Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Shirky vs. Sherry: Do we have Cognitive Surplus, or are we Alone Together?

(Image from Amazon)

(Image from Amazon)

In the couple last posts I recommended and summarized two key books by Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus.  He succinctly argues how new media and digital technologies have reduced transaction costs to organize groups, making it much easier nowadays to communicate with many people.  Whether we use social media to share photos or to start political revolutions, there’s a wide range of potential to change our world.  

But will such change always be for the better?

There are no easy answers to questions like that.  Keep in mind the words of Neil Postman, who called every new technology a “Faustian bargain”: there’s always the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Shirky tends to spotlight the good, not the bad, and he gives no attention to the ugly.  To be fair, I admire his ability to parse the human element behind technology.  I also appreciate his focus on positive changes that new technology can bring out in human behavior—e.g., using Facebook or other social media to organize noble causes such as charities.

However, there are times where Shirky gets a little too Pollyannaish.  For instance, in Chapter 4 of Cognitive Surplus, he says,

“Every surprising bit of new behavior described here has two common elements: people had the opportunity to behave in a way that rewarded some intrinsic motivation, and those opportunities were enabled by technology but created by human beings.”

So far, so good.  But then he says,

“Those bits of new behavior, though, are extensions of, rather than replacements for, much older patterns of our lives as social creatures” (p 101).  [Bold = my emphasis]

As many psychologists would argue, that last conclusion is highly problematic, so let's break it down.

It's true that every technology is an extension of our human behavior or mental ability in some sense (this is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said "the medium is the message").  For instance, screens (whether TVs or cameras) extend our vision; cell phones extend our speech and hearing; social media extend our capacity to organize groups and communicate with members.

As we see from these examples, the real question is what specific behavior or ability a particular technology extends—e.g., do social media such as Facebook really extend our ability to make friends?  Well, kind of (many of my close friends are on Facebook), but quite often no (Facebook is jam-packed by many others I hardly know).  Just because you have 500 "friends" on Facebook doesn't mean that all of them are your friends.
Social media like Facebook seem to be much more about networking people and organizing events, not extending friendships—the former may complement the latter, but it's a mistake to confuse them.  The British sitcom The IT Crowd once ran a hilarious episode showing what happens when we try to replace social networking with personal friendship.

Also, you may recall the movie The Social Network, which shows how Facebook's very founding ironically destroyed many close friendships.


The Social Network
(Image from IMDb)


The Social Network
(Image from IMDb)

Shirky wants to stamp social media with his approval because “there’s great value in seeing that we are not alone” (p 172).  But sometimes social media and their new demands on us (responding to messages, keeping up with feeds, keeping track of events, etc.) make us feel more alone by sucking up our time and distracting our attentionwhich are finite resourcesat the expense of quality time with loved ones.  Too much quantity, not enough quality—that's a problem with social media.

(Image from Amazon)

In that light, I recommend comparing Clay Shirky to Sherry Turkle, who looks at the psychological costs and anxieties of digital technology.  Turkle is a psychologist from MIT who has studied human-computer interaction for decades.  In stark contrast to Shirky, she argues that new technologies are not necessarily extensions of our social lives; new technologies are often replacements for social interaction.

In her book Alone Together, for instance, Turkle discusses the psychological effects of video games and second life.  On one hand, there are virtual worlds that simulate real life (e.g., SimCity), which let players experiment in online worlds and prepare for real-world scenarios.  On the other hand, a virtual world is not necessarily like the real one, and this discrepancy can create disappointing expectations with daily life, leading players to take addictive refuge in video games.  So sometimes video games extend our social lives (e.g., gaming conventions), but other times they just replace faces with interfaces (as in video game addition).

As Postman often said, technology is Faustian bargain: the good is never without the bad.  Shirky is an author who looks at the good, while Turkle is a scientist who doesn’t shy away from revealing the bad.  Both perspectives are important if we want to be mindful about the tradeoffs that new technologies force us to make.

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