The Raging River of the Interwebs

Howard Rheingold tweets that being mindful about all of the data on the web means filtering all of the crap as we wade through the waters of ever rushing interest.

Ok, maybe I’m stretching his 140 word post on Hybrid Pedagogy‘s #digped discussion group about his new book Net Smart, which went live last month (and will stay active throughout the summer). Still, Rheingold is pulling together centuries old spiritual thought with cutting edge technology when he suggests that digital beings can be mindful beings. He’s saying that surviving the over-growing, ever-moving datasphere at a time when information and ways to access it grow in abundance each day requires some mental agility. Dare I say, we all need to show some “digital hubris” or what could otherwise be considered intellectual stubborness.

We have to get unstuck from the school-age notion that the only way to really know something – to be right, to have a say, to pass the test – is to know everything there is to know. We have to decide not be perfect – to let some things pass us by – but we have to keep trying to keep learning as we keep moving down the river of tweets and retweets, memes, likes, posts, blogs and vlogs, and oversourced schools of email that nibble at every second of our already overbooked day. Like the reborn alcoholic or addict, we can surrender to the datasphere, acknowledging our own learning limits and realizing the full magnitude of what the datasphere has to offer. In my view, cyberspace does qualify as some form of “higher power” that is “greater than ourselves”. It’s “virtual” for Godsake! What could be more mystical than that?

If you don’t like that idea, don’t worry: higher powers and guilty people have historically complimented each other nicely.

“We can’t all learn everything, and but we all can learn something” is a line we used to tell pledges in my college fraternity. Today, I take it as my daily mantra of digital practice. I prevent myself from falling down the “YouTube hole” and resist my unbelievable propensity to scroll down. That sort of avoidance doesn’t include technological dismissal or denial. It’s a matter of discipline, like a spiritual practice, you do what feels right. Knowing how to move through the “crap” (Rheingold’s actual word) on the Internet is key for retaining peace of mind. It’s the only way we can manage the digital information overload, which for some reason seems bigger and meaner than all of the other information overloads that have happened throughout history. But just because there’s too much information doesn’t mean that there’s too much information to manage. A fact that is often overlooked by the common person is that social technology is a discretionary function of everyday life, not a mandated one. That means that you have just as much ability to shut down as you do to power up. By virtue of that fact, you have just as much incentive to tailor technology to suit your needs as you do to be sucked in by flashy lights and funny pictures of cats.

We live in a world of artificial excess – the ocean, the land, the sky, and outer space are all bolstering with too much stuff that gets in our way when we try to occupy it. “Space junk” threatens our safety and the purity of the environment that anchors whatever reality we’re living in at the moment. Today and forever from now own, cyberspace will be the same way. The hard part is recognizing what counts as “junk” and what doesn’t. We need tools to do that because – remember – the Interwebz is bigger and badder than us. We need super amazing information-metal detectors, hardcore data-rototillers and social media-rakes that collect all of that rich soil good for planting positive, clever, and humorous seeds of intellect and prestige in the gardens of our social network (and, perhaps, our minds).

If we want to know how to manage the raging river that runs through our collective digital-backyard, then we better know how to pick the right tools to help us reroute our expectations. We also need to know who can be our best guides for helping us along the way as we take on the rapids of discourse and debate. We need to know who will pull us back in the boat if we get pulled into the tossing waves of argument, cut-up on the sharp rocks of disinformation.

Had enough metaphors, yet? Good. Me too.

You get the point, I hope, that we all need to learn how to be mindful of the Internet, which means not passing up the opportunities it presents us for both work and play. No matter your vocation, digital resources can help you just as much – if not more – than they are said to be a hindrance.

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PLE's The Raging River of the Interwebs by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

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There but for the Grace of God go I

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately. She was a wonderful, God fearing woman who believed in Grace above all things. “There but for the Grace of God go I” she would say, almost as a way of leaving a phrase unfinished; like it was her way of reminding us that life will always continue to challenge, trouble, disrupt, and dismay us, but that we will be required to keep living in spite of our shortcomings and displeasure.

