Technology: Good, Bad, or Ugly?
Now for some more evaluative comments on how Internet has pervaded our lives so thoroughly. In my last post I described my day-to-day activities online, but I didn’t really address the question that’s floating around – namely how does technology affect the way we communicate and relate, and is its effect good, bad, or value-neutral? In the spirit of my seven-year-old self, I’ve decided to do this pros and cons style. In addition to my own thoughts, two more posts on the subject caught my eye this week – Courtney at Feministing blogged from an airplane about staying healthy and balanced in the rush of all this information now available online, and Salon’s Vincent Rossmeier interviewed author Dennis Baron about the pros and cons of technology in our lives in an article entitled “Is the Internet Melting Our Brains?”
1) The Internet erases a lot of barriers. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. To many, the Internet is not affordable, inaccessible, or censored. But for those with hearing or speaking difficulties, those for whom leaving the house is a major task due to physical disabilities, or those who are simply difficult to understand due to a strong regional accent, the Internet makes it easier to communicate, and communicate frequently.
2) The Internet makes it easy to find people you like, and avoid people you don’t. Don’t get me wrong, now; I am not a huge advocate of “blocking” people unless they really are harassing you, but I do think the Internet is a lifesaver when it comes to finding people with whom you really connect and those with common interests/personality traits/desires/backgrounds. Growing up in North Carolina, the Internet was a major tool for me in finding out about queer lifestyles and finding other queer teenagers in my area. Even locally, it was hard to meet each other for safety and reputational concerns, but online we could find one another in online “safe spaces,” often using a screenname at first, then building trust through conversations and exchanging real details or meeting up in person. These preliminary conversations also make it easy to take time figuring out with whom you connect and with whom you don’t, as opposed to in-person meetings where you may get “stuck” with a friend who is completely unlike you or conversationally incompatible. Rather than the “closed” environment of school or work, the Internet is an “open environment” where you can consciously search for people that are easy to bond with. This logic also extends to information – not only do you choose with whom you communicate, you can choose your sources of information. The Internet makes it possible to get all your news from a feminist or liberal lens, to keep up to date on completely obscure topics with Google Alerts, and to research incredibly quickly. Whatever we think about the decline of print journalism, I do think that the existence of the Internet helps to keep traditional journalists honest.
3) The Internet provides access to people in completely different parts of the world. On the same train of thought, a great thing about online communication is that you can find the people with whom you best connect, wherever they may be. You can form a close friendship or even a romantic relationship with someone thousands of miles away, and maybe meet up in person, providing an opportunity to go somewhere you never would’ve gone before. I have very close friends in Birmingham, England, in West Texas, in California, in France, and in Pittsburgh that I initially met on the Internet. Once I flew as far as Reno, Nevada to meet an “online friend.” These are amazing opportunities that I wouldn’t give up for anything. The Internet also helps build specific communities that can be safe havens for those in small towns, rural areas, or countries where a particular community is small or non-existent. People who are queer, feminist, speak a “foreign” language, etc. can find people online on the same camp, if not in person. Dan Savage loves to talk on his podcast about how folks with the most bizarre fetishes can now type that phrase into Google and find fifty other people out there like them. It may be a joke, but hey, in reality, isn’t that a pretty powerful thing?
4) The Internet is good for multitasking. You can do a lot of things online, and you can do many of them quickly. The Internet gives you a certain amount of control, despite the fact that it can suck you in sometimes. You can have an instant message conversation running (or three), be typing a blog post, and have a program watching for any new e-mail coming in (yes, that’s me right now). It’s not rude online to disappear for brief periods of time, and it’s less obvious than if you’re chatting on the phone and fall silent because you’re checking your e-mail. You can find out things you need to know very quickly, whether that’s the definition of a word, someone’s phone number, the weather, a quote, the name of a song, or who’s living where right now. None of those things take very much time or interrupt anything else you’re doing. It makes your day-to-day life faster, as well as keeping your “online life” flowing. It’s also nice to be able to control information flow, whether that’s pausing a streaming Rachel Maddow video or reading your news on and off throughout the day.
