Viewpoint

Web 2.0's Cultural Therapy

Humans, for millions of years, have absolutely depended on technologies--from clothing to shelter to weapons to the wheel and cooking implements--to survive. We evolved with our technologies, inseparable from those technologies, to the point where without our technologies we are naked in the wilderness. We design our technologies and our technologies define us. All through those millions of years, the technologies were atom-based. Things. Objects. Something tangible. Even fire is just rapid oxidation of atoms.

And, now, after all those atom-based millennia, our dominant technologies have harnessed the unique capabilities of the electron. If Web 2.0 is the moment in human history when the culture fully adopted digital technologies, it is also the moment in human history when we hitched our wagon to the electron, altering our relationship to atom-based technologies.

We've had only a peek at what this might mean. The Facebook phenomenon is a hint. Through all that human history I'm referring to, people have been moving away from each other in a great worldwide diaspora. Aldous Huxley saw Hell as a place where people always put more distance between them, always moving away, always disappearing off into the distance. In the last couple of millennia, humans developed the capacity for physical mobility to the point where we landed on the Moon, where we routinely fly from one continent to another, and where families are dispersed in all directions. Human disruption on such as scale is disastrous in many ways, but, from just one perspective, if all education begins at home, such dispersal is destructive.

Facebook is reversing the diaspora. Electronic technologies bring things to us so we don't have to go somewhere. Facebook, of all applications, because it has been so sweepingly adopted by people of all ages (225 million members at last count), is one of the most hopeful signs yet that the dominant technology of this century is not destructive of human values but can be used, instead, for healing. How many families have reconnected because of Facebook?

How many of us know someone who has found personal healing through renewed communication with family and friends, or through gathering new friends? Compare this aspect of digital technologies--humans connecting to humans--with the destruction the automobile has brought us. Why did we so readily accept that our favorite technology, the automobile, would kill 50,000 people a year in the U.S. and comparable numbers around the globe where cars have become so prevalent? Why did we accept the fact that cars pollute the atmosphere and contribute heavily to a coming threat to the survival of humanity? Cars are fun and necessary, but the cost is shocking. How could we have become so accustomed to that cost?

The longing for connection, for social-embeddedness runs deep in America. The physical mobility we achieved with the automobile resulted, from one viewpoint, in social and economic mobility as well. However, in many ways, the automobile, culturally and socially, is on balance a negative. Facebook, and other social sites have been so enthusiastically embraced because they are helping us heal from the wounds of our too-exuberant embraceof the car and other mobility technologies.

[Photo by Judy Batson]

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