The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A Rumination on the State of the Internet
"Born in March of 2007, my daughter Julia will lead a 21st century life."
CHANGE VS. CONTINUITY: A FATHER AND HIS DAUGHTER
The other day I read yet another cover article about the “threat to privacy” we Americans supposedly suffer. In 2007 we enjoy over a decade of popular use of the Internet access, but it is the proliferation of “social networking” sites such as Myspace and Facebook in recent years that have launched this new alarm, it seems. Perhaps it is only when you cannot swing a cat without hitting someone with a Myspace page that you have “mass use.”
Or perhaps we can take “social networking” seriously when Myspace has a reported market value of 6.5 billion dollars and Facebook’s recent market capitalization was no less than 15 billions dollars. Perhaps stock price is how America values – or doesn’t value – a social phenomenon.
Then there is the cold calculus of numbers: as of September 7, 2007 Myspace currently has 200 million accounts; Facebook reportedly sports an active membership of 54 million. Those sites have more registered accounts than most countries have people in them. The users of these sites tend to be the young and digitally savvy. The rise of social networking has not gone unnoticed, especially by those out to make a buck.
Schools and parents have also taken notice, and alarm and something approaching panic has been the predominant emotions on their part. The teachers in my high school repeatedly warn freshmen about privacy: student emails use aliases instead of real names to the point that often I have no idea who the student is emailing me. Students are warned college recruiters troll social networking sites to see “the other face” of a student. “Take down that alluring picture of yourself in a bikini!” “The law school you apply to might see that spring break picture of you dancing on the table in Fort Lauderdale!”
Most ominously and revealingly, the school has absolutely blocked Internet access to all social networking and personal blog websites. They are verboten. When I try and access a Blogsite a warning that comes up is: “Web Logs/Personal Pages…” Yes, along with communist China, the school district I work for uses web-filtering software that blocks anything off wordpress or blogspot. The reasoning they both use, as far as I can tell, is much the same. (Similarly, my webpage is also blocked by Chinese and school district web filters. Frankly, I am proud of this.)
The schools, as well as entire societies, struggle to adapt to a new technology. The "powers that be" seek to fit old rules onto new technologies, and the fit is imperfect. New rules are arrived at only after painful discussion and much disagreement. This is not a new story.
I‘m not sure what my students think about the school’s efforts to scare them about Internet pedophiles and threats to their privacy. I suspect they see their activities online as not really the school’s business: if anyone should be having this conversation with them, it should be their parents. As there are streets and people in the real world that are dangerous and should be avoided, so are sections of the online world: anyone who has reached the mid-point of adolescence should know as much. But how widespread is this problem in real life? Is there cause for panic?
I suspect the adults who don’t understand the technology are those most alarmed. Or maybe there is just a larger disconnect between generations in terms of social mores and acceptable/normal behavior. For example, I have heard adults decry the fact that a young person would choose to publish their innermost thoughts on the Internet. They read the most candid writing on some kid’s blogsite and are aghast at the lack of discretion. "But anyone can read it! Those are private feelings put inappropriately in a public place!" they object. Most kids, In contrast, just shrug their shoulders in indifference. Another “angsty” livejournal entry in a sea of such Internet posting, they exclaim. “Who cares?”
I take the point of view of the kids, even though I am not a kid. But I have had an Internet presence for over a decade and have thought long and hard about these issues.
And let me put it bluntly: the ability to communicate with anyone and publish my thoughts and ideas over a worldwide computer network is the most astonishing development of my life. The end of the Cold War was big, the rise of China as a world power was important, and the threat to the global environment by pollution is huge – but the introduction of the Internet to mass use in the mid-1990s beats them all, in my opinion. (In many ways it also links all those other developments.)
Since October of 1996 I have hosted my domain, rjgeib.com, and every now and again I encounter someone who looks at me sideways because of it. “Why would anyone spend so much time and effort thus? Why reveal so much private reflection in a public forum?” If such a personal website is not exactly “bad” or “wrong,” it is something very much less than “right” or “good.” As the Internet has become more mainstream and webpages more routine, this feeling has lessened to the point that instead of being problematic, unusual, or queer, my website has become mostly invisible: I next to never talk about it with friends or family. I suspect most of my family think my webpage another slightly odd aspect to this slightly odd relative, Rich Geib – “…and have you seen any good movies lately, Rich?” It is ironic that something so important to me remains so seldom mentioned out loud.
