his blog or when he lets his tweetstream go dry. “I worry,” he writes, “that I’m snatching morsels from the information food bank without making any donation.” That’s not so surprising. Much more interesting is the remorse, which he says he feels when he does participate …

I would describe the process as addictive as the subsequent appearance of psychological abnormalities become ever more embedded as the pull of cyberspace continues. It’s not only the result of twittering but immersion in any social network in which one exposes parts of themselves to people that they do not know or have meaningful relationship with. This outcome is a very serious threat to sustainability seen as flourishing. It is critical to regain the sense of caring that is fundamental to being human; not retreat further into a virtual world. Social networking technology is very seductive and lures people into its clutches, eroding their essential capacity to build caring relationships. Quantity can never become quality.

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