Several of my co-workers and I recently completed a training called 24 Things, a sort free-range workshop which challenged our concept of the Internet and greatly expanded our minds (mine at least) as to what sort of stuff was out there. And make no mistake - I am a fan of the Internet, as you must know having read this blog.
The class worked like this: each week we were given two lessons to complete, and these could be anything from rating online TV watching experiences to posting a Powerpoint on a sharing site; creating a blog to dabbling in social networking. This blog, in fact, arose from that particular lesson.
I admit I was a little cautious in stepping my toe into these wildly uncontrolled waters. I find I am concerned about putting my identity "out there" in cyberland, and once I have, finding it to be like the genii out of the bottle. Only I am no longer the genii; my alter-self if running around out there, making goodness knows what sort of impression, completely beyond my control. It is the whole drastically changed and changing sense of identity with which I struggle.
For young people who grew up in a world in which this dimension (Internet) has always existed, your paradigms must be so differently shaped. Will virtual reality make it harder to obtain that rock-solid certainty which has, for my generation, been the hallmark of a well founded life? Or does the flexibility of this new medium ensure your survival? Does it make you strong, liberated, globally identified, tolerant? Does it enhance your ability to communicate across the historic brick and mortar of centuries of imposed walls? Does it find a level place where empathy begins?
I do worry that we will become too abstracted as humans. That we may forget we're human altogether. There abound symbolic substitutes: avatars, role plays, alternate worlds in which we mimic the functions of daily life. While we are drawn into our screens, are we risking the loss of real things? Real human touch, real emotion, real flowers and trees? I was in a class today in which the instructor suggested we make to-do lists in our e-mail or on our do-it-all-phones or on a website, and he included such examples as a reminder to cut the grass. (We won't even talk about the burning cat example). Folks - if the grass is over your Chucks and tickling your ankles, it may need cutting. If you cannot tell this without checking your e-mail, you may be a little too connected.
Believe it or not, I think the Internet is a gift. It's not family, not love, not sunshine and not human experience. Nothing can hold a candle to those gifts. It is more of a handy labor saving device you received for your birthday. It is a machine meant to make our lives easier and our knowledge broader. It can help us reach across boundaries, but it can't join in the soft, warm clasp of human hands once we get there.