Social interaction, our kids and the Internet

August 6, 2008

My darling’s mother is a Luddite. I don’t mean this as a criticism, I only mean that she and I have a significant difference in points of view. Last night we got onto the subject of computers, which meant I was regaled with complaints about how they don’t work and they’re far too expensive for something that does so little.

Unfortunately, I can’t put together a convincing argument on my feet. I just can’t think fast enough and talk at the same time. As such, my attempts to bring her around were spectacularly unsuccessful. What was more interesting, though, was the discourse that followed between my sweetie and I.

She raised some concerns about the Internet distancing people from one another. This was completely contrary to my viewpoint, in which the Internet connects people and brings them closer together. The difference came from the fact that I was thinking of shallow connections, the kind of people that you converse and have fun with, and occasionally enjoy a bit of more serious conversation. My sweetheart was thinking of the deeper relationships that (in my experience) you only really get from “face time”.

Time for a little aside. There are obviously certain kinds of person who can develop meaningful relationships with people on the Internet. There are also those that can’t. For example, an acquaintance of mine went to the UK a few years ago, and while she was there she spent 6 weeks staying with people she’d only ever met online. So there was a degree of trust there that others (e.g. me) wouldn’t even think of giving to somebody you’d never met in the flesh. It really really depends on what kind of person you are, and what kind of situation you’re in.

Another similar (but different) concern raised by my lady love was that the online world has (or will soon develop) the ability to completely replace the superficial face-to-face connections that people used to make every day. For example, the person behind the counter at the supermarket could be replaced by a grocery delivery, and the person at the post office where you pay your bills is superseded by the online payment system that I use.

The idea underlying my darling’s fears is that of ubuntu. Ubuntu is the idea that we only recognise our humanity because we see it in others. The Internet’s potential for distancing people from each other, she said, presents a danger to us as a society. We may choose to replace our deep, meaningful relationships with a plethora of shallow connections to people we barely know.

I share my love’s concerns. Really. I, the computer geek who spends 6-8 hours a day connected to the Internet, am worried about what the Internet might do to humanity. I’m worried about it in the same way that I’m worried about humanity having the use of nuclear power. I acknowledge that it might do great things for us, but I also fear that it may destroy us. And I believe the same is true of all disruptive technologies. With every truly new thing that we invent, we create a risk that we will kill ourselves (or at very least change ourselves beyond recognition) before we learn to use it responsibly. It’s just part of being an intelligent and creative culture.

There is hope. We need only look at today’s children diving into the online world, grokking it so well that their parents can only look on in wonder. I know a couple who marvel at their six-year-old’s ability to pick up computer skills in minutes that it took them hours, days or weeks to acquire. The old joke about getting your nine-year-old to fix your computer for you is amazingly close to being the norm, because kids’ natural ability to learn means that they just soak this stuff up.

But there is also danger in that world, as exemplified by aggrandised reports of the predators we see online. Predators like paedophiles, scammers, haters and bullies exist just as much in the online world as in the physical world. What we need to realise is that they are just the same online as in “real life”; they simply use different (and sometimes more effective) tools and methods. These predators are inevitable in any system humanity creates: it’s a niche that exists in all environments, be they ecological, economic or electronic. So instead of acting to eliminate them, we need to teach our children to notice and avoid them, as we do in the physical world by teaching our kids about principles like “stranger danger”.

The point where we run into trouble is that our kids are going to know more about the online world than we do. This shakes our confidence and makes us doubt our ability to teach the principles that our kids need to know. So we make the mistake of teaching them nothing. We rely on childcare centres and schools to teach their children the social skills and etiquette they will need to get on in life. As IRL, so online. Educational facilities are not equipped to teach them that, at least not all on their own. It’s the responsibility of family, in conjunction with the whole community. The old saw “it takes a village to raise a child” is what I’m talking about here. But that’s a rant for another time. I think the essence of the point I’m trying to make is that we need education of the whole community, by the whole community, with a body of common knowledge and wisdom that grows over time. As IRL, so online.

Social interaction, our kids and the Internet - August 6, 2008 - Lucas Wilson-Richter