1) Lack of a physical connection. This is probably the biggest downside of using the Internet as your primary tool for communication. There’s something to be said for seeing a face, hearing a voice, feeling a touch. We do communicate differently online (see the next point), and there can be a loss to not seeing one another in person. I do think those in an older generation can exaggerate that loss, but it’s there. Typing something like *hugs* is not the same thing real physical comfort. There are also the same kinds of conversational flaws present online as in real life. For example, I don’t like being at a party full of people and feeling like no one is paying attention to me as an individual person. I like to think that the Internet, by making it okay to multitask and pause regularly in conversation, creates more of a “one-on-one” connection – the person I’m instant messaging with may be running around, doing other things, talking to others, but we’re still alone in that window, having a conversation. However, it’s easy to feel ignored in an online conversation, too, when there are long pauses, or you’re always the one initiating the conversation and they’re always the first to leave. It creates some intimacy, but it doesn’t make up for people simply wanting to be somewhere else, if that’s the case.
2) People communicate differently online. This is the flip side of #2 on the pros. The “wall” that the Internet puts up can make people more open online, for example, and make it easier to talk, but the same person could be a terrible conversationalist in public. Some might say that the person is cheating, faking, lying… I don’t agree, but I do find this problematic if I really click with someone online and then we decide to be “real life” friends and it’s terribly awkward.
3) The online world may be pretty, but it’s not always real. In addition to the problem that those who can access the Internet are necessarily able to afford it, or live somewhere that has a free public library, there is also the problem that a high degree of control is a form of censoring. In my online bubble, there are few conservatives, no religious zealots, no homophobes, no racists, etc. But in the real world, these elements do exist. It’s easy to ignore a problem or walk away from a conversation that you don’t experience in real life. I don’t buy into the whole “bloggers don’t solve problems, they only talk about them” thing, but I do think that the Internet can be very insulated and educated. I have quite a few real-life friends that I would not necessarily “pick” at first glance – friends who are very conservative, very evangelical, strongly pro-life. I have family members who are homophobic, racist, and suspicious of anyone with a college degree. And I do think that my life is richer for knowing these people, even if some of their viewpoints drive me up a wall. To some extent, maybe the Internet sanitizes that.
The moral of the story?
I have no idea. I do think that in the end, it comes down to balance. It’s good to meet people online, but it’s good to have connections in your own city or town as well. Physically, it’s probably a health benefit to get those eyes away from the screen. Emotionally, it’s important to have actual touch, physical contact, from time to time. I miss social interactions like dinner parties, and I wouldn’t mind bringing those back. But at the same time, I’m eternally grateful for my best friends, and if I have to fly halfway around the world to see some of them, or if I am never able to see some of them, then that’s all right by me.
How the Internets Shape My Day-to-Day Life (as a Feminist)
One thing that was really interesting for me about the Women + Power Conference was all the discussion about blogging and other Internet technology and how it shapes our activism, our news-reading habits, etc. From the stage, there were some really interesting stories about, for example, how a woman in rural Africa was able to connect to other women in a way she never would have been able to pre-Internet through the site Pulse Wire. In our intergenerational lunch conversation, we talked more about how the Internet affects us generally, in terms of relating and developing friendships, both positive and negative.
When I got home, I started thinking about just how I do use the Internet both for information gathering and for community building. Of course, I’m very conscious of things that the Internet helps me with in terms of getting information about the weather, restaurant menus, contact info, all that stuff that I find myself without when I’m away from the computer. But what I don’t pay as much attention to is the social element. I also wonder how my Internet use differs from others my generation and a little bit older, or a little bit younger. So I’ll describe a typical day of Internet usage for me, and I’d be interested to hear how this differs from your experience in the comments. Also, coincidentally I came across a blog post today that discusses relationships and Facebook. Though Facebook isn’t a big social medium for me, I thought you might be interested to check out what this blogger has to say.
A Day in the Online Life of Me
Keep in mind, of course, that I’m not working right now, so I can spend a lot more time online.
Right after waking up: Read through Twitter Feed and Tweet once. Check e-mail. Read my Google Reader (a few traditional newspapers, feminist websites and blogs, queer blogs, sexuality blogs, law and other academic blogs, foodblogs, Daily Beast, friends’ blogs, NPR, the New Yorker).
