I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.
— Jaron Lanier1
Specks. All of them, even from just seven stories up. We’re on the roof, and you can’t hear what they’re saying. You can’t see what they’re wearing, or the looks on their faces. You can’t see if someone is holding a shopping bag or what may be in it. A red dab follows closely behind a yellow dab. Seven stories up and I can’t tell the difference between a kid being dragged along by his arm and a woman being held at gunpoint for her purse. Distance makes the world blurry. There are no identities. There is no vocabulary. The only language is velocity. They are a school of fish swimming through pavement.
It takes seven stories to strip away the humanity of an individual, 143 steps, each one a degree of separation. No longer people, they are dots on a canvas. Remove a person’s humanity, and she is just a curiosity, a pinpoint on a map, a line in a list, an entry in a database. A person turns into a granular bit of information.
Information can be manipulated. Jesse drapes his head over the lip of the rooftop. He nods and pulls a quarter out of his pocket. He glances back and forth between me and the coin in his hand. He’s looking for permission, and he’s not going to get it from me. He knows that, but it doesn’t matter; he can do what he wants. It’s just information.
Jesse spies an empty parking space directly in front of the building. He presses his middle finger tightly against his thumb with the coin wedged between, and he snaps. The quarter leaps from his hand outward over the street scene, spinning on an invisible axis. Gravity eventually grabs the coin, and it finds its way into the empty parking spot with an assumed rattle and kerrang. Just silence from up here.
Information can be manipulated. Jesse looks at me and nods, this time not for permission, but rather in recognition of what is about to happen. We watch like kids at the aquarium when bait is dropped in the tank. We wait.
The specks on the ground stop. They rotate. The bits bump into one another. Some bits begin to oscillate around the coin’s final landing spot. A small blue dot accelerates toward the coin, then pauses, presumably to pick it up. Behavior has been modified. Jesse looks back at me pleased, as if he were a deity from above, observing how the world reacted when Zeus lazily lobbed his lightning bolt from the mountain top. I imagine the scene from the ground. The bits are looking toward the sky asking, “What the hell was that?”
But Jesse is wrong. We are no gods, and this rooftop is no Olympus. Faith isn’t necessary: they can see us perched on the roof. We are seven stories up; we are hazy specks to them. Jesse is a blue bit, I am red. To them, we are not human. Just information. It only takes seven stories.
A scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture, an elderly woman at the back of the room said, “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really flat, supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist smiled and replied, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”
Annie is fidgeting in her office chair at a tiny desk with a monitor on top. We’re sitting in a haphazard home office that looks like it’s been converted from a spare bedroom. “You’ve got to hope there’s someone out there for you, as strange as you are,” she tells me as she pushes her hands through her hair. “And, I don’t know. So much has happened over the past year, and I just need something to go my way for once. I need something good to happen to me, otherwise I’m not sure I can keep going. And…” She looks down and smiles the smallest smile she can make, hoping I won’t notice. “I think this could be it.”
Annie lives at home with her mother, Mary. Mary was a fourth-grade teacher, but her students used to call her Mrs. Blankenship. Some days Mrs. Blankenship can’t remember her own name because she has Alzheimer’s disease. A year and a half ago, Annie’s father died, and her mother’s Alzheimer’s became progressively worse. Annie now lives with her mother in the house she grew up in, tending to the cat and walking the hallways like she’s there by herself. “It’s like living with a ghost,” she says. She is choking up, because she knows that saying that is cruel. Her mother is still here and yet, somehow, not. Earlier, Annie showed me a photo of herself in high school. “It’s embarrassing, really,” she said. “That’s how she sees me.”
Mrs. Blankenship believes that Annie is still sixteen rather than thirty-one. “The situation is really fragile, so I play along. The worst thing would be to make Mom upset.” Annie the thirty-one-year-old has a curfew of nine pm and isn’t allowed to date boys. And that is why we’re sitting at her desk staring at her monitor waiting for something good to happen.
A window pops up on her screen with a ringing sound. Someone is calling Annie. “This could be it,” I say to myself. It’s Brandon and I excuse myself from the room to wander the halls as Mrs. Blankenship sleeps in the next room. The cat rubs against my leg.
Later that night, Annie introduces me to Brandon over the computer, and he and I make plans to get together for coffee at his place the next day. Brandon has an apartment in the city thirty minutes away and a job working as a legal assistant. He tells me he met Annie on a dating website eight weeks ago. “There’s a certain guilt browsing a dating website because for it to be useful you just have to say no over and over.” I nod but don’t say anything in the hope that he’ll add more. An awkward silence.
“Under 5′2″? No. Blonde? No. No college degree? No. There’s a ticker at the bottom of the page that shows how many results come back after the filter. Mine said about 2,000. Two thousand people I could love. Probably 14,000 more that it didn’t even show me. And yet still, these are all people. They are all looking back, and they want the same thing I do.” He looks down at his black coffee and I notice that he can see himself in it.
“What do they want, Brandon?”
He pauses a moment to think. “To be understood.”
Brandon scrolls through the webpage for me, and it is overwhelming: a cascade of smiles, an immense tide of humanity that goes on forever. The distance makes you forget that these are real people, not just pictures. They secretly love something they can’t tell anyone about. They live for the moment they hold their breath and submerge their head in a warm bath. They are human. On the site, each and every person in the grid of faces has a smile that admits, “I am not yet done.”
I have to shut myself off. My heart is not big enough to hold them all.
“Have you heard the joke about the astronomer’s lecture and the turtle?” Brandon asks.
“Yeah, turtles all the way down, right?” I reply.
“Yes. Scrolling through this page, I never realized it before, but the web. It’s just people all the way down, isn’t it?”