I wish I’d been mature enough when she was still alive to tell her how much I appreciate her—how much I appreciate my memory of her now. The way I remember her coping with life’s small miseries creeps into my thoughts daily, serving as a manual for difficult moments that can only be read after-the-fact. No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to hang on to the lessons indefinitely.

I wasn’t close enough to her at the end of her life.

For some reason my thoughts always drift toward her in my most challenging moments, searching for examples of similar situations where she exemplified a better strategy for coping, or told some story with an important moral lesson, which would act as a guide the next time around.

She had a way with crafting words around caring gestures that warmed a room, never leading to controversy, awkward confrontation, or confusion. There was a pleasantness and serene aura about her, at all times, but not in a naive way; that is, there was a subtle intellectuality about her presence that was truly…

Graceful.

Religion is attractive for the sole reason that it allows us to make real, through parable and meta-narrative, the very fantasies that come to life in our memory. How romantic the Christian notion is that we can speak to the dead, or that metaphysical beings are watching over us, stewarding loved ones left living until their final hour. A Christian might tell me to pray and that the person I am thinking about, dead or alive, will receive my blessing. Or they might tell me that “your grandmother knows” how you feel because “she’s watching over you.”

It’s funny how the ways people talk about religion echo the ways people talk about the Internet.

Regardless, these narrative devices are nice ways to make sense of a confusing world, but they’re not very comforting, at least not to me. Maybe there is some truth in the “up there” and “out there” notion of a Christian spirituality, but the general dogma is much too contradictory and simplistic for me to embrace its romantic notions. In short, religious scriptural naivety ruins the magical moment of romance that most derive from the promise of salvation.

Although, I do admire those who have such firm belief in fantastic notions of life ever-after. I appreciate that they are able to find peace in ritual, study and practice.

My grandmother was this sort of person—a religious person who truly believed in something. I absolutely respect such certainty as a way of being when it is grounded in notions of goodwill, honesty, and faith. Some people, like my grandmother, understand Grace to much deeper degrees than those who constantly question their beliefs and, as a result, struggle to suspend their assumptions when making connections with others that really matter.

I believe in humanity and in goodness, for sure, but can’t rationalize a heaven (in the mono-theistic sense) any better than I can order coffee at a diner speaking Gaelic. As an intellectual, I feel like I’ve distanced myself far from anything that resembles what I used to know as “faith” and that salvation is dish best served cold. As a result, I struggle daily to trust in others, to believe that others will help me, that they will offer some missing piece of a puzzle needed to keep living, or that they’ll help me achieve my goals.

How can I put stock in a mystical universe based on faith when my career is rooted the practice of explaining away complex phenomenon so that I might understand the most confusing aspects of the universe? After a while, I read so much that I begin to realize that everything can be explained, deconstructed, reconstructed, understood, performed, modulated, queered, queried, themed, grounded, compartmentalized, analyzed, translated, or criticized. Before too long, the quest for an all encompassing Truth is easily abandoned, left to drift down the river of yesterdays, where bits and pieces of forgotten selves—religious beliefs, innocence, naivety, skepticism, goofiness, hopes, wishes, magic—collect in pools that straddle the banks of a personal past left behind.

There’s no Grace in my daily life—not usually. It isn’t something that comes easy to me, like it did for my grandmother. It’s something that I have to cultivate by reminding myself to take it easy, to take it slower, to stop and breathe, to cope, and be aware of what’s around me.

