KARL JOHNSON: Good afternoon. Welcome and thank you for joining us for the Spring 2012 Alan T And Linda M Beimfohr lecture. My name is Karl Johnson. I'm the Executive Director of Chesterton House, the sponsor of this afternoon's lecture. Chesterton House is a center for Christian studies at Cornell and an affiliate member of Cornell United Religious Work.
Why, you might be wondering, would an organization affiliated with Cornell United Religious Work be sponsoring a talk on technology? Well, religion, as you may know, is derived from the same root as the word ligament, which is to say that it has a lot to do with connecting. And connection is what social media is all about.
The Beimfohr Lecture, made possible by Cornell alumnus Carl Neuss and his wife Elaine, and named for Cornell alumnus Al Beimfohr and his wife Linda, all of whom reside in Southern California, is designed to create a space for asking and discussing the big questions. Questions about human flourishing, about what it means to be human. And yes, about even the meaning of life, which is to say, questions that are not always easily discussed in a traditional classroom setting. And to help us think through the implications of social media for ideals such as friendship and community.
It's our great privilege to welcome today Dr. Felicia Wu Song. Dr. Song is a cultural sociologist with academic training in history and communications studies from Yale, Northwestern, and the University of Virginia, where she completed her dissertation under the noted sociologist Dr. James Hunter. She is currently assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, where her teaching and research focuses on sociology of culture, technology, and community, mass media and popular culture, consumer culture, and gender and family.
Her papers and presentations include titles such as Communities of Intimate Strangers, Online Communities and Their Democratic Potential, and The Online Landscape For Mothers. In 2002, while still a graduate student, our guest co-edited a special issue of the Hedgehog Review on a topic of technology and the human person. And in 2009, she published Virtual Communities, Bowling Alone Online Together, which examines the social and cultural effects of the internet on community, identity, and the public sphere. Her latest project explores the cultural rise of mom bloggers and its impact on contemporary motherhood. So it's a great privilege to have Dr. Song with us here today. Please join me in warmly welcoming her.
FELICIA WU SONG: Thanks so much for having me. It is truly an honor to be invited to give the Beimfohr lecture this year. I want to thank Karl and Chesterton House for this opportunity to share these reflections with you today.
So two summers ago, my husband and I converted. We took the leap of faith. We both were doing a lot of traveling and we knew it was going to be a difficult time in our lives, managing work, taking care of our families. And we didn't know where else to turn, so we decided it was time. We both invited the Jesus phone into our lives.
Yes, I discarded my old clamshell cell phone that only did one thing, make phone calls, and took on the iPhone 4, with its e-mail access, texting capacity, FaceTime, camera, digital recording, GPS, and the universe of apps at my disposal. Apple's true believers called it the Jesus phone because it was the long awaited savior that could do all things except survive a walk on water, which believe me, is one limitation that has been tested and verified in my household.
But having had the iPhone in my life for 18 months, I can personally testify to the strange way in which calling it the Jesus phone is rather apt. For insofar as the Christian faith asserts that Jesus transforms his followers when they open themselves to his imminent presence, so too arguably our iPhones and our plethora of other digital technologies. If we open ourselves to the imminent presence of our technologies and imbibe our technologies logic and their capacities, I'd like to suggest tonight that we too will be transformed.
Our relationships will change. Our work habits will change. Our experiences of time and space will change. Arguably even the arrangement of our interior furniture, whether it be our brains or our hearts, those too will change. For some, that transformation might be minor, incremental. For others, it might be radically life transforming. Either way, there will be change.
Back in the '90s when the mainstream of America was first introduced to the notion of computer mediated communication, the reaction to the idea of forming and carrying on relationships through the glow of the computer screen was quite varied. Some observers wrung their hands over the increased depression, incivility, isolation believed to be among the detrimental effects of sustained online interactions. There was a fear that we would neglect our real lives and be seduced by the avatar driven fantasies of virtual life on the screen.
Others, however, felt quite confident that the internet could improve and strengthen human relationships and communities, that the anonymity and unprecedented capacity to connect people across geographic distance promised to offer new sources of support, possibilities for community, as the limitation of physical embodiment were shed and we were now able to give voice to our true selves online.
On the surface, it seems that most current research suggests the optimists were right. Survey after survey indicate that we have not become, as so many feared, a society of isolated persons whose online preoccupations draw all the lifeblood out of the real world relationships and activities. Societal internet adoption has catapulted the notion of having relationships and finding community online from being an outlier experience of computer nerds and hackers to a taken for granted piece of our contemporary life where the majority of Americans prove capable of engaging in a media multiplicity, easily moving between email, Facebook, texts, phone conversations, and yes, face to face encounters, to stay in touch, connect, and live our lives together.
People talk about the technology and the social revolution it has brought, evidenced for many in the events of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, the industry buzz about relationship marketing and smart mobs, and the constant back channel of texts and tweets that flit through the ether. While a recent spate of books and research about social media's threat to our brain circuits, our attention spans, our sense of inwardness, our self-esteem, have sought to revive the discursive battles from 20 years ago between optimists and pessimists, most people seem relatively sanguine about society's ability to sensibly adopt new technologies and adapt to its subsequent practices.
