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The liberation of online interaction

I’m finding that blogging is easier if I find another post or forum discussion that triggers a thought and this one http://e4innovation.com/?p=638 by Grainne Conole prompted a lot of thoughts – the dangers of online interaction. I interact a lot online, I occasionally interact offline. Most of the people I interact with offline I also interact with online. Most but not all. I find that those that I only interact with offline I’m not as close to, I don’t know them as well.There is a distance between us and I realise this is because of two reasons. One is that our communication is infrequent. The other is that it’s through the constant engagement online that I get closer to people. I had this conversation with someone recently – she commented that we would have not got to know each other if it wasn’t for the Internet. True. It’s also true of probably the majority of the friends I’ve made in the last 15 years. I had lunch with five people I know, and whom I know or at least like well enough to count as friends. Four of us do a lot of work in Second Life and we all commented on the experience of getting to know someone in a virtual world first and then meeting them IRL. It’s a strange experience, like double vision, you know someone and yet simultaneously you don’t know them. sometime the physical person can be quite different from the avatar and yet I feel I know someone so much better if I’ve seen their avatar first. You’ve seen a glimpse of how they see themselves, not just what the physical world has imposed upon them (what has been termed “the tyranny of meatspace”).

I am deeply suspicious of a viewpoint that presumes that technology that alters social or behavioural interactions is problematic, or worse, detrimental. The underlying assumption of something like Alone Together that technology is separating us because we are spending more time online prompted me to refer to Sherry Turkle as having “gone to the dark side”. Which she (quite rightly) picked me up on, since I had made the mortal sin of making this judgment based on what I’d read of her book, not actually of the book itself. What I meant though was that, from what I knew of the approach, it was to look at the movement from offline to online as intrinsically a deficit model. Like Daniel Goleman’s underlying concept of cyberdisinhibition, which is that this makes us behave antisocially. Actually I’ve seen the benefits of cyberdisinhibition in that students who are too shy to interact offline blossom when given the chance to interact online. Anyone who complains about stepping away from “real life” needs to first justify what’s so great about “real life” anyway. I like the tack Caitlin Moran once took in her column, as a busy person and mother, the options aren’t online interaction or offline interaction. they are online interaction or no interaction. The time we spend online communicating shouldn’t be compared unfavourably to time spent with people. It should be compared favourably to the absence of communication offline. Online interaction overcomes isolation, not encourages it. And the quality of online interaction is often better than offline. Compare a simultaneous one-to-one with a few people on facebook with sitting in a pub unable to get a word in edgeways as one person monopolises the conversation and the background noise drowns out most of what’s said? Dump your preconceptions about the relative value of offline and online. Be honest. Which really is the better conversation? And sure there are weirdos and stalkers and god know what online, but again, offline is worse. At least online you can just unfriend them. Or ignore them.

Ultimately though, the doubts and worries about what technology is doing to us are completely pointless, since they are happening irrespective of what we feel about them. The whole notion that the offline world is real and the online one isn’t, is flawed in itself. Both are real, we have been a mixture of biological and mechanical for a long while. Again my view may be biased due to my transhumanist viewpoint, but the technology is us. Welcoming the way it transforms us is always going to be better than rejecting it, because change is fun, exciting, challenging in and of itself. Thinking back to lunch. There were six of us, three of us had our vision augmented by glasses, one of us had dyed hair, one of us was tattoed, one of us was in a wheelchair, three of us were probably more wellknown through our avatars than our physical selves, one of us had a prosthetic ear on his forearm.  We segued fluidly between discussing our online bodies (hair loss, knee pain) to our avatars (whether we’d acquired genitalia). As a group we represented a range of different cyborg selves, bodies modified, identities distributed. And we weren’t exceptional by any means. As a society we are a body electric, our commuinication our identities extend through the machine. Let’s just accept it and not get so hung up on it.

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