Grace is the one thing that my grandmother seamlessly embodied. I know that she had a lifetime of encounters to learn these traits, and that she was probably more willful in her youth, but my memory relentlessly reveals her Graceful prowess. I remember her best as the woman who was inviting, open, joyous, gentle, delighted, and easygoing. These are all qualities that would be useful to me now, more than anything, if they could only be remembered in the moment of stressful encounters with others.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I think Grace is a struggle for many, and I warm to people who don’t reflect my willful demeanor. I think most of us—academics especially—critical scholars especially—ought to remember to strive for Grace whilst speaking their minds, making claims, and doing what they’re trained to do.

In I and Thou, Martin Buber says that all actual encounter is by Grace, not by seeking, and that all actual living is encounter. I interpret this to mean that the only way to truly live is to relinquish moments of willfulness so that the other—whomever or whatever the other might be—may be invited to experience oneself fully and wholly, no holds barred. To me, Grace is about finding comfort with one’s own vulnerability so that, when we least expect it, we may trust in a universe that can never be fully comprehended.

This semester has brought work related stress to a whole new level and I’ve been struggling to cope. If all of life is suffering, like the Buddhists say, than I’ve been experiencing an order of it reserved for the busiest, most intensely demanding, and most productive times. It has been hard to be Graceful, much easier to assert my will over the tasks of daily living in order to command, conquer and accomplish everything that I imagine is expected of me.

But there comes a point when all of the willfulness that helps me efficiently check things of my to-do list—the course, protective, power-focused, nerve-centric affect that I carry in my shoulders after 6 cups of black tea and 10 minutes to spare—becomes too much to bear.

 

There comes a point when I no longer recognize I.

I seem more like some one else.

I forget that I am only myself in relation to You.

But without Grace, there is no You—not to me, anyway;

There’s no trust, no vulnerability, and no openness.

Without Grace, there is no I, no actual living.

***

“Nick, I need to see you for a minute before we break off into groups,” she says, throwing he words over a few chatting colleagues sitting near me, already discussing their projects. I skirt the table quickly, weaving through spinning chairs as I near the end of the table.

“Heya” I say, with a certain nonchalance, “What’s up?” I can see that she has notes for me and something pressing to discuss. I’m eager and a bit nervous, but in an expecting way that’s not as much fearful as ready and confident. I see that she has my paper in front of her with notes written on it.

She looks forward in thought as she speaks, crafting the right words, responding in a thoughtful and focused way that senior professors have learned from what seems like thousands of years of experience, in classrooms where they’ve refined professorial wizardry via literary magic.

“That comment I made a minute ago about finding what you are writing about 5 pages into the paper—I hope that you picked up that it was direct toward you.”

I nod.

“I see what you have here, and it’s nice and I get it, but sometimes you get so abstract—I mean, you really let yourself go—that it becomes unclear what you’re getting it. The reader has to know where you are, what you’re doing, where you’re taking us. You’re job is to reign yourself in and tighten it up, or else we’ll be totally lost.”

I’m grateful and I agree, but my face doesn’t show it. I want to be appreciative, but my voice won’t let me. The exact opposite comes out and we grapple in discussion over ideas for my paper. For the next 10 minutes we hash over ideas, rationalizing, mythologizing, tossing out possibilities in search of commonality. Something in the darkest cavern of my mind wants to escape and say “thank you just for reading it and offering feedback,” but waves of intellectual prowess infused with oily pride keep it hidden away, under pressure, unable to reach the surface. In the back of my mind, I’m wondering why I can’t ever accept feedback as it comes—the way it comes—without added expletives, justifications, or defenses. “Why the need to explain yourself?” I ask myself, inaudibly.

We continue to exchange details and get a feel for each other’s needs. Eventually, we reach some common ground but not before I deliver a beautiful rendition of “difficult grad student” for an undeserving customer. “Must I always be such a pain in the ass?” I ask, clinching my teeth to keep my mouth shut and end the conversation.

