Friday, March 14, 2008

Disconnect Anxiety and You (and Me) -- Virtual Tribalism

So, I was quoted last week in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper. As is always the case, only a few sentences were used out of some twenty minutes of talk, and the tendency is typically to favor the more banal as opposed to the more brilliant insights. But the article is not bad, and most certainly blogworthy.

It was written by Craig Offman, who also interviewed me, and Craig seemed like an altogether decent, and well informed individual. The title of the article is Many Canadians feel anxious without the Net, I've put in the link so you can click on the title and read it on the National Post website, and of course I'll also provide you with the text right here in Blog Time Passing. Oh, and the date of publication is Sunday, March 9, 2008.

It begins with the facts:

‘Internet addiction" and "CrackBerry" are the narcotic-laced phrases we invariably use to explain our growing dependence on laptops and PDAs. Now a Canadian media research company has examined what happens to users in the absence of their virtual communication of choice and coined a term for the modern-day affliction: "disconnect anxiety."

The syndrome is described, in a study that will be released today, as the various feelings of disorientation and nervousness experienced when a person is deprived of Internet or wireless access.

"If you have your BlackBerry or cellphone just outside of your shower, you're probably suffering from it," says Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group, the Toronto technology-trend tracking company that conducted the study.

Some recent events have tested people's ability to disconnect from their electronic lifelines. Citing concerns about work-life balance, Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently forbade its civil servant from e-mailing on weeknights, weekends and holidays. And a three-hour service disruption last month left around 10 million BlackBerry users in the virtual darkness.

"Everyone's in crisis because they're all picking away at their Blackberrys and nothing's happening," said Liberal MP Garth Turner about a fidgety caucus meeting.

That kind of dependent relationship with our screens is more common than one might think. There are around 19 million cellphone users in Canada, and, according to the group's research, 70% of them carry the devices with them everywhere. More than half of Canada's two million Blackberry owners have taken their devices or a laptop into the bathroom, and 40% bring them along on vacation.

Almost 60% of Canadians with laptops have cozied up to them in their bedrooms at some point - and 26% do so frequently. Around 14% watch TV while logged on to their monitors.

For their study - called Disconnect Anxiety: And Four Reasons Why It's So Difficult to Stay Off the Grid - Solutions Research interviewed more than 3,000 Canadians last year. They found that 26% of them exhibit elevated levels of disconnect anxiety, 33% exhibit above-average levels and 41% are below average. The last group was heavily in the 50-plus age group, Mr. Yigit said, suggesting an obvious generational difference.

So, this is all about Canadians, and maybe they are different, being farther north, and therefore in a colder climate, than those of us in the US. But I suspect we're more or less the same in our usage.

Anyway, that's the data, which basically can be summed up with the basic idea that more and more people are feeling more and more anxious when they are not connected to the net in some way. Now for the explanation:

Some tech-culture theorists explain being online in terms of pleasure: the validation and adrenaline spike one feels when a hundred e-mails are awaiting a response, or when making a new friend on a social networking site.

In the absence of such technology, however, many people experience a sense of desperation or futility. That reaction leads experts to wonder if this reliance signals a sort of "neo-tribalism," a subtle return to our roots in a collective society. Or it might suggest that we struggle - and perhaps fail - to enjoy being on our own.

Now, maybe I wasn't the only one who said this, but this is definitely something that I talked about, as you'll be able to tell from the direct quotes at the end of the article. One of the things I talked about that he didn't include in the article is the need for phatic communication, the simple confirmation of our existence that we get when we acknowledge one another. That's why we have the ritual exchange of greetings, like hello, how are you?, fine thank you, etc. It's not to actually get information from one another, but rather a euphemism for saying, I recognize your existence, and thank you, I recognize yours as well. Every e-mail, message, blog post, comment, tweet, etc., that we receive carries out this same function--it says, hey, you exist! You are a human being! You are a member of our society! And we need that. Especially since so many of us live in environments where we experience a constant stream of disconfirmation, people who ignore us, treat us like we're not there, like we don't exist. That's why people go a little mad in cities. And that's why all of this electronic stimulation, social stimulation specifically, is so very satisfying, gratifying.

Now, back to the article, where the point shifts to safety needs (as Abraham Maslow used to refer to them):

The Solutions Research study concludes that several factors contribute to disconnect anxiety: the growing worry about personal safety and inability to respond to an emergency; the fear of missing important information at work; the worry, particularly among teens, that they'll miss vital gossip; and a fear of disorientation.

Participants in the study used words and expressions such as "half a voice," "panic," "loss of freedom," "inadequate," and, inevitably, "empty," to express their feeling of estrangement.

"Losing technological access means being left out of the loop," explains social-networking authority Danah Boyd, who is a PhD candidate at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "Parents fear that they may not be able to get in touch with their kids. Kids fear their friends will forget them."

Ms. Boyd added that if being connected represents the baseline for social status, then it is not surprising that people are anxious about being disconnected. "No one wants to be left behind."

Nor does anyone want to feel stranded or vulnerable. "In our research, people have expressed the belief that fellow citizens on the streets are less likely to stop and help nowadays," says the study. Not having access or service creates anxiety about personal safety and the safety of family members."

One interviewee from the survey recalls being in Death Valley without a signal, worrying that his rental car would get a flat. "I was just praying," the person said. "What would I have done? Rub two stones together? Cry for help?"