But the reality for me is this: most of what is most important to me as a human being can be found on my personal domain. This is as true in 2007 as it was in 1996. In those rare and precious spare evenings when I can do something solely for myself, I write to add to my personal domain. This is an indulgence, a treat. I am as idealistic today about the possibility of the Internet for sharing and communicating as I was in 1996. Just because most use the Internet for vapid chat or to try and sell something has not dampened my enthusiasm for what it could be used for. My goals and intentions have changed at all. And this will not change for my site, which I will keep up until I die.
But it seems I was an “early adopter,” as the argot puts it, of putting one’s words, photos, and videos online. Early webpages required some “Web 1.0” knowledge of HTML, graphics software, and FTP webserver technology. Now the onslaught of “Web 2.0” technologies has opened the floodgates to true mass participation to online posting. In a few short minutes anyone can have a Myspace page or a blog for free – and increasingly, everyone does. Last month I watched two aging rock and rollers exit their old beater car, walk into a Ralph’s supermarket, recognize an acquaintance, and talk up the latest doings of his band. “We even got a Myspace page!” bragged one of the rock star wannabes. Living most likely more in his bong than in the real world, this aging rocker sported a pot belly, receding hairline, graying ponytail, and he probably had fifty dollars to his name. But he and his band had a Myspace page.
This is an example of a “mass acceptance of a maturing technology,” if ever there was one!
The Internet maturing as a mass technology has raised a host of new concerns: pedophile predators targeting teens and preteens through their online presences, online bullying and the posting of “in appropriate” images and comments that could come back to haunt one later in life, and businesses and government accessing private information. For example, high school students are warned about college application officers scouring social networking sites to see how kids really are among themselves when supposedly no adults are watching, as opposed to the airbrushed version presented on their college applications. “They might see those pictures with a beer in hand – or the alluring photo and ‘come hither’ look in your bedroom!” Exasperated adults warn young people that anyone can read their livejournal entries, and how horrible that would be! I have noticed most young people inclined to post online at hearing this don’t much care: it seems there is a clear generation gap at play. As the September 16, 2007 Parade Magazine article “Is Anything Private Anymore?” put it:
"Privacy may not feel like much of an issue for those in their teens and 20s. They’ve grown up chronicling their lives on popular social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook for easy retrieval by friends and strangers alike. But some young people don’t realize that what was funny to college buddies might not amuse a law-firm recruiter. Employers regularly research job applicants on the Internet. Some colleges are helping students prepare: Duke University hosts seminars on how to clean up a Facebook account. 'You learn why posting pictures of you riding the mechanical bull at Shooters is a bad idea,' says Sarah Ball, a senior whose own page is secure and clean."
What is the result? As a person Ms. Sarah Ball may not be sanitized and boring, but her Facebook page is. All the complexity, ambiguity, and richness of real life are airbrushed out. She might as well just post her resumé instead.
One would think a law-firm would have better things to do than troll through Myspace or Facebook pages. In a job interview I can imagine hearing a recent law school graduate saying this:
"I headed the law review and graduated at the top of my class while volunteering during summers for death penalty review teams, and you are asking me about a picture you found of me on the Internet drinking tequila with my friends in Cancún? Are you kidding…?
"…which is the next law firm I am meeting with!?!"
In the same vein, just yesterday while driving I heard on the radio that increasing numbers of employees were “pounding the bricks online” for new job opportunities online through such sites as monsterboard.com But, the reporter warned, the trend worked both ways: employers were researching possible employees on the Internet, so “make sure your Internet presence as professional as possible.” Is this what we need? Is this an example of prudence? Or an example of cowardice?
This is what I always hoped the World Wide Web would NOT be.
From my very earliest experiences with the Internet, I hoped the World Wide Web would be a place of sharing, creativity, honesty, candor – the beating heart of humanity illuminated onto a new electronic medium accessible to everyone everywhere. As Justin Hall exhorted in Forging Culture, “Don't wait for anyone to recognize your talent - do what you love, and do it online.” He wrote that back in the dawn of the Internet era, in 1995. It has the scent of freshness, of possibility.
But as it matured, the Web seemed to become more a place for commerce, ass-kissing, posturing – the kind of slick hype designed to further one’s career. A young man hosts a domain and posts a webpage to explain his new book or hedge funds or ecommerce, but he doesn’t post his thoughts on loss and pain from his recent divorce, his opinion on the Iraq War, or his reflections on childhood and adolescence. It almost seems, as it matures, that the Internet starts to resemble the two-dimensional, politically-correct world of print. Writers are more concerned with winning arguments and in protecting their ideological flanks than in exploring their own ambiguities and acknowledging self-doubt. It is the conventional and hypocritical. It is so much less self-reflection, so much more self-promotion.