During the day: Watch a few TV shows online (Rachel Maddow Show, Daily Show, Colbert Report). Post to one or two of my blogs. Spend a good 4-6 hours intermittently chatting with friends online. I met many of my closest friends online initially, and some I have never met in person, which was a particular surprise to the older women at the intergenerational lunch.
Night: Settle into a chat room with a group of my friends. Chat till around 11 pm – 1 am until my eyes absolutely won’t stay open. Rinse and repeat.
Some observations: One thing I don’t use a lot is Facebook, though it’s a great tool for invitations and organizing contact information. I don’t read Twitter more than once a day, which means that I miss a lot. I was surprised to hear presenters this weekend talk about meeting people on Twitter. Meet? But it’s 140 characters! I met most of my friends through blog and online journal comments, communities specific to a particular interest, or OKCupid, an online dating site that I use to meet other queer friends and sometimes make dates. After making a connection, our primary contact is through IM. I also don’t use Skype or videochat, so my contacts are almost all textual. Sometimes when I do meet someone in person I’m surprised by how their personality is different, how they look, how they interact. I don’t know if it’s good or bad – just different.
A line between OCD and highly organized – where do you get your news?
I had breakfast the other day with an engaging woman whose company I quite enjoy. You might call it a date, but it shared characteristics with a successful therapy session. I recommend sharing a meal with a student of creative writing – they’re very observant, and far better listeners than myself, I suspect. The conclusion that my breakfast companion reached was a fairly obvious one, but not something I’d noticed before. Apparently I like order. Or rather, I really like order. So there’s probably some link between my feeling very good and accomplished about having packed twenty boxes already, carefully numbered to match a detailed inventory that indexes what’s in each box, and my habit of collecting thousands and thousands of recipes and “to read” books on my computer – just in case. “Just in case the Internet goes away?” she asked, incredulously. I shrugged. It could happen. Websites die, don’t they? It might be a little excessive, though, that after copying all the recipes into a computer program, I keep the old ones on a Word document and leave the newer ones in a special bookmarks program – just in case the computer program spontaneously crashes, and the developer has died. (I also keep the recipe file and the install file for the program, as well as the software license, backed up on an external hard drive.)
All right, so it’s time to admit it. I’m a control freak. When I try to relax more, I do it by controlling the control. I have been known to plan periods of spontaneity. But I’m okay with that. Here’s my question. My latest fear has been that I will miss the news, and be uneducated or ill-informed. I don’t have a TV, or time to read magazines or the paper, so my news comes from the Internets. Tonight, I admitted to myself that I really will never have time to read the New York Times or Le Monde in full, so I took them off my Reader, and I added the Daily Beast’s “Cheat Sheet” feature, as well as signing up for Slate’s newsletters so I don’t forget to check Slate. Any other tips, nifty programs, websites you recommend for staying on top of things?
A depressing thought: If I read a book a week until the day I die, I’ll still only be able to read 2,600 books. That’s less than my current to-read list.
The Right to Free Shipping
The other day I found myself buying a $23 cookbook in order to get free shipping on a DVD that costs $4.99, and it got me thinking about the absolute brilliance of Amazon’s business model. Let’s consider:
- Lots of stuff, relatively cheap. When I started using Amazon, they were only selling books, music, and DVDs. Now, of course, they have everything under the sun, and though about 70% of what I buy is books, their prices (and their free shipping – we’ll get to that, it’s a devious little cycle) make me check Amazon first for almost anything before I consider comparison shopping. I’ve purchased tea, cooking supplies, DVDs, and even the plastic wrap to weatherproof my windows from Amazon.
- The free shipping model. Okay, so once you have a shitload of stuff that people will want to buy, at reasonable prices for the most part, you start offering free shipping on orders over $25. We don’t really think about this, because it’s so ingrained now, but it’s freaking brilliant. With other stores, I’ll see a free shipping deal for orders over $40 or $50 and think it’s silly, too much money, and not buy anything at all (partly because of what I’ve come to expect from Amazon). But $25 isn’t bad. What’s more, for a lot of books, it’s more than the price of a book, but not much more, so you think “hey, if I buy just one more book, I’ll get free shipping!” Over time, you get hooked on this system, and you come to expect free shipping. So you do things like buy a $23 book to get free shipping on a $4.99 DVD. And what’s more, you stop comparison shopping, because other stores don’t offer the free shipping.
