Digital disconnection

I’ve just been watching How to disconnect from your online life on BBC World News America (15 September). Some pretty obvious stuff but there’s an interview with Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus, which I feel I must comment on.

I totally 100% agree that the cost of making something public used to be expensive. Now it’s not. It might as well be free if you discount the time spent creating the content (which, perhaps, we shouldn’t). But I totally disagree that the cost of keeping something private is now expensive. How? All you have to do is do nothing. Don’t take part in the first place. OK, once you’ve made something public it is now very expensive indeed (and I’d say almost impossible) to make it private again but that’s surely another point? 

What I do think has happened is that we have exchanged privacy for ego in many instances.

Max, what do you think?

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4 Responses to Digital disconnection

  1. Max Kaehn says:

    I think it’s more of a social-graph thing. I suspect most of the potentially-embarrassing stuff isn’t being shared as ego-boosting self-promotion, it’s being shared out of camaraderie with people with whom you have a personal relationship and the sharing is part of the usual social milieu. The problem is that what is appropriate in the just-friends-sharing-right-now context of a party may be wildly inappropriate if it turns up at the office the next day, or in your life a decade later when you’ve undergone considerable life experience and are quite different from the person who shared those things in bygone days. Most people have a good sense about what to share in real-life contexts, but online venues haven’t been around long enough for people to develop good social reflexes with them. Going “on record” with something used to be a grave and serious thing, but now we leave a huge data trail of almost-permanent ephemera as part of our usual social interaction.

    I think there may also be a cognitive aspect to it. “Energy” is a useful metaphor for the mental resources we use for decision-making. There are sources and sinks of this energy in your life— you can get exhausted having to figure things out, you can feel replenished by having a good time relaxing with friends or music or books— and having to figure out “should I share this, and with whom?” puts an added price tag on an activity that you’re performing because sharing with friends is supposed to *gain* you energy, not spend it. So most people don’t do the calculation because they already have enough energy sinks in their life, until they get bitten by their indiscretion.

    I think we’re going to need to develop new cultural mores to deal with it all. There is probably a good niche waiting for a sufficiently charismatic etiquette maven to sort people out— a Miss Manners type to get invited onto talk shows to in more colloquial language. (I like Miss Manners, but that very dignified style isn’t going to create cultural catchphrases the way someone who can scoff, “dude! seven year rule!” would.)

  2. Richard Watson says:

    I knew you’d come to my rescue Max! BTW, if you haven’t read it I think you (and others) might like Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger.

    PS – maybe you should write an online essay under the pen name Ms Manners?

  3. Max Kaehn says:

    The etiquette style in Miss Manners’ writing is very good for people who keep up a certain level of formality, but most of our culture has fallen below that line. To penetrate the necessary amount of society to create a cultural trend will require someone who is more of an an arbiter of cool than a doyenne of politeness, and I am just not that hip. I don’t even have enough Internet prominence that I could pull off something like Godwin’s Law for the geek crowd, let alone get the meme propagating through mainstream culture.

    Though if I had more time on my hands, it might be interesting to create ETIQUETTEHULK on Twitter and take advantage of the tweeting Hulk trend before it collapses.

  4. Max Kaehn says:

    I think that is a mark of the modern age: it used to be possible to make a splash by nailing ninety-five theses to the church door or circulating a manifesto, and if it was noteworthy, people would start passing it along. (We have Digg and StumbleUpon for that these days, but they seem to be in fairly small niches.) These days you can’t just create something and turn it loose, or it will just fade out as it gets out-competed by ideas that receive regular reinforcement. The cost of regular reinforcement used to be quite high because you would need something like a regular talk show, but now you can make it part of an ongoing conversation with a weblog or Twitter personality.

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