I'd like to suggest tonight that as digital technology has progressively become embedded and institutionalized into the everyday practices of public and private life, the need to understand how these technologies are subtly shifting the boundaries of our imagination and re-framing our working notions of friendship and community become greater. It is our individual and collective responsibility to ask, what exactly have we adopted into our lives? And how, indeed, have we adapted our social practices to meet the logics of our technologies?
To do this, we need to get behind the frames of thinking we are given culturally and see our technologies anew. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah exhorts, in the real world, the act of framing, the act of describing the situation and thus of determining that there is a decision to be made is itself a moral task. It's often the moral task. Learning how to recognize what is and isn't an option is part of our ethical development. In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game. The challenge is to figure out what game you're playing.
These questions, I believe, are particularly acute for people of Christian conviction who believe that human beings, being created in the image of God, are essentially relational creatures. It is critical for Christians to grapple with the tradeoffs that exist between what is gained and lost as relational beings when we open ourselves up to the influence of our technologies.
So before exploring these trade offs to address the question of what exactly have we adopted into our lives, let's first consider a few key features of our contemporary technology landscape. So yesterday's internet mainly involved its users being engaged in practices such as reading and constructing email, a point to point asynchronous communication, reading information from home pages, static websites, that a webmaster designed and maintained. For a smaller percentage, the internet of the '90s offered a place to interact with strangers anonymously and virtually in message boards, discussion forums, or chat rooms.
While email and message boards certainly still exist, observers speak of a shift from yesterday's web 1.0 websites to today's web 2.0 platforms and how this shift to what is commonly referred to as social media can be characterized by a few key differences.
First, there is the emergence of the prosumer, the user, you, me, as a consumer who also produces content for others to consume. As prosumers, we in our constant provision of updates to our Facebook status, videos uploaded on YouTube, tweets sent out, layouts crafted on Pinterest, comments posted to our favorite blog, are what give social networking sites and other web 2.0 platforms their value and what makes them so dynamic. Rather than relying on a webmaster, a publisher, a media outlet to provide content, Facebook has garnered 500 million users, the equivalent of what would be the third largest country in the world, by building its success upon our backs as prosumers. Happily, albeit somewhat compulsively, consuming and contributing to the public articulations of our social lives.
Second, what makes social media experientially exhilarating and what gives it its social impact is that it coincides with an alluring cocktail of mobile and real time streaming data. As web 2.0 platforms empower ordinary people like you and me to produce and distribute content that can become the latest internet meme, this magic has made all the more appealing through the wireless broadband technologies of our mobile smartphones and tablets.
While the internet of yesteryear was experienced as a container of information, housed in a desktop that we had to commit ourselves to staring at in our homes or our workplace, today our technologies are in some ways far more imminent. They are on the go, carried on the person, making them feel that much closer to being extensions of ourselves, living and breathing alongside us in our pocket, in our purse, as we move along throughout the day.
Yesterday's internet was discursively imagined in terms of space, a destination, a virtual place to go. The superhighway that brought information. The town squares for discussion. The chat rooms where you can meet strangers and fall in love.
Today's social media might be better likened to a fast moving river, streaming, fluid, ever changing, a river that we are often in some way compelled to ford in order to maintain both our most intimate and most pragmatic of relationships. With web 2.0 platforms, we have become people wading through bursting streams of blogs, status updates, wall posts, tagged photos, comments, tweets, while simultaneously supplying this online river with our own currents of content for others to ford and wade through as well.
The good news of web 2.0 technology has been plentiful. Social networking sites allow us to stay connected to friends who would otherwise be lost to us in the transience of our modern lives. Through texting and Twitter, a new form of intimacy referred to as ambient awareness provides a curious sense of companionship. Even though we haven't spent a single second with our friends in person or even hearing their voices, a steady diet of Facebook updates and texts throughout the day can help us feel connected.
And yet while today's internet provide all these wonderful things, it is, to draw now from its most dominant metaphor, also a web that entangles, draws us in, and often won't let us go. The web that provides great opportunity and opens up vistas of possibilities in friendship and relationship is also the same web that bears down on us in the form of a soft tyranny. That gnawing feeling that feeds the compulsion to check one's email, to peek at one's Facebook account, to tweet a random thought, to view one more YouTube video.
We recognize this soft tyranny in us when checking our smartphones and Facebook page becomes the first thing we do in the morning and the last thing we do before we go to bed. And this new liturgy of social media replaces the disciplines of religious devotion and prayers that believers have traditionally engaged in.
Also consider the results of a study at the University of Maryland conducted last year where 200 students were asked to abstain from any type of media or digital technology for 24 hours. Afterwards they were asked to blog about their successes and failures during that 24 hour period. Terms that the college students used to describe their feelings of going without media included jittery, crazy, very anxious, extremely antsy, frantically craving, in withdrawal, miserable.
The three things that students complained about most during their media fast were, one, being bored. Two, not knowing about the current events unfolding in the world. Three, most interesting, the researchers noticed that students wrote at length about how they hated losing their personal connections. Going without media meant, in their world, going without their friends and family.
One person wrote, "Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable."