But what about the threat posed by the authorities to intrude into our online through technology? Much has been written about the United States government and the privacy we have from government intrusions in the “War of Terrorism.” While fully in favor of giving government the right to intrude on our privacy with a court order in cases where reasonable cause exists, I am not worried about the clumsy government controlling something so complex and unwieldy as the Internet. When I cannot get a lawyer to uphold my airtight case for free speech as determined by 230 years of Constitutional law, I might be more concerned. I am more worried about the commercial effects of the marketplace and the pressures of political correctness that lead individuals to self-censor and to fail to be honest with themselves and others. I am not so worried about online bullies and cybersnoops. I am worried that the full potential of this dynamic new medium will fail to blossom because of the same concessions to conventionality, public opinion - fear of the opinion others might have of us and a consequent self-silencing. The Internet gives an individual the power to broadcast his or her ideas and art to the entire world for free, and that is an amazing power never before conferred on a person.
But do we use this power well or wisely? Do we share and explore deeply? Or do we "chat" and "browse"? Does the Internet help us to live better and to be happier? Does Myspace enrich our culture?
Confusion and a mass media in flux is the result. Even as Parade Magazine had a cover article on the perils of losing privacy (“Is Anything Private Anymore?”), the weekly magazine took an exact opposite take on technology two months later with its November 18, 2007 headline screaming: “How technology can help you… GET CONNECTED!” Inside there even appeared an article titled “You Have the Power” by Michael Sherer, whose theme was personal empowerment and democracy in politics and culture by use of the Internet which quoted Democratic Party strategist Simon Rosenberg:
"We’re leaving the era of broadcast communication, where basically your job was to be a couch potato. Now you have much more control. You have many more information choices. You can interact when you want to."
Parade Magazine, which on its website boasts a circulation of 32 million and 71 million readers, first tells us the Internet is dangerous and threatens our privacy; then it tells us it is good and empowers us as citizens. Can both be true? Clearly it seems we live in the best of times and the worst of times, as technological change has fostered confusion with old rules needing to be redefined to encompass new realities. The present is cloudy and confused. One strains to separate the wheat from the chaff.
What are the risks? There will be many. But what are the benefits? How beneficial are they? How have things changed? How are they the same?
In politics Right and Left bloggers en masse cheer one another in their echo chambers, as they fulminate against the other side and produce much heat but little light, in my opinion. Is our political life the more healthy because of this? Or is our discourse more polarized? The divisions and passions stoked to new intensity? Both? The only clear result is we live in a different world because of the Internet.
But more, in my opinion, is the same. How would the past have worked with the tools of the present, for example? If St. Augustine had had access to the World Wide Web, for instance, I have no doubt he would have proselytized online and sent word of the miracle of his conversion experience out to the world through his personal blog. He would have been typing at length on his keyboard about how he “wanted chastity, but not yet” before posting it online to be read. If Jean Jacques Rousseau had access to a web log, he would have railed against the artifices of “civilization” and accented the pathos of his own upbringing online. Broke and cantankerous after falling out with yet another powerful sponsor, Rousseau would have been posting through a free blogging service. Augustine and Rousseau very much wanted to be read and would have used the tools available to them towards that end. It is no different today. In my own small way I am doing the same with my website as did Augustine and Rousseau, and greater men and women will come along after me who will do the same. Yet the medium is so new that it still strikes many as strange and unusual.
But even if the medium is still novel for many, its effects on the real world are undeniable. For example, it is increasingly difficult to be anonymous in our shrinking world. Anyone with even a semi-important job has an online “digital presence” through their work site, and if you have made the local newspaper your name appears in their online edition. It is a normal practice nowadays to “Google” a romantic interest before the first date. As mentioned already, employers research prospective employees on the World Wide Web. Short of dropping out of social life and living as a hermit, a good offense is the best defense when it comes to your image online. A person has to define and control their digital presence, lest it be done for them.
A personal example: Once in a job interview I was confronted by a principal with information she found on my personal website, and as a consequence I did not get the job. But I am glad I did not get the job, as the principal of that school and I would not have gotten along; the conflict over my website (my vision of education and myself, really) laid to rest what would have been a bigger fight if I had actually been hired. I did not belong there, and my website made that clear. And in my very next interview I was offered another job across town, and I went on to help found a high school where I did fit in and where I subsequently employed cutting-edge education technologies, won teaching awards, became an adjunct professor, and enjoyed much professional success. I sometimes feel like emailing that principal and thanking her for not hiring me, but she can read about it on the Web. It was her loss. Her district’s high school used to be the highest scoring in Ventura County; now we are. I take a grim satisfaction in that fact, and in my role in it, every time they release annual test scores: success is indeed the best revenge.
