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[personal profile] garote
There was a time, about 20 years ago, when internet connectivity was first spreading all over the world, where it seemed to me like humanity was on the edge of a cultural unification. Of course I would think that, since I was on the inside of it: The internet was unrolling around me like a carpet and as far as I could tell, the pattern was one I already knew, and the weave was flawless. It was just a matter of time before everyone realized that we had everything in common, and there wold be no more strangers, no more foreign devils, no more faceless enemies for patriots and zealots to declare war on. We would enter a new phase of civilization.

I based this naïve impression on what I knew: In the 1980s, as a young teenager in California, I'd connected to an IRC channel and talked with people from New York to Australia to Russia to Japan. Almost everyone was polite and intelligent, and impoliteness was punished with exclusion. With the internet spreading to every household on Earth, surely everyone would learn from the example of politeness online.

Well, we all know how hilariously wrong that prediction was, hmm?

Of course, I've had to acknowledge that my personal dream of the internet as the savior of humanity was just a product of my own human limitations. Worse yet, those very limitations are what made the dream impossible.

It's said that any given person only has enough space in their head for a hundred or so relationships at a time, and everyone else is just a mass of strangers. We navigate the strangers by assuming that they're like one or more of the people we know. Even if the internet could deliver us infinite variety -- allow us to connect to any other person we wanted -- our attention span would force us to narrow that variety to about a hundred people. Or, superficial fragments of a thousand people. Or, vague and easily manipulated impressions of a million people. In any case, we are also making decisions that exclude connection.

So, if you can potentially connect to a billion people, then that's 100 people you've decided to connect to, and 999,999,900 that you have decided to leave as strangers.

This kind of built-in limitation to the way humans work has been on my mind a lot lately. It has implications in politics and culture that I find very difficult to grasp. It boggles my mind that the same problems I have with seeing all the people around me clearly are also shared by everyone else. We are all half-blind, stumbling through our non-100 portion of humanity by making huge assumptions and applying them indiscriminately almost all the time, because it's impossible to function any other way.

Of course, sociologists have been examining this phenomenon since before "sociologist" was even a term. It's something humans have had to deal with ever since agriculture spawned the first cities, and it's why we have concepts like "the golden rule" - basically a "Newton's first law" for social etiquette. What's interesting to me is how this human limitation has run headlong into the internet, and rather than be changed by it one little bit, people are instead clamoring to reconfigure the internet.

Take the example of Facebook: As soon as your "newsfeed" grows beyond a few dozen active people, it becomes exhausting to follow. The developers of Facebook are constantly adding and tweaking features that chop it down to size. You are also presented with things that your friends have commented on, which exposes you to commentary from their friends, and so on. In a surprisingly short time the degree of separation is large enough to present you with an inflammatory comment made by a stranger - or perhaps just a comment that feels inflammatory to you.

And here's where the internet goes wrong: It's just words on a screen. There is no encompassing social context that helps us decide how to interpret them, or how to react.

We are hammering changes into the internet as fast as we can that make it more like in-person, on-location, real-time communication, because that context requires investment, and that investment compels people to behave. Nicknames become legal names. Blank icons become photos, which become video feeds. Everything gets a location. Things actually decay and vanish, by erasing encryption keys and revoking digital certificates. I suspect that a person's "digital persona" will eventually include some legal right to order companies to delete old correspondence from their communication platforms. Yes: The fact that the internet can store anything with perfect fidelity forever, is actually a problem that we need to solve!

But let me back up and point out an assumption I skipped over here:

In-person communication, and plenty of it, is the most satisfying way to conduct your social life, and the surest way to maintain or adapt that set of 100 intimate people.

Surely the internet has a role to play in socializing. But what if that role is a supporting one? What if you took an inventory of every way you communicate with people through the internet, and decided to reconfigure that communication so that it steered as quickly and as often as possible towards in-person communication?

What if you went through every person on your Facebook list and made the following choice:

1. Contact them right now and arrange a lunch date to catch up.
2. Drop them off the list forever.

What if you made a pledge that you would only read the internet for entertainment or news purposes if there was someone else in the room to bounce ideas off as you go?

What if you just approached face-to-face communication by degrees: The next time you start a text conversation with a friend, drop in "How about if I call you instead?" The next time you're on the phone with a friend, switch to video chat for the hell of it. Yes, I know we're all very busy, but there are ways to respect that and still add intimacy.

These are questions I'm asking myself. This is the direction my thinking has taken, now that I've accepted the foolishness of my earlier utopian dream. The internet is not going to remake civilization just by existing, but it can play a role in our efforts to navigate it. For example, it is a terrible substitute for in-person communication, but it is a remarkable tool for helping me choose whom to meet in person next!
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