This confession may sound somewhat disturbing, perhaps even pathetic. But most of us are well acquainted with the same soft tyranny when we are at work, doing homework, watching the kids, having lunch, being on a date, sitting in a meeting. And in all these activities, we are haunted by this constant sense that maybe someone has tweeted or texted or emailed me and we'd like to go and find out.
These realities are part and parcel with a culturally pervasive sense that life is being lived elsewhere, as Dalton Conley describes. As we witness the largely positive performances of self that our friends exhibit on their Facebook profiles, we are beset with the uneasy feeling that no matter where you are, whatever you are doing, you are potentially missing out on something more important.
In this way, web 2.0 social media offers a real time and interactivity that's often exciting and rewarding and can be extremely meaningful in times of need. But it also stokes the appetite for attention and exacerbates the natural human desire to be known and to be loved. And in the process, we as people in these relationships that are mediated through technology are being changed.
So let's take a look at two developments emerging specifically in this digital mediation of the social. First, let's consider how Facebook is designed and configured to connect us to others on the network and what subsequent practices emerge. So first, after registering and creating a Facebook profile, we begin connecting with others by building a friends list.
When you begin this endeavor your options are both limitless and non-hierarchical. That is, your friends list can equally include your boyfriend, your cousin, your high school buddy, and your mother. It can also include Hollywood celebrities, political candidates, major corporations, the Gap, McDonald's, and commercial brands like Procter & Gamble, Old Spice. What does it even mean to be friends with Old Spice, I don't know. But you can do in.
In a site where a friend becomes a verb and like becomes a noun, we feel little or no dissonance with having pop stars occupy the same social space as our close friends on our friends list. While we all know that Jimmy Fallon and the Kardashians aren't really your friend in the same way that your roommate is your friend, the manner in which Facebook succeeds in democratizing the nature of friendship is profound.
That is, on the site, we end up engaging this motley crew of so-called friends in all the same ways. You read updates, you post on a wall, you like a page, you like a post, you see who's logged on, you post on someone else's page, see who's removed who from whose friends list, and who joined which group.
Much like flipping through hundreds of cable channels, your time on Facebook is spent zipping about between engaging your strong tie connections, your intimates, keeping an eye on those weak tie connections, those acquaintances and colleagues, and reading updates on your favorite celebrities or sports teams, and looking for good Facebook deals for your favorite brands. As such, Facebook is a space that fails to structurally discriminate between our affections for our intimates, our preferences for our products, politics, or entertainment. All of our desires, interests, and loves are flattened into one dimension, one prepackaged mode of engagement.
Being a friend in this space can easily become little more than the daily management of information. And as such, we begin to engage in friendships as a form of consumption. On a daily basis, we spend much of our time keeping up with our friends profile updates, much as one would attempt to keep up with the news or the latest weather changes.
In turn, we update our profiles and curate our identities online so that we too can become part of the breaking news, hoping to be validated through positive comments and likes. As MIT professor of psychology Sherry Truckle writes in her prescient book Alone Together, Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other, our friends become fans and we become brands.
Activities that historically have been seen as opposing tendencies, consuming on the one hand and relating and interacting and sharing on the other, are now combined in one space, brought together, merged into one single social practice, but combined in such a way that relating and sharing serve the more powerful inclination of consumption and management.
In this way, though Facebook appears to expand our choices in how we carry on our relationships, there's a deeper way in which social networking sites prepackage our social experiences and function to guide the ebb and flow of our intimacies as an architect's vision of family life shapes their design of a house.
Add to this the stark reality of the relationships we maintain on Facebook. While we enjoy our social connectedness, it is mediated by a commercial entity that functions as a vehicle for a vast complex of data mining and marketing. Beneath all of our Facebook banter and chatter throbs the underbelly of a powerful marketing industry that's harvesting every little piece of information we offer up.
The groups we join, the likes we click, the very content of every update. These seemingly minor details of our lives are ever sifted and sorted in vast databases worth millions of dollars, powerfully predicting our next lifestyle choice with surprising accuracy and ready to meet us when we are prepared to spend the next dollar in our lives.
While social media is commonly defined as a blending of technology and social relations, implying a frictionless type of integration, the industry and technological reality of social media suggests that relationships are actually viewed increasingly in terms of economic terms. As such, it might not be too far of a stretch to view the institution of social networking sites as a site of Weberian disenchantment of friendship and community. As the iron cage of rationalization has reached yet another domain of life, making its sacred status a thing of the past.
Now second, what may be even more bracing than acknowledging that our technologies commodify our relationships and our communities, is the realization that most of us have had little or no problem taking to these web 2.0 platforms and its prescribed forms of sociality. The extent to which we have so easily transferred preexisting relationships and social practices to these social networking sites speaks to how much and how long ago our intellectual and emotional understanding of what constitutes friendship and community have, in fact, become defined by what sociologist Barry Wellman calls networked individualism.
According to Wellman, the traditional local community has long failed to function as a meaningful category for contemporary Americans. While we are clearly embodied beings, the salience of physical location has diminished in how contemporary Americans think about or function within their lives. We understand community in terms of multiple systems of friends, contacts, and acquaintances, which span time and place, overlapping networks of social ties that have individuals at the core of each network.
Wellman writes, people must maintain differentiated portfolios of ties to obtain a wide variety of resources. In market terms, they must shop at specialized boutiques for needed resources instead of casually dropping in at a general store.