I hadn’t thought of it. The best sorts of insights are like that. When you hear them, they seem so obvious, but until someone says them out loud, they are almost unthinkable.
Let’s just try to have a marvelous time this weekend. I mean not try to analyze everything to death for once, if possible. Especially me. I love you.
A network is a connection of nodes. The history of our network has been a study in how the edges have pushed further out. First our network was for small bits of data transmission. It was for correspondence: short, awkward messages of text sent mostly to people you didn’t know. They were the only people out there; the only nodes who could signal us back, who could answer. Then, the edges pushed out, and the network could share images, and then it crept into other media.
Every shared item became replicated. A full and perfect copy of the content was produced every time it changed hands. All of the copies filled up the room and made waves of content that could be surfed. Then, the network became social. The nodes started talking to one another in much the same way they did outside of the network, and we created a world parallel to that of the real fabric that joined the nodes in physical space.
The nodes are not technology. The web is not an interlinking of servers and scripts. Each node is a person. Tanya checks her email on her phone and gets a message from her sister. Brad is the systems admin guy who turns on the oscillating fans in the server room. Qian assembles an iPhone at the Foxconn plant in Shenzen. Shannon writes something for her employer’s website. Tim curses because he can’t find what Shannon wrote. Larry and Sergey make a website so people like Tim can find the things that people like Shannon make. Every little bit that gets pushed through the network passes through a person. The web is technology, but more importantly, it is people, all the way down. People constitute and maintain the network. It is widespread and distributed, but it is very delicate. Like a real web, it needs constant maintenance to keep from tearing.
Technology is a mirror and a crystal ball. The web is a reflection of our desires because it addresses our needs en masse. It is a documentation of how we try to fix ourselves, a study in our self-medication. The web is also a crystal ball because it presents what is to come. Technology is produced to fill our needs, but we are sympathetic creatures. Frequently, we will reduce our needs to feel that the technology is properly serving us, in spite of the inadequacies of the solutions. A half answer is better than nothing at all, and we wish to be satisfied with the solutions at hand, so we shallow our problems, losing sight of their original depth. We shape technology, and it shapes us.
And so our relationship with the social web has gone thus far. It seems silly to say that a network of people may induce person-blindness, but it can and does each day. If the web is a representation of the fabric of humanity, it is a thin veil draped over all of us. The way the web is currently wired accidentally strips the nodes of their personhood because of distance and turns them into odd, person-like entities. Jesse flings his coin from the rooftop.
It is a struggle to stay human online: avatars of logos (or the very term avatar); the phrase personal brand; descriptions of the whole of your existence in a little flashing, empty box labeled About Me. The social networks that connect us as people accidentally reduce us. Odd that the totality of a person’s profile need be described through a list of favorite books, movies, and quotes. Is what I like more important than what I think or what I make or who I love? Is it that people aren’t willing to describe themselves as people online. Or is it that we aren’t providing a suitable framework for them to do so? We perceive the situation to be technology mirroring our disposition, but it is more a shallowing of ourselves via the crystal ball.
When the nodes cease to be human, we respond differently. A person with reasons becomes a detached opinion that is wrong; actions become annoyances to lash out against; the personality of an individual becomes a brand without context. Can providing the human element to the web alleviate these problems? The web documents and doesn’t forget, but if users turn into people, can we forgive? Forgiveness is a term I’ve never heard in relation to the web. Let’s not try to analyze everything to death for once. Especially me. I love you.
The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.
— Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers)3
When the network became social, it was dumb. It lacked nuance. The social network was based on our idea of ourselves and technology. When we think of ourselves, we picture our complex inner monologues: we believe that we are not simple but rather complex, romantic, self-contradicting—beautiful messes. We say this is what makes us human. But what if we’re wrong? What if we pull back the veil to discover that perhaps we are not so complex, but instead we are the opposite?
Technology runs counter to our personhood; technology is complicated and shallow, but people are simple and deep. Our true needs are not complex. I remembered asking Brandon what everyone needed. His answer was profound and human: “To be understood.”
The most exceptional inventions forecast our needs and allow us to realize our full potential. They bring us joy and a sense of brilliance; they make us feel skilled, competent, and more able. Good technology makes us feel like we are inching closer to who we truly want to be. The web has done much to improve our lives, and now it turns its head toward our emotional needs. If it does its job, it can help us to get to Brandon’s idea of being understood: that cyclical process of empathy where one may feel seen, known, and accepted by others, then able to feel the same for them.
Art is the first man-made conduit to this cycle of understanding. The measure of an artist is his ability to place his finger on the face of a feeling; a masterpiece acts as a lens whose focus crystallizes our selves, one another, the world. Can our social network achieve the same? Are our tools adequate for a true art of conversation? Most importantly, have we produced a proper representation of humanity for these conversations or a simplified facsimile?
Anything good we may do with this network must be built in a way that utilizes the fabric that binds us, that brings us closer so that our humanness may snap back into focus by eliminating distance. We are all swaddled in the same blanket. By recognizing that, we inch closer to being understood.
We might forget too easily that these nodes, these usernames, are in fact people. People deserve more than the term username; they’ve earned a richer biography than a series of labels or a list of favorite movies. We must not allow interactions online to be perpetually stuck in the conversational depth of a first date. We can shun complex and shallow and embrace simple and deep.
We are not there, and yet, I have hope. We can make conduits for meaningful relationships, like the one Annie and Brandon might have. We can feel understood. Jesse and I can come down from the roof. We may empathize and be closer. We, the makers and form-givers of these new technologies, can look someone in the eye and ask “How can I make things that help you to be who you truly want to be?”
See, I’ve just met you, but I am invested in who you are. We are part of a human network. Maybe that’s heaven.