- Personalization. This is the nail in the coffin, and I admit that it’s been killing me lately. Amazon now has all these features – wishlists, listmania, personalized deals, recommendations, etc., that make you want more stuff, and then conveniently keep track of the stuff you want so that it’s available when you want to add an item to get that free shipping. Whenever I’m shopping and come up short of the $25, I go immediately to my wishlist, and find something to add, which usually brings me up to $30 or $35. Everybody wins. On top of that, when I get bored in class I start playing with recommendations, and end up clicking the fatal deals link, which gives me not only gold box deals (the culprit that made me pay $115 for seven seasons of the West Wing – but so worth it), but also personalized deals. I don’t think they actually cut much off the price, but they usually are pretty good, and I often find myself saying “ooh, 15% off? Gimmee.”
So good job, Amazon. You’ve converted a nice freebie into what’s practically an internationally recognized right. (You have no idea how painful it was to live in Ireland and be ineligible for free shipping on Amazon.co.uk.) I salute you.
Back from the Dead
…so to speak.
School is off to a roaring start. I’ve picked up a second research job that I’m very happy about, doing a combination of research into global administrative law and european legal philosophy and translation work from German to English. I’m a bit nervous about that piece, as I’ve never had translation training (though I’ve done a bit anyway). I checked out a book from the library on German-English translation method and am working my way through it. Classes are fine, and in fact the least of my worries. The journal is very much in full swing, and probably the hardest part of the semester to which I must adjust. We’ll see how it goes. I’m also nearly done applying for the Human Rights Watch fellowship. If you have fingers and toes spare, please cross them for me!
Today, I don’t have anything particularly intelligent to talk about, but I’d like to tell you about a couple of pieces of software I’m playing with. I’ve been using Sidenote for a while to keep my to-do list. Aside from the one devestating crash, which got me backing up much more frequently, I really like it. It’s a program for Mac OSX Leopard that hides off to the side of the screen and is invisible, but whenever you want it, you just scroll over and it pops up. It’s a decent little text editor, and you can have multiple files, so I have a general to-do and also a separate file for writing ideas. I’ve also had a little break from Suite, but those ideas are piling up so I hope to get back to it soon.
The second to-do type program I’m playing with is something called iProcrastinate, available for both Tiger and Leopard. It’s similar to Schoolhouse, whose interface I love, but Schoolhouse crashes extremely frequently, and I just can’t have that. iProcrastinate has fewer features, but it has the basics that I need – you can set up color-coded classes (or other categories; I have some for my jobs and the journal), add assignments for each class with due dates and priority, and create steps within larger tasks. It doesn’t have smart “playlist” style sorting like Schoolhouse (so you can’t, for example, say “show me everything due next week”) but that feature is useless if the program crashes everytime you enter something new. I also like that iProcrastinate has manual saving. Though my to-do list plan works well for me in general, it isn’t much of a big-picture (I tend to look only at today). With iProcrastinate, I hope to get a better idea of the big picture, and then use that to plan each day’s individual tasks out based on what’s coming up. I’m waffling about whether to use it on the laptop or the desktop, though. Since my Bluetooth inexplicably stopped working, I can’t synch the two anymore without a bit of a pain. Sidenote only works on the desktop, so it would be nice to have something that tells me what’s going on when I’m at school, but I also don’t like having to have two computers on at once. Meh.
Finally a quick note on iTunes 8.0. I heard bad things about the Genius feature, but my first attempt with it was pretty awesome. It took about 15 minutes to find all my music, and then I tried a playlist based on “Sons and Daughters.” The review I’d read said that you pretty much had to do pop music or it would find weird matches, but my guess is that either so many people turned the feature on in the past few days that the feature has improved immeasurably since the review was written, or that it just happens to respond well because I have so much similar music on my harddrive. The playlist it gave me includes artists like Andrew Bird, Neutral Milk Hotel, Sufjan Stevens, the New Pornographers, and Belle & Sebastien. “The Flow,” as my mix CD genius of a friend Emily used to call it, is quite good.