Contemporary sociability, therefore, radiates out from the center, a center that is not a location, a cause, or a common identity, but rather the individual. And our digital technologies are designed in such a way that this reality about modern life is ever foregrounded and intensified. With our digital devices, social life today can be characterized by an on demand social connectedness. The internet grants us access to everyone at any moment and simultaneously gives us the ability to control and manage other people's access to us.
What this control gives us is a form of dialed down human contact so that we can avoid inconvenient interruptions to our mood, we can guard ourselves from too much commitment. Excused from the undesirable demands that another person might place on us through a phone call or a visit. In many ways our technologies seem to provide the perfect solution to the long standing conflict between our desires for individual autonomy and our longing to belong in communities.
One of the most apparent costs of this networked individualism is a growing insensitivity to one's immediate surroundings and inability to be present where one is. The indictment is clear in the modern portrait of the family. Imagine a family at dinner, parents, children gather together to share a meal. Each member's attention not directed at each other, but rather towards their devices, laptops, iPads, smartphones. We're all together now, but we are all somewhere else.
On college campuses and city streets, you see it exhibited most at bus stops. Everyone waiting together but separate in our own orbits, tapping away at our smartphones. We see what Dalton Conley calls those cell phone walker talkers, those urban zombies who are completely oblivious to what is going on around them.
So the irony is that while the internet renders space and distance obsolete and gives us the ability to bring those who are far away close to us, the flip side is that it also encourages us to be psychically far away from those who are near. In our urgency to feed our appetite for social connection, we excuse ourselves from attending to our conscience or, for Christian believers, we excuse ourselves from attending to the call from the God whom we serve to engage with the people and situations that we find ourselves among.
The trouble with this growing dependence on our socio-technological practices of friendship and community is that there is no acknowledgment of the fact that we are indeed embodied persons, which means more than merely being physically present somewhere, but warrants an active presence of mind and spirit. In our social connections online, we fail to realize the second order goods that grow out of being impinged upon by a human voice, the embodied presence of another being, the real life ebbs and flows of closeness and distance, of talking and silence.
For Christians, the example of God sending Jesus to live and be with us, Emmanuel, is an example of such embodied real presence. God with us is an example of real presence which involved great sacrifice and abundant hospitality. In the same way, the logic of Christian community is to be involved in real presence, active engagement with people who may not be naturally drawn to each other, people of difference, people with needs and demands that will be inconvenient, time consuming. People who are broken, longing to know and be known by another just as we are.
The logic of our social media, however, guided primarily by the tenants of personal control, choice, efficiency, and commercial interests is not intrinsically built to help us in our search for real presence, real community. What many people say at this point is in part true. As users, we are the ones who choose how we use technologies.
However, to take this stance is a dangerous one, because the implication is that technologies are merely tools, neutral in their essence. To believe that they are merely tools is to be naive to the shaping influence of our technological structures. How some choices of how to use them are structured to be easier to make than others. And then there are the commercial institutions that lie behind these technologies. And when we embed these technologies into social practices that are then culturally legitimated, giving them authority, we are most certainly not standing on morally neutral grounds.
How then shall we live? What are we to do? We all need to begin by recognizing that we are, in many ways, all engaged in a great experiment, uncharted territory with huge implications that have yet to play out. In many respects, it is still very early in the development of social media. And what happens depends largely in part on what we want to have happen.
As a culture, we need to develop new forms of etiquette, accepted norms of practice, both online and offline, that put technology in its proper place rather than having it bleed into every crevice of our lives. While we can certainly develop individual practices, taking a Sabbath on the weekends from our technologies, going on hikes where you can't get reception, this endeavor is something that must be done on an institutional level as families, as schools, as workplaces, churches, synagogues, local communities, social organizations.
We have to start actively thinking about how technology is more than a tool of message transmission and how it acts to mediate and frame our experiences of education, of worship, of volunteerism, of community. We need to start asking the hard questions about the socio-technical practices that are currently being embedded into our lives.
How does social media privilege certain people in the same way that physical beauty and appearance is privileged in face to face interactions? In social media, who are the persons that are being ignored? Who are the new untouchables? What does it look like to practice hospitality online? What do acts of sacrifice and selflessness look like within the online context?
Finally, rather than following the lead of technologies that are driven by commercial interests, we need to urge and train engineers, technologists, scientists, to reflect upon and design technologies with alternative and robust understandings of personhood, friendship, and community.
My hope is that these suggestions will serve as a catalyst for all the discussions we need to be having within our social circles, our residential halls, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our places of worship, our families, and most certainly within those friendships where we feel least afraid to reveal the demands of our most true and broken selves. Perhaps it is in those hard conversations we will find that we have begun to engage in what real community is meant to be. Thank you.
KARL JOHNSON: Thank you very much. Well, that was interesting. I wish I could say it wasn't entirely relevant to my life. I am on Facebook. We're going to take some time for questions. And I'd like to kick things off here with a question that I have.
You mentioned the example of the family at the dinner table that is not as present with each other as they used to be because they're distracted by the technologies that are in their hand or in their pocket. And you said a little bit, and I wonder if you're able to say more about what your research or other research shows about the way in which face to face relationships have been changed even apart from the presence of that technology.