Another complained that an inactive cellphone leaves a person prisoner of one's own silence. "It's almost like you lose your sense of freedom because you just can't call someone," said one person. "You might as well be in the 1800s."

I think this is very much to the point, and I said in the interview, as I've said many times before, that the day is rapidly approaching where we will all expect our vital signs to be monitored 24/7/365.25. Anything can go wrong for anyone at anytime, and at minimum many of us now expect to be able to summon help by way of the cellphone under any circumstances, and feel naked without one. Senior citizens wear those medical alert necklaces, dogs and some people have chips implanted in them so they can be located, so just extrapolate out a bit and in the not too distant future people will be linked permanently and internally (through implants) to the net.

Now the article turns to the youngsters, who have been elsewhere described as digital natives, as opposed to us old folks who are digital immigrants:

For younger people who use social-networking sites such Facebook and MySpace, and who are avid text-messagers, the communication compulsion is no less intense. A typical Canadian aged 12 to 24 sends and receives 90 text messages a week and visits her Facebook account three times a day in order to maintain correspondence with an average of 154 "friends."

One teen explained her virtually sociable mornings this way: "You are in your PJs with your toothbrush hanging out and you are already talking to your friends. That's pretty different than 2005, I guess."

While some of these anecdotes might hint at addiction, Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would rather question our relationship to this technology.

"If your child is addicted to heroin, you have one job and one job only: get him off," said Prof. Turkle. "Spending 10 hours a day on Facebook is different. It's really a diagnostic tool. It makes us question what is missing in the rest of someone's life."

Also a psychologist and the author of Evocative Objects, Prof. Turkle said that one young subject told her that "a screen represented hope, hope that life will be more exciting, that it will provide more romance."

The opposite then applies when the user is off the grid. "If something that's seen as sustaining is taken away, people grow anxious," she said. "They feel that nothing is going to happen."

Prof. Turkle also wonders if this kind of manic communication says something deeper about us: our ability to be alone without feeling loneliness. "One of the gold standards of thinking about a fully developed individual is an ability to enjoy one's solitude. So that every time you're alone, you're not lonely," she said. "I wonder if we are part of a generation that is not able to be alone."

I certainly see my 14-year-old son on his cell phone with friends even when he's home for the night, we caught him text messaging once at 1 AM, and he plays with friends online, and talks to them through a headset while playing Halo on his Xbox. The isolation that I remember feeling as a teenager, aside from the limited use of the telephone available to us, is now a thing of the past. I can't really say that's a bad thing.

I do have great respect for Sherry Turkle as a scholar, and the point about addiction is well taken. But she is also defending the sense of self associated with literacy and print culture, a sense of self that emphasizes the private individual, and I am sympathetic to this position, having one foot in the old culture myself. And my mentor, Neil Postman, would certainly approve, but he would also acknowledge that this is exactly what we are, and what we have been losing due to the electronic media. This point was made by Marshall McLuhan as well, back in the sixties, which now opens the door for me to have the last word in this article, echoing McLuhan (and quoting him, but that wasn't included in the article):

Some sociologists see this rampant communication as a return to tribal instincts, with a modern twist. "Rather than people surrounding you in a village, you're in a virtual tribe," said Lance Strate, Chair of the Communication and Media Studies Department at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York.

"When there were real tribes, people had no concept of individualism. If someone was ex-communicated from the tribe, he'd allow himself to wander away and die. He couldn't imagine life outside of the group."

I guess that makes for an interesting way to end the article, dramatic for sure, although I would have preferred a bit more elaboration. But I do think it's a good analogy, between tribal excommunication and today's disconnect anxiety. (By the way, there're some places on the Fordham website where I'm still identified as department chair, and that's why I get incorrectly listed as such from time to time.)

Of course, one of the great differences between virtual tribes and traditional ones is that you can belong to many different virtual tribes, so membership is less central to your identity, or put another way, instead of your identity being subsumed by the tribe, intimately and irrevocably bound up with group identity, identity is now fragmented, decentered, and distributed across many different tribes, not as an individual, but greater than any one tribe. And for other reasons, the tribe itself becomes internalized, but that's another story.

What's also missing is any strong initiation rites, so the boundaries between insiders and outsiders are much looser, more permeable and more easily negotiated. And that means that identification with the group, and loyalty to the group, is greatly reduced from traditional tribal culture. I have elsewhere referred to this as liquid tribalism (in my "Cybertime" chapter in Communication and Cyberspace).

So, wanna be a member of my tribe?

1 comment:

Mike Plugh said...

It seems to me that the problems associated with electronic media use are always centered on the lack of balance that comes from abandoning old forms. The new tribalism isn`t a threat to anyone`s way of life if it is managed in combination with traditional literacy and/or with a dose of mediation in the non-mass form.

The genie is out of the bottle with the so-called new media, but it doesn`t mean that the informed parent/educator can`t intervene to demonstrate the need for balance and moderation. Personally, I have faith that the gains we`ve made in Western civilization over the centuries can be preserved and enhanced by our new technology as long as we understand it in its proper context.

Most of these articles focus on the fear factor or the Blade Runner on the horizon, where I think more time should be devoted to explaining where we`ve been and where we are before pining about where we`re going.

That`s just the fledgling Media Ecologist in me....