The Internet: A School of Wizardy

Danah Boyd talks about the “magic” of the Internet, social media in particular. An aspect in our lives that is so integrated, a belief that great things come to be because of social media and that we have never reached this high before in our progress as people. For Harry Potter (“Incantations for Muggles”), we admire the wizards, and pity the muggles. These “muggles” not only don’t have the comprehension to understand reality, but isolate themselves in a reality that limits them. Because it is just dangerous thinking to believe that a wizard, with spells and that sort, really can exist. In our day and age, it is believed the tech savvy young people are the wizards, and the old fashioned old-timers are the muggles. But Boyd challenges this:

“Perhaps we are not the wizards, but the muggles. As we Twitter our way to friendship, scoring ourselves based on the numbers of ‘friends’ we can convince to subscribe to our existence, perhaps we lose track of what friendship and connection mean.”

I like to think of the muggle as someone chained in Plato’s Allegory, where the prisoner can only see, and call “truth”, the shadows on the wall rather then seeing what really casts the shadows in the first place. So, for Boyd, are we living a reality that is not as true as it could be, where we are spending most of our times in a cave. So to ask, are we chained by the technology that we hold so dear to us? Is our technology, social media in particular, a utopia or a dystopia? If it is not a utopia, can it become one?

For me, I think we are chained to a certain extent – the stuff we want to know rather than the stuff we need to know – takes up the majority of our energy, time, and effort to reach for. I also think the Internet is not a utopia, but it can become one. I think the major flaw in our media usage is that it has become too personalized. But this “filter bubble” that we have online is not something that we strive for, nor necessarily want for its own sake; at least not all the time. The way we interact socially on the web, unfortunately, limits our exposure. Boyd then raises another question:

“Should we build technology to promote what we believe should be people’s priorities? Or should we build technology that supports the priorities that most people have?”

It’s harder to define universal priorities, rather than individual one’s; let alone support them. Who is to say that great things and inspiration cannot come from the priorities we have made for ourselves? It’s a game of chance. A gamble. And the Internet works that way for everyone. Uncertainty is always looked upon as a threat, or a nuisance. But what pops up on your Facebook feed may surprise you. Though the filter bubble is always active, and limits our exposure to certain things, sometimes information that we’re not used to slips through the cracks. Whether through a post on your friend’s wall or a link that directs you outside of Facebook, the filter bubble is given too much credit where credit is do. Like ourselves, things are not totally under our control. For instance, as I committed to the zombie-like, unproductive strolling of my feed, I came across something that I was not particularly used to; or at least finding on Facebook. It was news, but it was a different kind of news; a creative and interactive one, which explains how this may have slipped through the cracks of the bubble that the Internet and I created. But what I found, for me, spoke more directly and was more impactful than a piece of text, written about the conflict in Syria:

“As we sit here and think about the spells that we’re casting, let’s not forget that some spells are made accidentally and some magic has unintended consequences.”

Now I’ve looked up articles and read about the Syrian conflict before and after watching this. But the text, for me, lacked that emotional conviction that social media brought. It reminded me that I was human, and that is the “magic” that I believe Boyd was trying to say. Whether it is good (Harry Potter) or bad (Voldemort), social media can go both ways. It is not always positive, but it is not necessarily evil either. But what I say is, sometimes we need to see the truth every once and a while, even if we don’t want to. Like Plato’s Allegory, when you step into the light for the first time, it will be painful. But after a while, your eyes will adjust and you will see the world for what it is, rather than just its shadow on the wall.

 

QUESTIONS:

1) For Boyd’s question, should we build technology to promote what we believe should be   people’s priorities? Or should we build it to support the priorities most people have?

2) For you, is the Internet becoming too personalized? If so, is it necessarily a bad thing? Is it necessarily a good thing, or a mixture of the two?

 

Written by: Alexander Lakin

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One comment

  1. Several scholars have used Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to describe our experience of networked media, but tend to focus on Virtual Reality. You are doing something a little different by looking at the social web as a whole and seeing that it might, actually, be more of an illusion than we want to or tend to think. You are absolutely on to something.

    There is a long tradition in media studies of philosophers reflecting on the nature of reality, and more specifically the nature of MEDIATED REALITY. Marshall McLuhan, in his book Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, says that media extend our perception of the world farther (we can see, hear, sense farther because we have radio, tv, internet, to share messages and reports over long distances almost immediately). But, as Harold Innis taught us in his book the Bias of Communication, media necessarily changes those messages. There is no way to send a message or report without it being distorted in some way by the medium through which it is sent. And so our pictures of distant places and events are distorted. Yet we build our picture of reality based on those distortions believing all the while that it is “real.”

    In 1981, Jean Baudrillard, a continental philosopher, wrote a book called Simulations and Simulacra (that you can find online as a pdf). Baudrillard claims that contemporary society has replaced all reality (and meaning made from reality) with representations: symbols and signs. He claims that human experience is merely a simulation of reality. Further, he claims that these simulations aren’t just hiding or mediating reality, they ARE our reality, and that any sense of “real” reality is irrelevant to our daily lived experience.

    And way back in 1944, Horkheimer and Adorno, two Frankfurt School scholars studying mass media and social theory, wrote The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, in which they argue that these simulations (not referring to Baudrillard directly since he hadn’t written his book yet, but roughly the same idea) were manufactured by capitalist consumer culture power brokers. They argued that Capitalist Society Mass Culture (today, we’d call it Big Business, Big Media and consumer culture) is a factory producing standardized cultural goods — films, games, magazines, etc. These homogenized cultural products are used to passify civil society, making them feel as if they are free, but really they are just passified by the next blockbuster (Here, think of the people on the spaceship in the movie Wall-E who have fled Earth, and zip around in scooters, eating and watching screens…).

    You’ve got some reading to do.

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