So for example, you alluded to this survey of students who went 24 hours without technology and they felt anxious, which is a personal report of an individual experience. But is there is there any research yet to date on how face to face relationships have been changed by technology even apart from the presence of technology?
FELICIA WU SONG: I think most of the research that's been done on comparing the impact of computer mediated communication and face to face communication has focused primarily on showing that we still do it. I think there's an area of study that focuses particularly on teenagers, on adolescents. That's where I think the most normative types of findings show that young people growing up with texting, Facebook accounts, are actually having difficulty learning to engage in face to face interactions when it is frightening for whatever reason, whether it is in social circles or with people of authority. So I think that's where the research is really happening.
KARL JOHNSON: Because it's unmediated by--
FELICIA WU SONG: Yes. So yes. So the idea is the research is showing that there is a generation. And all of this is very generational. It depends on at what point you entered into or Facebook entered into your life. And so now we are beginning to see the generation of adolescents who are becoming persons, becoming themselves, learning the ways of the world with this Facebook, this mediation texting with them and having that computer mediation or texting becoming a crutch, really. And many young people being quite frank about that, admitting that it is a crutch.
But at the same time, many of them admitting that they're overwhelmed by the texting, that they're overwhelmed by the updates and they wonder. Sherry Turkle's research shows this. They wonder out loud to her, when will this stop? When can I stop texting all the time? When can I stop managing my profile every second? Because I'd like to just rest. So there's a kind of fatigue, a kind of exhaustion that a lot of these young people are actually starting to experience.
KARL JOHNSON: Great. Well, I'm going to turn it over for some other questions and let Dr. Song call on you herself.
AUDIENCE: Hi there. I'm curious. I mean, I'm not really much of a Facebook or social media user myself, but I wonder, it seems like the difference that you're asserting between the way things used to be and the way things are now, aren't you to some degree idealizing the past? I mean, you talk about this example of everybody's at the bus stop checking their iPhones or whatever. But I mean, back in the day they would have been reading the paper, or just sitting together awkwardly and smoking or whatnot. You know what I mean? Have things really gotten worse?
FELICIA WU SONG: That's a great question. And you're right. Without social media, without these smartphones, we were perfectly capable of ignoring each other and neglecting each other at the dinner table or at bus stops. I guess what I'm trying to argue is that we not only now have a technology that makes it that much easier because it seems important to us.
Many of us are very busy. And so our emails and our Facebook updates are always constantly back logging. Right so if you're waiting at a bus stop, when you're eating dinner before soccer practice, there's this sense of legitimacy. And I'm guilty of this too. This sense of I need to catch up on this and this is my downtime. And this is a culturally acceptable practice.
Whereas I think in the past, and you're right, it's not like everyone was singing "Kumbaya" and engaging with each other all the time. I think there just wasn't such a culturally accepted excuse, in some ways. It just wasn't so easy. And part of that might be, as I mentioned at the end, is that the social media adoption has been so fast. It's been so rapid that our etiquette, our norms, haven't caught up yet.
So everything's all wonky. When you're at the dinner table, there isn't a clear rule that, well, grandma always said that you weren't allowed to text at the table. There wasn't that kind of thing. So there is no sense of what's OK, what's not OK. And so I think that adds to the chaos of it, the uncertainty that parents feel.
And even if for some of you, you go to the bus stop and let's say you're trying to not be that way. Let's say you put away your phone and you're thinking, I want to be open, I want to be present where I am. And suddenly you feel like a creepy person because everyone else is doing this right and you're the only one actually looking at people.
And suddenly people are looking up. So you take out your little phone and start tapping away even if you have nothing to tap at. So I think part of it is indicative of our particular time. And it'll be interesting to see where we are 10 years from now, if the dinner table looks the same way.
AUDIENCE: Building on that, the issue of primacy. In other words, just a few years ago while we were interacting in the media, still the most important communications we had every day were face to face. Is it possible now that the cat's out of the bag and that many of us, it's not a question of if we do both, but actually the most important things, the things that are most important to us in terms of communication are coming through the web now? No longer with face to face, so we sort of downgrade the priority of face to face, number one.
And then secondly, I'm sort of thinking about The Matrix, the movie. We're living sort of in a virtual world and we're sort of dissociated with our physical surroundings. We're living in some sort of cyberspace or some sort of life of the mind sort of a thing in our gizmo. And how far do you think that can go?
FELICIA WU SONG: I think as to the question of primacy, I think that's what Barry Wellman's networked individualism was getting at. For many of us, our strongest ties, our intimates, are actually not close to us. And that's not our fault. Much of the sociological reality of labor trends and job mobility is that we don't live close to our families, that we move five times in our lives.
And so the people who are most important to us, we don't get to engage with them face to face. And so in some ways, the technology is better than nothing. And of course, back to the earlier question, people did this in the past. You write letters, you make phone calls. I think what's different, again, is the mobility.
So in the '90s if you wanted to check your email, you still had to go sit in your office or go into your bedroom and go to AOL and say you've got mail. But now it's on us. And if anyone has seen the new Google YouTube video about the Google X glasses that are coming out.