I walk to my office pleased with the progress that we’ve just made, glad to have more direction, elated that a person with her esteem and sensibility is working with me. Undergirding all of this is an overbearing feeling of shame that I couldn’t show that I was grateful for the time and effort she put into helping me. Embarrassment is out of the question when self-spite like this is in order, and my head gets hot as pride boils on the tip of my tongue. I cuss at myself as I search the halls, turning the corner by the bathroom, wishing that I could be more of the appreciative person that I sense myself to be in actuality.

“Grace” I say out loud, just before I see my colleague coming down the hall. “Where is the Grace?” I ask, in my mind, emphatically searching for a way to change my mode and shift my mood. My colleague comes up beside me and we stride in step as we enter my office to begin collaborating on each other’s work. I feel myself ease into a funk, unable to cope with the failed dialogue I just had and suspecting that I’ll botch this next encounter all the same.

We sit and read for a few moments and then toss around some comments, lightly chatting about each other’s work. Her paper is excellent, written in a voice I only wish I could capture. There is elegance and directness about the way she describes her actions, the way she writes her environment in the story, and the way she illustrates her relationships to other characters that is unique and visual. It’s a style that is second to none in our department. Having read some of her writing a few years ago, I can see that it’s full-bodied and enlivened now. I can already see her paper’s panning out into a publication of some kind that is definitely worth both of our time and effort. I truly believe in collaborative-driven ethos, especially when it comes to writing narrative.

She continues to admire some of the things I’ve written and casts a glance over the pages she’s holding that beckons me to respond to her work. I tell her that I’m pointing out a few things that are really mechanical by nature, no big deals. “Just some things that help invite the reader into the story a bit more.” I say, without urgency.

Her glance changes from an inquisitive hopefulness to a concerned dryness, more worried than ugly. We bicker for the next few minutes about whether or not the details I’ve annotated are really worth editing, arguing over the definition of conversational voice before we notice that we have to get back to the classroom and report back to the rest of the group.

“I’m a better editor than I am a writer” I boast. I think it’s the truth. As we leave I tell her that I’ll work through her paper over night and bring her back some good feedback in the morning. I’m hoping that my willingness to put time and effort into editing will ease her nerves. I love editing because it helps me be a better writer and lets me practice providing solid feedback that might actually be of use. Helping people move in better directions is always fulfilling if they allow you to intervene.

Again, I’m met with what I sense to be distrust and discomfort.

Silence.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t have to edit your paper if you don’t want me to. I’m just trying to help.” It’s awkward, and I can see her struggling with a gentle way of telling me that she’d rather not have my input. I’m struck at this, thinking that we had a fairly collegial relationship until now, and I can’t help but wonder if her eventual “I’d rather you didn’t read it” comes because she doesn’t trust my character in general—or if it has something to do with what’s written in the paper, something I have yet to discover about her that would reveal a tender spot of vulnerability.

I never liked not being allowed to help people. It’s one of the only ways I feel like I can show my true colors and be the more gentle, caring, responsible, compassionate, and well intentioned person I sense myself to be; it’s the only way that the sunken treasure of gratefulness has ever risen to the surface of my everyday experience with others. I know that tenderness breeds tenderness, and I want to show her that I can help, if she’d only give me a chance. I do my very best to block out self-consciousness and doubt in order to reaffirm my commitment help her.

We turn the corner of the classroom without coming to a resolution. Her paper in hand, I engage with her about our brief conversation as we discuss our group meeting with the class. Surprisingly, we’re all at very similar places in our writing and there are a few tense laughs shared by all—a welcome relief to the tensions incurred when writing from the soul and speaking from the hip. There is a general sense of agency and community in the air as we wrap up class.

I look down to pack up my things and see my colleague sitting next to me, a quick maneuver in the adjacent chair after it becomes vacant. She reaches her hand out to grab her paper, a half-hearted attempt to snatch back what is rightfully hers.

“After some thinking about it, I’ve decided that I just don’t want you to read it. I’m just gonna do something else,” she asserts, not wanting a conversation. She’s cautious and slow about her words, indirect and sheepish in a way that furthers my confusion. For the last time, I wonder if she’s suspicious of me as opposed to what’s in her paper.

