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Author’s note: This is a long-form article exploring some thoughts I’ve been mulling for some time about the evolution and norms of new media, and its impact on our ability to understand the modern world. It originally appeared in the print publication Worthbook as part of a compendium of articles focused on the issue of how we “relate” to each other and the world, available to guests of Worthshop 2016 hosted by Hawaii Life.

How do we stand in today’s increasingly digital piazza?

“With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers and swimmers, instead of examiners, critics, knowers and imaginative creators, the word “Intellectual” of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

 

Sitting in a Bolognese piazza, watching the people go about, you realize how little has changed over the centuries. Some pass as quickly as possible, the cobblestones timeless conduits to some further appointment. Some sit for hours, content for the stones and walls and sights and sounds to tell them where they are, and that it’s good. The piazza, as public space, is the oldest social network in humanity. People come to see, to be seen, and to say to each other: Hello, it’s good to be together again! They sit, have coffee, catch up, kiss and part again. As they walk their separate ways, they smile, knowing they will see each other tomorrow. The bells ring from a nearby tower, and someone stops, facing away from the clock. They raise their smartphone to take a selfie. You then realize how much has changed, as well.

Something is happening to us. Part wonderful, part unsettling, it’s evident on the streets of New York; on a train in Amsterdam; in skyscrapers in Shanghai. Across the globe, human behavior is undergoing a transformation of monumental – and miniature – proportions. So much of our everyday behaviors are being rewritten, new muscle memories formed, new norms written into the public space. It’s that little flick of your thumb you catch yourself doing on the edge of the print newspaper you picked up to give your eyes a rest. It’s the dinner table, silent but full of conversations as a group of teenagers talk to a dozen people who aren’t there, and who they barely know. It’s the wholesale reprogramming of our fundamental walk through the world. And with these new behaviors come new possibilities for understanding the world, and ultimately, our selves. 

Imagine for a moment the medieval sculptors who cut and carved and cultivated stones into shapes and scenes that would last centuries. Why bother to do it, to adorn churches and caves with not just decoration, but content? Because like us, they were driven to tell a story: a message in the marble of who they were, what they thought valuable, their place in the world. Paintings, novels, television sitcoms and YouTube are just different ways to ask the question, Who are we? What shall we do?

Over time, as the tools we used to explore such questions evolved, so did the public square. It became more crowded and complex. A sixteenth century illiterate peasant would have only the most limited access to knowledge of the world: stories spoken by a town elder, light streaming through stained glass windows, bells marking the passage of time. Who they were would be largely proscribed by someone who expressed it centuries before. Most would have little time to become a “runner, jumper, racer or tinkerer,” let alone imaginative creator. In this way, our modern age is an unparalleled blessing for the individual. He can pause in the piazza, without worry for his next meal, and ask, Who am I?

Or more importantly, Who shall I be?

In the centuries between the peasant and our piazza selfie-taker, we’ve not only remolded the world with technology. We have repeatedly remolded ourselves. By the twentieth century, we had become examiners and critics, knowers and imaginative creators on a scale outside the arc of history. The amount of expressive content produced by a single individual’s lifetime today is so great, we will measure it in terabytes and petabytes. By contrast, the sum total of books and scrolls in the Library of Alexandria in 30 BC would hardly fill a 32GB memory stick.

 

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” – George Orwell

 

Why does it matter how much content each of us can create today, and more importantly, how we go about creating it? The answer lies in examining how we are being driven to create, so much and so frequently. There are two sides to our modern expressive explosion: the marvelous ease of content creation, and the constant drive to produce it. Our creative expression is more democratized than ever. It is no longer the exclusive purview of the artists, writers, builders, or marketers. It has become so cheap to produce content that we can turn every waking moment into a data point. And then: share and aggregate those points in the largest piazza ever imagined, the social web.  

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”   – Hamlet, Shakespeare

 

We can hardly argue this is a bad turn of events. The benefits of our modern digital world are staggering. At no time in history have less people lived in poverty, more diseases been cured, and fewer wars fought. A globally interconnected world, creating and communicating across cultures and distances, can neutralize dangers, respond to disasters, and coordinate charities. On an individual scale, our digital world can turn two complete strangers into a mutually beneficial interaction, sharing ingenuity and creating economic opportunity out of idle resources. In any other age, we would call it magic.

And yet, these changes are not without their challenges.

So close, and yet so far away.

“How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?” –  Plato, The Allegory of the Cave

 

To give billions of people the ability to create content and connect with others on a global scale is a work in progress, its outcome very much uncertain. For we are not just creating for our own understanding. We are encouraged to bring our content to the public square constantly, incessantly, immediately. How we live in an increasingly connected, always-on social space isn’t found in the operating manual of our tools; nor is it automatically settled that there is a better or worse way. Like Plato’s hypothetical cave dwellers, we are somewhat stumbling and blinded by the possibilities of this new world, and find ourselves uncertain about its realities.

Students of Shakespeare would likely have noticed that the line from Hamlet above left off his most ironic ending:

“And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

This remains the key question, for people behaving in new, and somewhat strange ways. Our miniature tools are unlike the hammers and brushes of the past, sitting idle on a workbench at day’s end. Today’s tools are in-hand all the time. They are on our wrists, in our ears, covering our eyes throughout our day, and night: young people today sleep with their devices inches away on the bed.

These are profound changes in human behavior. To be alone is being reconfigured. To be together is also being rethought. The biggest change, of course, is the merging of the personal and public space. To tweet while walking through a forest. To snap a photo at the top of each hour and share the set as a “story” for one day; and begin again tomorrow. To telecast data about our heart rate, to be analyzed not by a doctor, but a web of strangers.  To convert the moments we relate – to the world, to each other, to our selves – into content for consumption (and in some ways validation) is not simply a disruptive fad. Anybody who has found themselves increasingly challenged to sit alone, without sharing a photo of their soup for feedback by complete strangers understands how these behaviors are becoming ordinary impulses. A muscle memory. A pressure in our minds.