So it's not just in your pocket anymore. It's in your line of sight that says so-and-so has just emailed you and they read the e-mail to you. So that might be getting a little closer, leading into your second question about The Matrix. Where does the line start to get really blurry between the physical world and this virtual world?
I think I tend to shy away from making a claim about this idea that we're living in our minds, I guess, or in this virtual screen. I think we are clearly here. We are still very alive and well in the physical world. I think, again, with the mobility, it's just that we don't need to go out somewhere, necessarily, or there isn't a kind of artificiality to it. It's more that the virtual, we'll use that term, is moving into the real. It's not so much that it's ethereal.
And that's why I shy away from a gnostic sense of there's this sort of stuff going on out there. I think we have meaningful interactions on Facebook. I have meaningful interactions with my husband texting. It's just that there's all this other stuff that comes along with it. And there's also our human vulnerabilities, our lack of discipline, that make things much more complicated.
AUDIENCE: You talked at one point about this idea that technology is sort of slowly bleeding into every facet of human life and suggested that there might be certain portions or certain aspects of our life that might be better off without technology. Well, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that decision is made? How is it that we determine where technology is appropriate and where technology is inappropriate?
And I think there are maybe two ways that you could talk about this and either one would be fine. One would be normatively pronouncements about appropriateness. The other one would be empirically. How are people that you have seen in your research or that other people have seen in their research making these decisions for themselves?
FELICIA WU SONG: I don't know that I'm necessarily uncomfortable with the expanding presence of technology, per se. What I'm interested in is the way that technology introduces a rationalizing sensibility to aspects of our lives. And so I think there are lots of other vehicles of rationalization that Weber talks about.
And so for me, I think it's more that traditionally, historically, we've separated in society things that were sacred and things that were profane. The market was in the realm of the profane. Rationalization factories. And then there was the sacred that deserved protection.
And so I think what technology, normatively speaking, represents to me is a vehicle of that rationalization, bringing in market tendencies, commodifying tendencies into areas of life that traditionally we haven't allowed. Or that we've even created institutions to protect ourselves from the market.
So for example, in my current research on mothers and blogging, I think our cultural notions of what mothers should do and who they should be are very sacred. That is, protected from the market the ideals that we have about who they are. And yet I think what mom blogging does, which is very interesting, is that it takes the experience of motherhood, which is still championed as a sacred vocation, and when blogged and professionalized into a revenue generating blog, becomes potentially commodified and made profane.
And I think that's where things get really interesting and muddled and unclear. How do we determine where these forces should go?
Yeah, I'm not sure. I think I would say it's helpful for us to understand historically where the lines were and that we still live in a society with institutions like schools, like churches, like synagogues, like governments that are, in many ways, built upon those traditional distinctions. What we see are that many of those institutions are creaking and stumbling because a lot of those distinctions are being blurred.
And we need to decide, do we want to sustain these institutions as they were or do we want them to change? But we should have some intention, at least, instead of letting market forces and marketing sort of mindlessly move us there. Yeah, I'll leave it at that. Yes sir?
AUDIENCE: I'd be interested if you are aware of cross cultural studies of these issues? I'm asking in part because I just spent the year in Germany. And I noticed that first, you'll never responses from-- I wouldn't get responses from my German colleagues during weekends or vacations. It does not impinge on-- their technology doesn't impinge [INAUDIBLE] for us. Somehow there's something that's [INAUDIBLE].
FELICIA WU SONG: Yeah, that's very interesting. Yeah, there is a fair bit of cross cultural work being done, especially a fair bit done in Asia, in Korea and Japan. And unfortunately, I'm not very familiar with what the data shows. But I think like your observations, clearly our fascination and compulsions here are particular to our society.
It would be interesting to explore what exactly those variables are. But that's a great question. And certainly mobile has been around and far more pervasive in Europe and in Asia for much longer than here.
AUDIENCE: So you conclude by saying that we need to have engineers that have a better understanding of the community and the people to build software. I mean, as an engineer myself, I felt pretty targeted by that. And I feel like this comment is a bit idealistic. If you take Facebook, for example, and you criticize how they mine your data to target you with ads, that's exactly what they do. But that's their business model. It's a company. They make money. That's what they do.
You're not the customer of Facebook. You're the user of Facebook. The customer is the company who pays for the ads. That's their business. So I mean, don't you think it's a little bit idealistic to say that we don't want this and we want a system? I mean, who's going to maintain the system? Who's going to pay for the system?
FELICIA WU SONG: Yeah, OK. That's a great question. What motivates my thought there are two things. One, I want to make the claim we can design technologies differently. What we have doesn't have to be. Social networking sites don't have to be that way.
So for example, Facebook. I mean, every sort of service, I guess, that you register for online, how do we register? We register as individuals. I can't register as a couple with my husband. I can't register as a family even though those are parts of my identity. So even banks recognize that you can have joint accounts with people. But I can barely have a joint account with my husband on Facebook in the same way.
So part of my motivation in making that claim is to say, let's not forget that there were design decisions made. And Mark Zuckerberg, I mean, they created a networking site for college. So it has a very college mode of understanding of what relationships are and how they work. And then when you leave college and you get into work life and so forth, relationships take on very different sorts of dynamics, which we're seeing now with Facebook undergoing employers asking for Facebook passwords to screen their potential employees and things like that. I mean, it's getting very messy now that all the early Facebookers are now becoming adults living out there, earning money, living their own lives in a way that's very different from the college social scene. So one of the claims is a design thing.