Hence, in my experience, the Web is more of an asset and tool than a threat or liability. I use the Web in the way Michel de Montaigne did in his essays where each prose piece was an attempt ("j’essai") to define the person he was becoming. One writes one's thoughts down to try and understand the self – the age-old goal of knowing oneself, living up to the Oracle of Delphi, the living the examined, conscious life – and not the oblivious, unexamined one. For me this is no different in my career or in my personal life. My web presence is all about my role as teacher, husband, citizen, father, son, and friend: I am all of these roles, of course, and my personal website is nothing less than all of me. Montaigne declared himself and the slant of his mind to be the topic of his Essays, and he hoped to show himself “fully naked"; and so I try to do in my website in the age-old tradition of Montaigne, as well as the philosophers of antiquity that he loved so much and quoted on almost every page.
In the Age of the Internet, it is old wine in new bottles.
At heart I see the matter very simply: you continue the ancient art of communication via the written word. No matter if the new digital means of communication are so various and dynamic, it is directed towards an unchanging goal: I do not feel in the least vertiginous. I feel firmly grounded in thousands of years of human history. Nothing I do would be essentially alien or incomprehensible to St. Augustine in his 5th century or Rousseau in the 18th century.
Born in March of 2007, my daughter Julia will lead a 21st century life. She will have known no world without the Internet and these ubiquitous digital technologies. Julia had her first email address one week before her due date, and she had a Facebook page by the end of the second day of her life. Although hidden from the general public, there are already 4.42 gigabytes of data posted to the World Wide Web. The creation of these more than 1,900 files has cost many dozens of hours of intense labor by her father. A friend swore I would be so busy taking care of Baby Julia I couldn’t keep it up, but I have kept it up. In late 2006 I went out to the very bleeding-edge of technological innovation and bought a newfanglin’ Sony HDR-HC3 high-definition video camera to record it all and now we have several precious hours of vivid 1440x1080 HDV. I have full-color high-definition video of little Julia, ten minutes into her life, being weighed and washed in the hospital nursery. This is video beyond valuation! In text I have chronicled closely our family’s experience in childbirth and beyond in dozens of essays and diary entries; I have poured my heart out. There are several hundred digital photos posted. Taken as a whole, it seeks to be as Time Magazine trumpeted itself, “The weight of words, the shock of photos.” The posting of these images and videos to the Web allows distant but doting grandparents to “stay in the loop.” It is a source of much joy for many, myself not the least.
For me this online work has been a way of processing experience and making sense of it, and of showing my love for my daughter. Through text, video, and photos I try as hard as I can to capture the experience of becoming a father for the first time. When Julia learns to navigate a web browser and to read, she will be able read herself just how excited, scared, and exhausted was her father. Julia will know where she comes from, and she will appreciate how special she was that her father took the time and effort to put this all together. I will not have to say this; she will see it. She might have been too young to remember anything about 2007, but she will know in some detail what her parents were thinking and feeling in her earliest days and months of life.
Besides my unconditional love, can I give daughter Julia any greater gift?
And as she matures I will walk my daughter through her “digital growth” in the context of her growth as a human being, like any good father does. I will explain that there are people and places online to avoid as dangerous, just as in the real world. She will grow up using computers on a daily basis, as do her parents; she will always have her own computer. Julia will watch me and learn from what I do; I will teach her whatever she wants to learn. I will supervise her communications with the outside world and grant her more trust as she grows deserving of it. Julia will see the computer as a tool with potential for productive and harmful use. If there will be painful setbacks, there will be forward progress. This progress might be slow at times, but it will be progress. I will be patient but firm. The iron hand will wear a velvet glove.
And one day I will give her full control of her online persona and everything I have collected so far. It will be all hers. Julia will be able to define who she is and how she will present herself to herself and to the rest of the world, online and off. It will be the beginning of maturity. This online definition of self, the trying on of new experience and change, will never end. It is a metaphor for life. It is to live like Socrates in the 21st century. It is to make oneself worthy of happiness, and hopefully, to become happy.
It is a legacy, as well as a benediction, from loving father to precious daughter.
ONE FRAME EXTRACTED FROM JULIA'S BIRTH VIDEO:
Fifteen minutes after birth!
"It is a legacy, as well as a benediction, from loving father to his precious daughter."