“Look, it’s just a paper and I don’t really care what’s in here, but I like it so far and I think I can help. You have a wonderful voice and a way with words that I envy. I think if you let me give you some good feedback you might find it helpful. I promise I won’t be mean.” In a joking way, I crack a smile and wryly remark, “I swear that I won’t judge you any differently than I judge you already!”

She whips a quick, stern glance my way. “And lets talk about that!” she says, her voice raising her eyebrows as she turns toward me, ready to grab her paper for good and run. I can tell that I’m at least half-right about her issues trusting my intentions but that the real onus of trust lies in the contents of the text itself. Though I was trying to be witty and dry, a way of alleviating tension, I think I pushed her a bit too hard and put pressure on a sore spot that I didn’t know existed. Sometimes bruises aren’t always apparent. I continue in a plea.

“Look—you can swear me to secrecy. I’ll sign a contract that says I won’t tell a soul what’s in this paper. I think you should let me read it, make some notes, and I’ll put it in your mailbox when I’m done. I’m here to help you, not to hurt you. It will be good in the long run, trust me.” Apprehensively, she deflates in here seat and calmly, quietly agrees, still unsure that she’s made the right decision. As I walk away, either am I.

Moving from the classroom to my office, I try to make sense of the two encounters. Both were about writing; both required a degree of vulnerability that I just couldn’t show; both ended well but left the relationship on an unstable ground. Questions start a race in my mind, unconcerned with a finish line.

Will I ever know Grace? Will I always be this abrasive? Why am I so disconfirming and off putting? Will there come a day when being easy will be easy? When being difficult will catch me off guard? Will the deeper self, the one filled with gratitude and awe, ever find a way to fuse with the surface of my experience? Will people who wade in relation to me ever find something between us worth sustaining?

I just don’t know. I’ve got no answers to fleeting questions.

As I get into my car, a deep breath exits my body, releasing the hyper-tension in my body before I turn over the engine. I press the clutch, turn the key, and throw the stick into reverse  as I turn my head to gaze out the rear window.

“There but for the Grace of God go I” I say out loud, smile, remembering my grandmother, slowly putting the car into gear.

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PLE's There but for the Grace of God go I by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Nets, Bees, and Global Consciousness: There are No More Single Authors

Despite the sometimes jarring conclusions that many authors draw about how people use new media and social technology (see anything written by Henry Jenkins for some fun, enlightened reading), at the core of the digital ethics issue is a fundamental acknowledgement of global consciousness. How can people live in a world where they are globally aware yet restricted by geopolitical mechanisms of control? To filter the Internet is to treat the very idea of globalization like a controlled one substance. You can’t ration out amphetamines to the public, threaten to take away their drugs over night, and act like a moral savior the next day. Speed addicts don’t take kindly to that sort of thing. Yet, this is exactly what bills like SOPA and PIPA claimed they would do.

Once people become globally aware, they appropriate the idea of ubiquitous connectivity as a character trait of the time in which they live. The “truth” is that technology users in the 21st centaury come to realize that there is no “Truth”; this is a value embedded in the very technology itself, the message of the medium we choose to use in a network society, as Manuel Castellsand Marshall McLuhan might say. This doesn’t necessarily mean that contemporary technology users surrender to post-modern thinking and a loss of traditional values. It does mean that users must acknowledge that there are multiple “truths.” In light of a realized global consciousness, it’s no wonder that extremism occupies the public political discourse as much as it does. The world had seen tragedy before 9/11, but generations of the past didn’t have access to the vivid narratives that made tragedy “truly” real until the pictures of burning buildings, videos of crying spouses, and text messages of stranded office workers who plummeted to their death were at their command, on their laptop, in their bed.