The second thing is what motivates that claim is a book by Jaron Lanier called You Are Not A Gadget. And he is the man behind virtual reality. The technology of virtual reality back in the '90s. And he writes that as a scientist, as an engineer, we should not let business take over the wonder that is possible in what we can design. If you look at the early construction of what the internet was in the early '90s, there were particular revisions of what community, what information, what networking looked like that have since been overwhelmed by the commercial.
And so yes, probably the reality is you need money. You need a venture capitalist to fund your projects. And so perhaps we can be economically deterministic in that sense. But I think we need to also take a step back and say, are we going in a direction where we really want to go? I would argue that there's always still space. There's always still space for something. Engineers and scientists, technologists are the best equipped to imagine that space in a really interesting way. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: I have really [INAUDIBLE] interest in different things. And so on Facebook, I kind of post different things. And people mistake me as being a random person because I post random things. And so that kind of stimulates my curiosity about whether people-- have you explored factors kind of contributing to people's-- different levels of [INAUDIBLE] as reality, of shaping their perception of reality. [INAUDIBLE]. For me, and I believe that many others do this, just use Facebook as a social [INAUDIBLE] to express things. And you don't expect people to perceive you or [INAUDIBLE] to reflect your own reality of you. It's just not relevant as the thing that [INAUDIBLE].
FELICIA WU SONG: I'm not sure many people use their Facebook profiles to actually express the reality of them. It's usually an idealized reality if they hope to perform an identity. I think it depends a lot on the generation, again. So the data on how adolescents use Facebook is very different from a more random, fun, playful use of Facebook.
I think, again, what complicates Facebook for us now is that there are no norms. So on Facebook, you find the whole gamut. You find people that are very serious in using it to be an extension of themselves out there. And then others who it's just a pastiche of their thoughts. Yeah, hand back there.
AUDIENCE: Thank you very much for this talk. This was fantastic. And you focus so much on the dynamism and how rapidly things are changing in social interaction. My research area is in privacy in online situations. One thing that I think is also worth bearing in mind is the permanence of a lot of these interactions. They're in text that people are saying things on Facebook and on Twitter. I mean, I'd hate to think what my history would look like if I had a Facebook account when I was 14.
And people are now in that situation where their self identity as well isn't able to change and develop because of how much private information is put out there. And Cardinal Newman said to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed much. How do we get a move on in ourselves as well? I think one of the questions we need to consider in this is how do we move on in ourselves with all of this data out there about ourselves?
FELICIA WU SONG: Right. That's a great question. And I think, again, as the early Facebookers are getting jobs and all of their data is out there, it will be interesting to see if, as a society, we are forgiving in a way that we have grown increasingly forgiving of our politicians and their transgressions. And so perhaps we will become a society that is more willing to forgive people's Facebook transgressions because we all know that we have them.
But yes, I think the permanence of it, I think, gets troubling to me when you have third parties that may be using that information. So David Lyon's work on surveillance society, I think he's into this about if you start having health insurance companies using Facebook and other forms of online data to profile you and then deny you certain services, that's where things get very tricky and problematic. And the line between what is private and public gets very troubling. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I'm pretty interested in how Facebook is affecting all this. So sometimes I do some covert interviews with my classmates. People often say that they don't like Facebook and that they only use it for one specific purpose. But I think for the most part, they use it all the time.
And I was just wondering if you think or if there's evidence towards people rejecting Facebook and media in general? Like we're going to get to a point where it's just too much, and we can't handle any more. Do you think that will ever happen?
FELICIA WU SONG: I think you have occasional instances where-- I wish I remembered the name of it. You have the occasional YouTube video that shows the college student who decided to get off Facebook for a month. Oh, I think it was called Going Amish or something. So you have these people doing these experiments very publicly about what is life like if you get off Facebook and all other sorts of technology.
I don't know if people will necessarily reject it out of exhaustion. I think there's an element of, again, it's that cultural legitimacy. There's this element of people feeling like, I cannot unplug. If I get off Facebook, then I have no contact in the same way with my social circles in the way that I would. I would be missing out. I'd be missing out on something that's happening.
I think what will be interesting is to see what comes after Facebook. They don't want to be a destination. They want to be in the background of everything that we do. They want to be Windows. They want to be Unix. They want to be in the background, just like Google. And so the question is, what's going to happen in that effort if they're going to stumble along the way or something completely new is going to overwhelm it? Yeah.
AUDIENCE: I wonder if you could comment a little bit on how Facebook and some of the new media changed the balance of authority and so on among church and parents and peers and so on. I'm particularly concerned in an age of relativism and a time where there's a lot of focus on me, me, me and personal fulfillment and then where you have the kind of pure influence coupled with maybe rock stars or movie stars or sports heroes. It strikes me that it fundamentally changes the role of parenting and of the influence of the church and school. And so I wonder if you could comment a little on that range of issues.
