In an interview I did a decade ago, composer David Behrman said: "As far as machines being the enemy, I'm convinced that technology is amoral. Whether it's a force for good or evil or neither depends on who is doing what with it and for what reason." I came back to that after I read a Christian Science Monitor article about the power and limits of Facebook.
As you've probably heard by now, Facebook is the social networking site that looks to overtake MySpace in that realm. FB is the tidier, button-down version where you network with old school chums but now is adding new widgets to add the multi-media features that's helped make the scruffier MS such a sensation. I've signed up with both and heard about a lot of great music that I wouldn't have known about otherwise thanks to MS but I have to admit that FB does have some appealing features too. It's look is definitely more staid but I have indeed reconnected with some old buddies from high school and college. Plus added features like iLike let you not only list some of your favorite movies, books and music but you can also find out what your friends on FB enjoy too instantly when you do that. They've also added features like music playlists, song dedications, movie quizzes too. For music nuts like me, you also find out where and when your favorite acts are touring near you (which is a big plus). No wonder they're catching up to MySpace... I still find FB to be a little to anti-septic in its set-up but I'm glad I have it though I wouldn't want to give up using MySpace either.
But back to the article. It notes that FB is indeed gaining momentum in the field but also worries that it's part of a disturbing trend.
"Our personal technologies allow (indeed encourage) us to filter out the things that we find distasteful – television commercials, boring tracks on a CD, political opinions with which we disagree."
That's a great, thoughtful sociological observation but the overall thrust of the article is that FB is another way that we can communicate virtually without having to do it in the real world. And that's where I got to thinking about Behrman's quote again. It's easy to blame and scapegoat technology as ruining our lives. It goes back to the industrial revolution and how new technology was reconfiguring industries and taking jobs away. Also in the 1940's and 1950's, sci-fi books and movies tantalized Americans with stories of robots run amok. Post-war technology was making peoples' lives more convenient but again there were inherent (and sometimes justified) fears that it would and could transform our lives for the worse. That continues to happen today as school-shootings are blamed not just on metal and rap music but also video games. Also, as the CSM article notes, we're physically and maybe emotionally and psychologically less able to deal with other people in the non-virtual world when we're tied up on the Net.
To some extent, that's true. You could be in a cafe or at a park with your laptop as you're reading this now but more likely, you're at home or in your office cubicle. Or are you? I'd be curious to see statistics about how and where people access the Net nowadays. The fact is that with more and more cybercafes and places offering hotspots for Wifi, there's no need to be tied down to home or work to surf the web. Hell, you can do it on your Blackberry or iPhone too, not to mention the many cell phones that have web and mail features now. This means that now more than ever, we can be mobile while still connecting to the Net when and where we want. And rest assured that this trend will continue and flourish.
But going back to Behrman's thoughts again, the CSM article again doesn't address enough about how we use technology. It assumes that we all have a monolithic relationship where we shutter ourselves away, hunched over our computers, cut off from the world. There's nothing there about how the Net helps people connect and not just in a virtual world. Thanks to some of my Net contacts, I've been able to visit people in London, Barcelona, New Orleans, Austin, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam and other locales where they were kind enough to act as unofficial tour guides. Similarly, I was able to extend the same courtesy when people come to New York. That's thanks to mailing lists, newsgroups and websites. Nothing yet through MySpace or Facebook though thanks to the later, I have someone to visit in San Francisco now.
It's right to point out that virtual networking can and does distract from the non-virtual kind but I wish that articles which like to point that out (and which obviously follow in this tradition of technophobia) also point out that it doesn't always turn all of us into shut-in home bodies all the time.