Thoughts on Our Digital World
As anyone who knows me is aware, I’m definitely an advocate of technology, using digital tools for work and running training sessions to help others blend their teaching techniques, but recently I’ve felt a growing sense of unease about the way many of us are using these ubiquitous tools. As usual we have tools with incredible potential but are we able to get the best out of them?
In his recent novel, “The Circle”, Dave Eggers describes a sort of technological Garden of Eden which is so alluring that most of those who work there sooner or later want to live as well as work there. This is ironic in that the every existence of this “oasis” depends on the rest of the world being its customers, and feeding its vanity. The company could be symbolic of any of the tech giants and it creates an ingenuous, brave new world of sanitised wealth for a favoured few.
The Importance of being Highly Rated
Mae, the heroine is enthusiastic and grateful to be allowed to work there in such a “cool” place, but her work, to a jaundiced outside might seem to be worthless. She begins by answering customer queries, but the aim is not only to solve their problems but to be rated as highly as possible, and if the customer rates her slightly lower, then she recontacts them to encourage them to change their rating. Why is this rating so important? Does it help to solve the customers’ problems? Probably not, and some of those customers insist on her taking a personal interest in their relatives etc. in a way that goes beyond what would be considered the “norm” in the “real world”.
Is this far-fetched? Well, having recently tried to get help from a well known telephone company, where you, the “highly valued” customer are passed from one apparently young, inexperienced person to the next I think that we are not too far away from The Circle right here and now. These people, working in a call centre somewhere, probably on minimum wages, are not always able to help you with your problem. They ask you the same questions again and again, whilst telling you not to worry (even though they are not solving the problem) and at times try to sell you an extra service to boot. You are also told that you will be contacted to be interviewed on their performance a couple of days after your call. Calls, in fact, that, if you happen to be abroad at the time, come in at quite a cost for you, the customer.
What this makes me think is that the rating, questionnaires etc. are a sort of sleight of hand designed to distract the customers and the callers to focus on something other than the main point. The workers in the call centres, of course, want to be rated highly so that they will keep their jobs, and the customer is imbued for a couple of moments with a false sense of importance, in that their opinions are being asked. This is the mirror that distorts a relationship which should simply be one of asking for help and receiving it. The focus on client satisfaction is probably more like lip service and I wonder whether it might not be better for everyone if companies like this did not focus on providing their staff with the appropriate information so that they can really help the customer.
What is Social Media actually for?
The need for recognition and to be “popular” with high ratings, of course, goes beyond the service transactions and Mae as the novel progresses, finds herself living a life of superficial protagonism, which we can see mirrored in our world every day on social media. My Facebook Page for students, for instance, constantly encourages me to “boost” posts to attract more followers, and as soon as I reach one target number of followers I’m provided with the next. My page, however, is designed for my students, and is not trying to attract customers, so why should I be interested in advertising it to as many people as possible. It is there for my students and those who are interested, and so I ignore the sirens beckoning me to sail towards the dangerous waters of “looking for high ratings” but I can see how easy it would be to get sucked into it. In the novel, just the fact of being visible is power and it means that Mae has the power to sell products because all her followers aspire to be like her in a world where there is little space for reflection and the most important life decisions are available at the click of a mouse. She, in fact, becomes a living advertising force, but loses her own identity.
What is worrying is, as I said above, not the tools themselves, but the way they are being used and presented to us. My Facebook Page for students, for example, is a wonderful tool. It gives me the chance to give learners extra pieces of information, to informally work on language and discussions in English and to do a whole range of things that would have been inconceivable just a few short years ago. My blog means that I can share my thoughts with others and learn from them as well instead of writing a journal just for myself. These are things that are well known and I will not dwell on them any further here, but when the focus of the site becomes to attract as many followers as possible it is adding a subtle sleight of hand like the questionnaires, where what becomes desirable for the users is superficial visibility and validation rather than real communication. The novel may seem futuristic or rather extreme with this cult like company, where everyone is seen to care for everyone else, but in fact nobody actually knows anyone else, or has the time to do so.
The Nature of Friendship
Real friendships involve listening and dedicating time and effort to the relationship, being there for others and caring about them not just when they are sharing their experiences with you but also when they are in trouble. This is the dark side of the social media coin, perhaps, as those who cease to blog may well be quickly forgotten. Using social media to foster relationships that already exist or that are then developed in the real world as well, is a wonderful thing, but a friendship that only exists online is not so substantial. In the novel, in fact, taking a weekend off to visit ill parents is frowned upon and even going off on your own is seen as being antisocial, unless you take photos and comment on the place “for everyone else”. Private space is seen as secretive and therefore negative behaviour, reminiscent in fact of the classic orwellian totalitarianism.
In fact, although we have not reached these extremes yet, we are already quite close to this, and many of us feel the need to “share” our activities constantly with our “friends”, for all kinds of reasons. In a Utopia, of course, sharing everything may be harmless, and the argument is often put forward that people don’t mind providing access to their data because they “have nothing to hide”. This was a common comment that people made when discovering that the government had supposedly been monitoring their calls in the USA. Allowing our data to be used in exchange for free tools like Google search, for instance, may seem to be a small price to pay, in fact this is an argument I have often used myself.
Undermining our Professions
I recently read Jaron Lanier’s book Who owns the Future?, (admittedly on my Kindle, as I keep saying, I am in favour of technology and love the way it makes my life easier) however, and he talks, among many other things, about Google Translate. This software, if we can call it that, seems to “magically translate” and it is getting better at it every day. How does it do this? By using texts that “human translators” have already translated and which are available online, to find similar phrases in different languages and to then “translate” them. This means that by putting our translations and texts online, translators, and this is just one example, are actually undermining their own profession. Lanier, in fact, claims that the crisis we are in is largely a result of this type of software on the Internet, which has already visibly undermined the music, photography and writing sectors and all those other industries that worked together with them. The economic crisis is not simply, according to Lanier, a question of politics and banking but goes much further than that. In actual fact, we do not live in Utopia, and giving our data away every day to those few who run the computers, even though they persuade us we are sharing with each other, means that we may well be actually undermining our own world, if we live in the real world, whilst the lotus eaters play in their insulated bubbles.
Although, at times, the novel is rather forced the characters are intentionally two dimensional and reflect something that we need to guard against and the warning against danger is clear. There are many other themes in the book, of course, such as the speed that we work at, which is so fast and continuous that there is little room for thought or reflection. I am still convinced that the answer lies in education. I believe in the potential of the online world and benefit from it daily as I communicate, learn, research and work, but it is also important to know how to do this, where to look, when to resist the siren call of ratings and popularity drives, and the younger generation need to be taught how to stand back, take a deep breath and think for themselves before taking the next click. It is more difficult to see how our world is changing and will change in the next few years, but although we do not live in a utopia we do not live in a distopia either and hopefully there will always be a certain amount of balance between generosity and greed, altruism and selfishness, profit and loss, creativity and plagiarism. Incidentally, and perhaps most telling of all in the novel the one form of privacy that was guarded right until the end was the “intellectual property” of the company, and the most worrying result of company policy was that those working there seemed to lose any semblance of critical thinking. So maybe this is what we need: to use our resources as well as we can and to think critically whilst doing so.