The imagined community of contemporary society is no longer bound to nationalism exclusively, but expands the concept of ownership, inhabitance, and virtual space to the entire planet. The Internet deterratorializes regional boundaries to the degree that physical space is in constant competition with cyberspace. “Mediated publics,” as danah boyd likes to call them, are global by nature because of the Internet.

Site like Facebook, YouTube, and even this blog are not so much “virtual communities” in the sense that Howard Rheingoldimagined 20 years ago, but are more or less hybrid zones of interactivity hooked into a global Net where users write themselves into being – a form of constructing the self performatively in cyberspace via digital composition. These virtual performances conform to new standards of action, communication, and participation, similar to the ways that bees act when they are connected to a hive.Kevin Kelly’s second chapter of Out of Control illustrates the correlations between swarm mentality and human technology users, exposing the ways that “emergent properties” synergistically develop when social beings collect, connect, and act as peers in enormous intersubjective networks.

Despite the blocking and filtering that breaks up user traffic and hides content online, or the massive amount of spam, viruses, and other things that go bump on the web, in a world where the Internet exists, so must the idea of transnational agency; so must the idea of the “invisible hand” that regulates the terms of social living; so must the sense of unity that Buddhists have made reference to since before Christ. This sort of global mindfulness changes a person. Phillip Zimbardo claims that the Internet “digitally rewires” the brain. What is made possible by the Net is not just opportunity for social connection, but the opportunity for individual mindfulness. “Personal globality,” if we can call it that, means not having the choice to not make a choice; there is a heightened sense of responsibility that bears down on individual actions because the social ramifications of a single person’s choices are immediately apparent. So many professional athletes have learned this the hard way after a drunken night of Tweeting.

Realization of this sort occurs at the local level; “globality” becomes a personal endeavor of the oppressed, marginalized, and subaltern the moment a person learns how to post onto Facebook, comment on YouTube, or link together their social network site profiles. As a result, the very Net that brings this level of awareness about is politicized, charged, or “colored in” by those who, in their virtual performances, bring it into being. This leaves little room for the notion of Net Neutrality. Theories that conceive of the Internet as completely open, free, and democratic contribute to the continuation of a myth about institutional non-interference in social life. As John Palfrey and Jonathon Zittrain’s point out in Access Denied, Internet filtering has always occurred to some degree. Regardless, the world remains aware of itself as an interconnected world thanks to the Internet.

Awareness of a world wide web means introducing international citizens to the awareness of a potentially global society. Once the world becomes aware of itself as a social organism, there is no way it can reconcile living as disconnected nation states, parceled citizenry, or disenfranchised users. Kelly’s metaphor for the Internet as a hive or swarm is perhaps the starkest illustration of how collective mentality creates a new, emergent form of awareness that increases innovative practices and reveals the nature of the whole of humanity locked within the individual user. To Kelly, it is about seeing the whole in the part, a metonymic way of understanding life.

To drive the point home: Cyberspace spreads awareness and creates global consciousness; attempts to take control of that consciousness, to abridge it, and to intentionally force-fit it to cultural moors of yesterday (as Internet censorship policies attempt to do) is antithetical. It’s like telling a blind person who can suddenly see to never open there eyes again. Try and force their eyes shut, see what happens. My bet is that they would try to fight you.

I know I would.

If humanity ever lost the Internet, receding into the “dark ages” of technology, a global identity crisis would play out the likes of which has never been seen. This will most likely never happen because, ironically, threats to globalism made by contemptuous authoritarian regimes contribute to the furthered awareness of a global society by turning the private, technological act into a form of personal and global resistance. The reality of virtual living is that there is always room for one more voice. Authoritarian tactics of the old world are always forced to compete with other voices that antagonize their single-minded intentions. As Mikhail Bakhtin might say, the voice of the future—and the Internet, for that matter—is multivocal.

There are no more single authors.

Creative Commons License
PLE's Nets, Bees, and Global Consciousness: There are No More Single Authors by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.