Americans idealize what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “marketplace of ideas,” a space where every member of society is, by right, free to peddle his creed. Yet the shape or even existence of any such marketplace depends far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries. We sometimes treat the information industries as if they were like any other enterprise, but they are not, for their structure determines who gets heard.
—Tim Wu in The Master Switch
In my first post I proposed that the internet provides fertile soil to grow intimate, genuine communities and to foster a connected, organic kind of art-making within such communities. I want to talk more about how important the internet is to this vision, and why.
The internet is great. We’re just not using it right.
We don’t need digital detox. Or more accurately, we do need a detox, but we have misidentified the toxin. Interacting online is not inherently poisonous, and online interactions are no less meaningful than talking face to face. Different, yes, but just as valuable. If we experience problems relating to each other online, I believe it’s because we’re doing it wrong.
To my mind, there are two main challenges facing us in our interactions and communities on the internet: The first is the overwhelming amount of choice. The second is the ubiquity and malignancy of the big social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). We can solve the choice problem. And we can abandon — note that I say abandon, not reform or regulate — the social media platforms which dominate and poison our online experience. Then we can begin reclaiming better ways to interact online and building new ones, as I will discuss in the next two posts. If we do these things, I think the internet can be a much happier place.
A serious problem with the internet is that it opens the door to so much wonderful information and friendship that it makes it harder to choose. This is solvable if we are tough and honest with ourselves, and with each other, about making choices and saying ‘no.’ If the internet shows us more stuff, but we commit to saying ‘yes’ only to that which our human minds can successfully and fully attend, it means saying ‘no’ to more. It’s painful to live with the knowledge that there are amazing things we will never know about because we have said no. But I believe we must each be bold and proud about being choosy. If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.
I try to practice what I preach. The main news I read regularly is The Economist (because it feels centrist and I like the dry humor). Even the one magazine is too much information for my poor brain — I barely get through each week’s issue (I’m currently three weeks behind). I also follow the RSS feeds of a few blogs and news sources, but I usually skip The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, all the rest of them. So I miss out on things. It’s painful but it feels good to make these hard necessary choices, because it means that for what I do take in, I can attend to fully. To be fully engaged, to sit down and have a good meal, feels so much better than to taste from a continuous stream of samples, none of which stay long enough for me to be nourished.
Toxic! Wait, Social Media is Not the Internet
Many people spend most of their internet time on social media, so it is easy to conflate the two. Social media is literally embedded in our online experience — those three familiar little icons for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are on nearly every web site, every brochure and sign. But these platforms are not the internet itself. Far from it.
From 2006 until earlier this year, I was a steady Facebook user (I was also on Instagram and Twitter but didn’t post much). In the past few years I have disliked these platforms more and more. Lovely interactions take place, but overall, it didn’t feel good. I have been reading books by Jaron Lanier and Tim Wu and others about the harmful effects of the ad-based business model behind Facebook (including Instagram), Google, and Twitter. The business model depends on controlling our behavior and thinking for the benefit of their only paying customers, the advertisers. The structure of the underlying design bends our interactions toward the nasty and superficial, because these are the most profitable for advertisers. I don’t like being used. I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.
So for me, and I believe for many, the internet is drastically happier when we stay off social media. It’s important to know what’s a toxin and what’s a carrier. When possible we don’t dispense with contaminated water, we root out the contaminant. We refresh the stream. I recently left all mainstream social media, and I know many others who have left. I am hoping for a mass exodus.
Perhaps influenced by these problems of too much choice and manipulative social media, many mistrust the internet as a whole. You’ll hear people say things like: “Interacting online is great, but if you want to really connect with someone it’s better in person.” Certainly, there is no replacement for sitting across from a warm human being, from sharing one’s time and one’s life with living, breathing people. And there are pitfalls to written communication, times when it’s better to talk it out in person or over the phone, as you’ll know if you’ve ever sent an email when you’re angry.
But at the same time that we collectively misuse and underestimate the internet, I think we overestimate in-person interaction.
Physical Place is Exclusive
We may not notice the ways in which being together, face to face, is limited, exclusive, and shuts out possibility. Anyone too far away is left out. And by too far away, we often mean away from the place where ‘the’ discussion is happening, too far from centers of privilege. Those with physical and mobility limitations are left out of in-person relating more than those without them usually notice. Those whose lives are busy with family and work obligations are often left out. And those who are paid less for their work often need to work more hours to support themselves, and so have fewer free hours for face-to-face relating. People who earn less can be disproportionately left out.
Even when physical presence is possible, in-person interactions are exclusive by personality and communication style. Interacting face to face favors the neurotypical and those whose speech is typical and fluent, while those with different social skill sets are often left out of the discussion. Highly structured discussion methods can help with these problems, but you can see where I’m going. In-person relating can be great, but it’s not automatically better.
The Internet Can be a Profound and Joyful Place
On the internet, different dynamics exist. Not lesser or better, but different and, I believe, equal. Online communications — when handled with care — offer a remedy to the exclusivity of in-person interactions.
Things become possible online that are not possible in person. Different kinds of people shine forth and different kinds of conversations take place. The online world used to be more exclusive than the face-to-face world because access to internet-enabled devices was limited. But that is quickly changing. Over half of the globe, at many economic levels, can text, chat and watch videos on their phones (a blessing in places where literacy rates are low) — more all the time. It’s almost as easy for someone in Philadelphia to chat with someone across town as in rural Africa (where, despite setbacks, internet access is growing rapidly… Facebook is trying to help with that, but for mostly the wrong reasons). When such connections prevail, two people very different in experience and perspective can, potentially, learn in fresh and valuable ways from each other.
