From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 30, 2008*: Taking it personally.

At a recent lecture at which I described some of the characteristics of today's online reality, a member of my audience, an aging, but far from old, woman, vehemently burst out with a lengthy diatribe. I had noted that in our constantly connected world we are constantly being bombarded with new and additional information, much of it posted online by non-experts. This woman, who had sat quietly throughout the first part of my presentation, was suddenly unable to contain herself. In a drawn-out monologue she blurted out that she didn't have time for all of this, let alone any interest in it. I attempted to explain to her that the fact that so many people were posting so much information on the web didn't actually oblige her to read any of it. But this didn't seem to calm her, and she continued her rant until a number of other audience members asked her to stop.

This woman's rant initiated a series of reflections on my part. Frankly, I was well able to understand her - as someone who spends a great deal of time on the web her observation of how distressing the act of plowing through so much "information" is made a great deal of sense. But it was the pained tone of her voice, rather than the content of what she said, that most interested me. It was clear that she wasn't simply expressing an opinion - that much of the information on the web was superfluous and unnecessary. She was expressing a deep, emotional distress, and that distress, it seemed to me, stemmed from the feeling that the web had affronted, had offended, her. All of us are adamant about one thing or another, so perhaps this woman's outburst occurred simply because the web was her own pet peeve. But as I continued to review this event in my head I realized that many other people react to the web in a similar manner. All of us are more than capable of being irritated, even offended, by various issues. But there seems to be something inherent in the internet that makes almost everyone take it personally. In any discussion of the internet we're sure to find a number of people who are convinced that it's destroying western civilization, and others who are willing to swear that it's the best thing since sliced bread. But regardless of any specific point of view, these opinions, rather than being of the "take them or leave them" variety, have somehow become matters of life and death. We're personally involved with the issue, and the way in which we cling to our opinions about the internet suggest that these opinions are a central, inalienable component of our existence, or of our perception of the internet.

And why shouldn't they be. The moment we click into our own personal valet is there, ready and waiting to make suggestions for our buying pleasure - suggestions not only based on our own taste, but on substantial computing power that's been devoted to comparing our taste to that of other people whom we don't know and have probably never heard of, but who may have the same likes and interests as we do. Even the family dog doesn't devote as much personalized attention to us as a seemingly neutral and detached computer does. And of course isn't the only example of a computer that has a first name relationship with us. In a world where everyone (or at least every computer) seems to know us and only want the best for us (even if it's only online and "virtual"), why shouldn't we learn to expect that we're the center of attention, instantly recognizable, the first cause around which all things revolve? And the flip-side of this constant attention being devoted to us is the offense we take when this virtual world doesn't conform to the expectations we've set for it.

Perhaps the simple act of connecting to the internet should be a strong enough reminder that we're entering a realm that transcends the personal, that moves beyond the boundaries of our own computer, into a public realm. But there are no markers to these boundaries, no visible signposts like a change from black and white to color that tell us that we're no longer in Kansas. There's nothing physical that helps us distinguish between the computer and its hard drive where we're in charge, and the internet where we're primarily tourists. Everything comes out of the same box, and this simple fact somehow acts to negate what should more properly be perceived as a highly significant change, a transcending of one realm and an arrival at one that's totally different. We don't feel that we're crossing a boundary. Instead, everything suggests that we're simply staying put. Many people don't even seem to realize that there's a difference between the documents on their hard drives and something they access via the internet. The vastness of this immense transformation - from the closed to the open, from the boundaried to the boundless - is somehow diminished because it takes place on the same screen that originally housed our "personal" documents.

Considering that today I'm automatically logged in to most of my accounts, that at almost every turn I'm met with an style personal valet who wants nothing more than to attend to my needs, and considering that rather than following me around, my identity seems to actually precede me wherever I turn on the web, it's no wonder that I'll also take personal offense when something happens on the web that displeases me. There seem to be two distinct, yet complimentary, processes at work here. On the one hand, we've allowed ourselves to willingly succumb to the promise of the internet that anything and everything is possible, and that it's there to serve us - and not just some amorphous, ill-defined "us", but each and every individual who connects. And at one and the same time, even though we've ostensibly transcended the personal computer and have evolved to a stage of group/public/cloud computing, even though the "personal" model no longer fits our online reality, that "personalness" continues to be part of our computer DNA. We may be able to take ourselves out of a PCed savanna, but we can't take that savanna out of us.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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