And a very real pressure. Recall a time when you posted something into the social square, but received no feedback for, say, two minutes. You may have questioned whether the post was successful; was there a technical glitch? You might have questioned your content: was it not interesting, accidentally offensive, or bad timing? You may have even started to delete your content and try again, when at the last moment, a notification reassured you that your contribution had been seen and liked.

Your presence in the social space had, in effect, been validated by others.

This is the space we are just struggling to understand. It is not only that devices are upending polite manners in restaurants and piazzas. Every new device has done this: watching television at the dinner table was once thought unimaginable and rude. Today, a family of five watching five different programs on tablets at dinner isn’t necessarily more shocking. It is the deeper ways this production for the public square is changing our thinking, that surprises us most.

“I do not care what my critics think of my creations, so long as they are forced to say the name, Dali.” – Salvador Dali, Marquis de Pubol

 

What is happening to us, then, as we increasingly turn bits of ourselves into bites of consumption? We have always created for consumption, and the most basic widget contains a bit of our genius or labor. Even an artist, like Salvador Dali, would recognize that a sculpture, painting or twirl of his mustache was not entirely disconnected from the expectation someone would see it. Today we live at a time when the ordinary person is acutely attuned to possibility of turning their content into a transaction. Thus the amount of quality content on the web is a virtual golden age. So, too, are the most outrageous acts in the quest to go viral.

We are all Salvador Dali, now.

Our digital existence is becoming a kind of currency. While a few people are struggling with issues of copyright and privacy, millions are willing to throw away such ideas with every terms of use contract. This is not just a commercial opportunity, as the production of content doesn’t happen only in the office or factory. It requires people to accept as equitable and good the digital packaging of as much of their existence as possible, to be traded to complete strangers. We have become the show, and more fundamentally, agreed to show off.

The digital world, meanwhile, becomes more crowded daily, and raises the cost of this trade incrementally. To remain valuable – as expressed by followers, likes, comments and shares, plus schemes to rate and rank – we are encouraged to perform increasingly outrageous acts. After nearly thirty years of reality television, it’s no longer enough to follow the real world struggles of life: We must manufacture outre ways to capture attention.

Even small acts of social content creation must be exaggerated. It’s not enough to say we don’t like the food at a restaurant: wW must call it the worst meal since the Last Supper or the food more tasteless than a bowl of cement. One does not sell ads without eyeballs, something cable news learned decades ago, turning every journalistic piece into an insult-hurling sound-byte segment. Viewers we were not only more entertained, but learned this lesson as well.

There is no end to the degree of exaggeration, Dali might say. But at what cost? Too often the pressure to be seen forces us to the limits of offensive or dangerous interactions. Consider the very dark slide in behavior we find on networks where people’s content is separated from their true identity. How many of the more vile interactions would not have occurred were such conversations held face-to-face?

At their best, our digital tools and behaviors have created new opportunities to enhance our lives, our creativity and relationships. At their worst, the cost of these transformations leads increasingly to relationships born of endless provocation. Engaging the wireless commentariat doesn’t just alter our creations; it alters our motivations. When we publish even the smallest piece of content, we think of the crowd as much as our selves.

This is no small change. Certainly our sense of self has always involved an intermix of sources we deemed important. Ancestors, codes, laws and customs have always provided a sense of context for our lives. From those starting points, we had an opportunity to make our way in the world..

Today, some of the greatest new sources of influence on our psyche are computer algorithms. Even if we accept these clusters of code have meaning built in, they remain incredibly opaque. Billions of users mist guess at how to act, with little certainty or understanding of how to please the algorithm. It is as if the public square not only lacked laws, but lacked gravity. Or a new force could be introduced at any time, as the algorithms governing behavior are adjusted or replaced by unknown people without notice or explanation.

An interesting comparison is between email and the world’s largest social network, Facebook. The rules governing the use of email have, for the most part, remained constant and stable for almost a half century. Very few people concern themselves with how to use email, or what outcomes can be expected. Now consider that Facebook has collected a network of a billion and a half users worldwide in little more than a decade, and that the rules governing its use change at least a few times a year. If even small behavioral changes create small anxieties, it’s clear that Facebook has an outsized impact on its users psyches on a recurring basis. In our increasingly digitalized world, we’re leaving little room for the ordinary person to act with certainty. And when those actions are tied to a sense of value, we’re playing people’s sense of worth.

 

We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it.
~ John Steinbeck, America and Americans

 

An amazing transformation is under way. The little Italian Piazza is now a digital square of global proportion. Within the global network are familiar spaces. I think of them like the many international airports I visit, where people from all corners of the globe rush headlong through strange gates and hallways. Despite the weird signs and strange symbols, most travelers navigate these foreign spaces fine. If you visit often enough, you come to do it second nature, threading the crowds without thinking. And amongst the strange spaces: familiar scenes play out, like cries of joy in arrivals lounges, and long hugs and kisses in departures. Whatever the hemisphere, there are plenty of wide eyed children, and not a few adults, about to experience the miracle of modern flight for the first time.

The old saying goes: it is not the traveller who changes the journey, but the journey that changes the traveller. Taken from that viewpoint, there are plenty of signs that humanity will learn to navigate its digitally transformed piazzas equally as well. That part of the human code remains resilient.

All that remains before uploading to the next journey, then, is to take one more look around and remember Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Here we go again!

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