For some, online interaction will never feel, or be, equal to talking in person. I don’t seek to convince anyone to give up what they love for something they don’t trust or enjoy. But I think there is an undue bias against online communication, reinforced by the flawed forms of it that currently dominate our consciousness, and maintained by the fact that most forms of in-person exclusivity are hard to notice.
It might sound overstated to say that chatting by text can be just as good as chatting in person (though different). But this is not a radical argument, it’s a conservative one. It’s about reclaiming ancient and fundamental forms of human relating — meaningful, intimate conversations, old-fashioned communities — and pushing our technology forward to do this better, online. It’s about using some of the earliest and simplest online tools like email and discussion forums and blogs, things that already work well, and seeking new ways of using them, as well as new methods and tools, that might work even better.
So I believe that if we find better ways to use the internet, then more people can enjoy more and better conversations. With more people. Of more kinds. In more places. With people they could otherwise never reach. They can form friendships they could not have otherwise. These friendships can coalesce into communities that can help make the world a better place. This is already happening, and it needs to happen more.
My Life is Better Because of the Internet
All this comes directly from my own long-time experience. Both professionally and personally, the network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide. First, there’s my family: after college I moved across the country from where I grew up; not an uncommon thing for my demographic. So common, in fact, so normalized, that the pain of it is often overlooked. There was a real loss there, a lack of being part of one another’s lives. But I barely registered the emotional toll consciously until years later. Technology has helped. Texting has brought us closer, video calls mean my toddler can picture the new toy his grandparents got for their cat yesterday. The internet doesn’t fix the separation, but it heals it partway.
The internet has also been at the center of my creative and employed life. I worked for a tech company for eight years remotely. I build online courses with a friend and colleague on the opposite coast. In those cases, I meet in person once in a while with my colleagues, and it’s fun and it deepens the bond. But the relationship thrives primarily online.
My work that happens entirely online is just as deep, demonstrating what I think the internet is good for: equality of access and greater connection and community. I worked on the team that created The Morgan Library’s Music Manuscripts Online, where my daily tasks were highly tactile: I sat in the Morgan’s vault, paging through Mozart and Schumann manuscripts to capture their often confusing pagination for those who could not, like me, see them in the flesh. It’s the best of the internet: connection, democratization, reducing the inherent exclusivity of those physical manuscripts. Yes, the online viewer cannot, as I could, touch the very same paper Mozart had touched (well, not without an appointment and a plane ticket). So there is a loss. But the gain is that they can now have a personal encounter with these composers, and maybe even sense Mozart’s personality in the way he shaped each note.
Deep relationships based on written correspondence are as old as pen and paper. The internet can only make this kind of bond easier and more likely. In 2009 I heard from a poet in Australia, Robin Muir-Miller, who had found my compositions on my website. She liked my music, and I liked her poetry. We began exchanging emails about our work and before long we began collaborating as lyricist and composer. Over the course of ten years and many collaborations, we became close friends. She was in her 70s when we met, and confined to a wheelchair by her worsening MS. She became less and less able to read and type on her computer, and she died this past spring. So she was cut off from people physically, and email opened a door. We never met, never even spoke on the phone. It was a relationship between people who would never have met any other way and whose perspectives and interests matched each other unusually closely (despite some heated arguments, from which we both learned a lot). Our collaboration led to the large-scale work This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age, premiered in Toronto in 2010, which is for me one of our best and most important works. I wrote about the piece for NewMusicBox in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
All of these examples are about reducing exclusivity and increasing connection and access. I want the world to lay wide open for every thoughtful soul who wants to participate. For me, the universe is divided: On the one hand my little universe of physical proximity, beautiful environs full of tactile experiences, face-to-face human intimacy, not much commuting or traveling, time freed up for living and being. On the other hand my online universe, a rich tapestry of close friendships, interesting interactions, unexpected confluences, joyful professional and artistic opportunities. My iPhone is a happy place. Everything that happens on it is about learning, creating, and human relating. I don’t need a digital detox.
Let’s Build Better Tools for Being Human Online
I have two specific goals, and I have launched initiatives to test these goals in practice. I’ll talk about those projects in my next two posts, but here is a bit about the goals.
First, I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it. I have left the big social media platforms and I have invited others to join me. But instead of receding to my local corner, hemmed in by physical proximity, I’m looking for a place online for lay people of every sort and from every possible place, experts together with non-experts in any given topic (see Post 1 for more about experts and non-experts), to share and discuss and learn from each other within new communities. Sites like Meetup.com do not fit the bill because they exclude. I appreciate alternative social media options like MetaFilter and Vero, but I want specific qualities that these platforms don’t focus on in the ways I seek. I also want something different from the ways in which listservs and most online discussion forums work. I am looking for communities that are deliberately small (I love that MetaFilter values this too) — in some cases under ten people per group, in other cases perhaps a few hundred. I believe participation must be rooted in values of opting in, mutual free will, disclosure and permission. Communication online also benefits from being highly structured, with timed and scheduled interactions, in the manner of therapy groups and some online education methods. I also think social media and most current online interaction has the wrong rhythm and that this is a serious flaw — I’ll discuss that in upcoming posts.
Second, I’m an artist and, as I discussed in my first post, I seek a model in which art-making is intimate, on a person-to-person to scale. Where art is organic, growing from interactions that are already taking place about something beyond the art itself. Where art is a secondary but vital element within a community that exists for some other purpose. Where art functions by serving to express and teach the values that guide a community.
These two goals support one another. If we can find ways to push the internet forward and away from ad-based social media, then we can use it to reclaim the intimacy and strength of ancient and proven forms of human relating in small groups. When art naturally has something to serve beyond itself, it grows organically and naturally, imbued with the deep meanings of the community context in which it serves. Such art does not need to seek an audience. It has its home before it is made, and is made because it has a home.