FELICIA WU SONG: I think when you look at studies on media and technology's impact on authority, you see a whole history of authority being undermined. Whether it was television or movies. There are these external sources of influence on children. Primarily I think you see the research being done on that, being introduced, and changing the relationships between parents and children.
I think what's puzzling or the bind that a lot of parents feel is this desire to keep your child in the house. That is, we live in communities that are no longer safe. We often hear about how I used to grow up, mom used to just send us out and we'd be out of the house until dinnertime. And the kids would just run around the neighborhoods.
For many families now, there are no communities like that or neighborhoods like that. And so there's a lot of concern about physical safety of children. So you keep them in the home. And so what do you do when you keep them in the home? Well, you need to let them do something.
I think what you find is that there was a study that came out recently about how parents are actually helping their children lie about their age on Facebook. The age is, what, 14, I think? 13? But there are many parents that are actually encouraging their children to go online as someone who is 16 or 21 to protect them in this online space.
I'm not aware of any studies on the nature of, I guess, religious authority. But I think, again, what seems most compelling to me is the ways in which Facebook represents an extension of the market into how we think about our relationships and our sense of being. And in that way, it undermines what religious institutions have been struggling to communicate for a long time.
KARL JOHNSON: Let's take just perhaps one more question. Do you have a question?
AUDIENCE: Actually that sort of answered it. I was wondering what is technology? And I guess I think focusing specifically on Facebook makes sense. But we live in a snapshot of history with all sorts of technologies like light bulbs and railroads, which have disrupted human existence in profound ways. And here's something that's new as of I got Facebook in 2006. iPads are everywhere. They came out, what, two years ago?
And so nobody can predict what's going to be out there in 15 years. And so we live in this little snapshot. And I guess what is the great concern? It's going to move so fast and next year our concerns are going to be completely different and something else is going to be completely disruptive. But I think I see your point with community, because Facebook does reach that in a way that other technologies haven't. If you have a comment [INAUDIBLE].
FELICIA WU SONG: Yeah. I would say that I totally agree, that we are completely in a very interesting snapshot. It wasn't this interesting in the '80s, ostensibly. We had VCRs. But I would argue that our technologies build on each other. And so the reason why the internet and Facebook and tablets can have the kind of accelerated adoption rate is because there is all this infrastructure that already exists in telecommunications that goes all the way back to the telegraph. So it builds on each other technologically in its structure.
And I would suggest that as persons going through history that we continually adapt our engagement of each other and of our realities to each subsequent technology. So we adapt to the radio and that prepares us for television, which then gets us to the internet. If we went from radio to internet directly, it would be much more difficult and people would have struggled to a much larger extent.
And so what are we concerned about? The concern is that we may be losing some of the valuable things that might have existed back then. Again, not to idealize those times. A lot of dysfunctional, absurd things obviously existed. The further we move along, there's always this increased risk that we forget. We forget what it was like. We forget what it's like to go take a walk without anything with us and not feel strange. Wondering oh, is my husband calling me? We don't remember that. And that's, I think, the concern.
KARL JOHNSON: As I was listening to you talk about the generational issue and how this is very different for those who have grown up with Facebook, I was reminded that one century ago, there was another invention that was very disruptive, which was the bicycle. And one interesting part of that story is that right around the turn of the 20th century, there was the first and only generation that ever had to learn how to ride bicycles as adults.
And the children learned how to do it very easily and very quickly and then they were very amused at seeing how absurd the grownups looked on bicycles. And it got me thinking as I observed my children adopt the technology very quickly how absurd it must look for a grownup to be on Facebook.
FELICIA WU SONG: That's right.
KARL JOHNSON: If I could ask you one final and closing question. One of the things that I very much appreciate about your work and work of folks like David Lyon, who we hosted here some years ago, is your exploration of the cultural logic that's embedded in various technologies and the ways in which they provoke certain responses from us.
And I think, for example, of inventions such as the clock some centuries ago, which radically changed the way people experienced time in ways that are perhaps not dissimilar from what we're going through right now. Or even something like, say, the newspaper, which religious authorities were very concerned about because it focused people on the present and not on the timeless. Or even Sunday newspapers, which had a displacement effect on Sunday services.
And so my question actually has to do with whether anybody is looking into that aspect of life that is sometimes called virtue? The sort of practiced denial of self gratification or responding to the immediate invitation to engage with something. You made a passing reference to spiritual disciplines or practices, I think. And virtue is some of the language that's been used for that conversation in the past. I'm just curious if that's part of the conversation anywhere. No? OK. Well that was a great, short, concise answer.
FELICIA WU SONG: That's a good project. I'll make a note of that. That was a great question.
KARL JOHNSON: Great. I have a couple of announcements, but most importantly, please join me in thanking our guest, Dr. Song.
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Cultural sociologist Felicia Wu Song delivered the Spring 2012 Alan and Linda Beimfohr Lecture at Cornell on April 10, 2012.
Song is an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, where she teaches courses in mass media, advertising and persuasion. She is the author of "Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together" (2009), which examines the social and cultural effects of the Internet on community, identity and the public sphere.
Beimfohr Lectures bring intellectuals to campus to address issues related to faith in a pluralistic society and are sponsored by Chesterton House, the Christian studies center affiliated with Cornell United Religious Work.