I was sitting around the other day in the atypical peace created by Youngest entrenched in her first passionate read. Harry Potter book 1 (Bless you J.K. Rowling). I was listening to Shelagh Rogers interviewing Steve Maich and Lianne George about their new book "The Ego Boom". I would like to read that book, they talk about the increasingly narcissistic world in which we all live, and related to that, the narcissists we have all become.
They site facebook and social network sites, such as blogs and twitter as examples of this increase in this behaviour and our move away from communal living. A place where we can toot our own horns to the weakening of the fabric of our friendships and relations in real time. There are, no doubt, thousands, nay, tens of thousands of people who use these sites simply as confirmations of who they are. It's a numbers game and the one with the most friends/followers/readers wins. There is truth that no one wants to hear the sordid details of your last crap/shag/cup of coffee, but.....if it is well enough written, if it speaks to something that others can relate to, however mundane, people will read it. There are facebook users who restrict the number of friends they have so that they are actually friends whom they see in the light of day from time to time. This, I feel, negates their ideas. Never mind people like me, who are forced to, or have chosen to live far from many of those who are closest to them on a psychological level.
The authors also neglect to look at the very real connections that come out of on-line communities. Personally, I started the blog out of a desire to not have to reiterate my entire life everytime I wrote someone an e-mail. RTFB (read the fu*cking blog). I do direct people to it as well when I get an e-mail asking what we have been up to for the last six months. Goodness. Yet one of the interesting things that has happened is that, while my family reads it (HI!!!!) and some family members, who I otherwise would not know nearly as well (hello out there!!!!) read it, which I count one of the really great bonuses of writting this, very very few of my actual friends read what I post, and of those virtually NONE of them comment. I've posted about this before and continue to find it somewhat mystifying.
Then there are the friends made through blogging. I have met a few people who read here, and whom I read and have been delighted that I did (though it makes the man nervous). Still, there is a new form of friendship that emerges from these interactions whether you actually meet in person or not.
I seem to have drifted from the original discussion around narcissism, but I think that I haven't. There is an unspoken reality about blogging and some uses of facebook that dictates that communication must be bi-directional. There must be, by and large, a web of interaction not a single shining star in the firmament. That we interrelate with each other as a web of interconnections.
Before this I was listening to Ideas, again on a CBC podcast, and the speaker, Sue Gardner is the executive director of Wikimedia. (The link is only good for four weeks.) She was discussing the perceived flaws of our on-line interactions, and she labelled three. The most compelling of these was the idea that the communities we form on-line are communities of self-reinforcment. Little crowds of yes men who madly confim our beliefs however odd, misguided or dangerous they may be.
Her first response to this was that it has been ever thus. How many university Economics departments allow "crackpot communist" thinkers in. Read an issue of the Economist one day, and you will find a stunning universality of opinion. They don't even allow bylines for crying out loud. Just the one communal editorial voice. How many purveyors of the internet and software give real value to the opinions of back-to-the-land ludites or listen to them on a regular and serious basis. Even our neighbourhoods are increasingly like-minded. People can predict everything from the stores you will visit to the magazines you will order, from where you will vacation to the sports you will play, from the way you design and decorate your house to the way you will vote, all from your postal code. What is that if not a self-affirming community.
The opportunity that is provided with the internet is not the creation of these self-affirming communities, that is inevitable in all walks of life, but with the internet we all have the unprecedented opportunity to be privy to the thinking of other. It has never been easier to sit in on the conversations and to join the forums. Many do. We can join a forum of people who believe and are passionate about everything from the weirdest conspiracy theory to the Young Conservatives forum board (is there a difference there?)
Where does this leave me. I think, based only on the interview, I have to read the book, that the authors of "The Ego Boom" have missed the boat on some of these aspects. Yes, there is a rise in narcissism. Yes, there is a rise in the desire of parents and schools to focus on self-esteem (one of their chief criticisms in the interview). Yes, the marketers have glommed onto this (surprise surprise) and now sell us things, not because we will be improved by them, but rather that we deserve them. There is also an enormous rise in interconnectedness between people that would have been impossible as little as 10 years ago. As an expat I am reminded of this daily and it is fundamental to my basic happiness.
They have also overlooked the reality of how younger people use these networks, and how they are used outside of the North American framework. Too narrow a vision.
They have also not taken into account how this vision of the world as interconnected will impact on the thinking of the generation growing up in this new model. These young people are experiencing on a moment by moment basis a world that is ever increasingly accessible and interconnectable. They are acquiring skills at filtering information and making connections between information that was previously done for them by the Encyclopedia Britannica or by the editor of their local paper, by an authority.
An article in the New York Times discusses how the aging brain is weaker in pure speed and in the ability to cram in and retain facts, but that it appears to be actually stronger in the ability to make connections between facts and to synthesis these facts into new ideas and new processes.
All well and good, but then this morning I was listening to Quirks and Quarks on CBC again, and they were doing a special show on the 10 biggest unanswered questions in the Universe. They had a series of, mostly physicists, putting forward their big questions which ranged from the obvious, but clearly valuable, "How did the Universe begin, or rather, did it begin", to the fascinating, "How do Quantum systems relate to the biological world", to the bizarre, "Does time exist". They discussed dark matter, the dark side, and all the stuff that fills up the bits of the Universe that are not the 4% we can identify. Then the audience asked some questions. They ranged from interesting to bland.
At the end of it all a kid came up. Jake. He sounded like he was about 13 or so. His question was, if I may quote rather generally, "OK, so we have all this dark matter and dark side and blah blah blah and blah blah blah (I kid you not, he said that on National radio. Gotta love a teen), so, how does it all connect to us and to each other?"
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. There was a pause as the scientists took it on board and then they invited him to help them figure it out in five years time when he's a little older.
Not only was the kid bright. Not only was he synthesising the seperate and unrelated questions of the different professionals, but he asked them how they all fit into a system. How they connected into his world, and into each other's world. He pointed out the flaw that they put forward by isolating their questions from each other.
They hadn't put that together themselves given the dead airtime pause.
This is something that, according to the neurologists, the aging adult brain is supposed to be good at, this flexible synthesis of ideas, this overview, this ability to look at the big picture and it's connections. It is not supposed to be as strong in the younger mind.
I think the kid, while bright, is also a product of his time and world; a world that is interconnected in every conceivable way. A world that looks like a web, where everything shakes if you wiggle one strand. He wanted to know how it all ties together. The scientists didn't know, and sounded like they weren't sure they had thought of it that way.
I don't think all is lost in the youth of today. I do no think they are a roving band of hopeless narcissists. I think they are actually pretty amazing, and we should hear what they have to say when they call us on these things. They see the world in ways we don't, due to their access to the internet, to the web, to these tools that connect and interconnect us in ways that were never possible before. Whatever mainline media and the schools preach at them.
Go for it Jake. You rule.