I don't get television.
I really don’t. I grew up watching television, and there were some shows I really liked as a kid – most notably, Full House, but also such gems as Cooking with Julia and The Frugal Gourmet. When we got cable, I learned to channel surf, because it was something to do. When we got a second television, my mother and I could channel surf separately, which was even better. When FOOD Network came out, that was my default, though I had a favorite show from time to time – The West Wing, then Buffy when I started going out with my high school girlfriend, and Lost for a brief time in college. I couldn’t quite imagine not having TV, but only because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. (I was not much of a book person as a kid, once I finished all two hundred and seventy or so books of the Babysitter’s Club series.)
In college, we had a huge television in our dorm common room, and that was good enough for me. When the mood to channel surf struck, I’d sit down and flip until I got bored again. Sometimes a group would be watching something and I’d join them, but not often. After all, I had the Internet. The Internet, for those of you who haven’t noticed, provides choice. It’s why I’m great at reading blogs and news feeds everyday when I could never read the traditional newspaper. You get to pick your topics. With TV, you might find something good on, or you might not. As an adult, I really don’t have the luxury of being so bored that anything entertaining will do. There’s an agenda.
People now are shocked when I say I don’t have a TV, but really, why? The fact is, you can get full episodes of The Daily Show free online. I think that’s true with network dramas, too. The downside is that there’s no Jeopardy! But to get Jeopardy!, I’d have to get cable, because they’re phasing out antennas. So that’s maybe two hundred dollars for the set, twenty bucks for the cables, another sixty dollars or more just for basic cable per month, and I wouldn’t even get the TV I really want. The only show I really care about is The L Word (which isn’t around for much longer anyway), and it’s on premium cable. I can get DVDs of that series, believe it or not, at my public library (Thanks, ICPL!)
But what I find really amazing about this whole free Internet thing is video blogging. Ok, granted, most video blogging is probably not all that great, but I have discovered an interest in pop culture in the form of AfterEllen. Blogs featuring people sitting around talking about what’s relevant to lesbians? Really? I watch Cherry Bomb, Brunch with Bridget, and This Just Out every week and that’s just fine for me. There’s only the occasional “web commercial,” and I can stop and pause and rewind. Plus, I can see a part of society that doesn’t really exist on television, and that makes up a big part of my life and personality. There are other dykes out there, I know, but visual representations of that community are few and far between. With AfterEllen, not to mention all the lesbian comedy and other awesomeness (Alix Olsen! Rachel Maddow!) on YouTube, I’m hard pressed to see why I should give Mediacom any of my hard-earned cash.
Wait, wait, stop, don't do that… you haven't planned it yet!
Lately I’ve been struck by technology more than usual. It’s amazing how many new devices, applications, and programs developers are coming up with to help organise our lives. As I hit this part of my life (early twenties) and my first significant memory loss, I find myself clinging to these problems. Strangely enough, I still keep a to-do list (as well as a to-read list, a to-watch list, and various other lists) in plain old Microsoft Word. I still keep phone numbers in my cell phone and e-mails in my gmail contacts, and I will never learn to keep track of addresses. Every holiday season, I find myself calling my mom saying “what’s so-and-so’s address again so I can write a thank you card?” But beyond these basics, I’ve found myself spending an ungodly amount of time just organizing and re-organizing my files in all these various nifty new ways. Here are a few of the devices and pieces of software I find useful, if you’re similarly inclined:
Google Reader: Speaking of sucking away time. On an average morning, three to four hundred new items show up in this RSS feed manager, designed to look like a gmail inbox. It’s the high-tech equivalent of reading the paper, but admittedly I really need to cut down, or I’ll never get to the actual magazine subscriptions that I’m actually paying for that are piling up on the coffee table at an alarming rate. I subscribe to the New York Times, Le Monde, the Financial Times (required reading for work that I never actually do because I’m not getting paid for it), a number of queer and feminist blogs, nearly two hundred food blogs, the Fail Blog, one of the LOL cats blogs, a few Mac updates, and some miscellany. I think I’m addicted, but I feel so informed!
YummySoup: If you have a Mac, and you cook, I really recommend this shareware. It’s $20, and it organizes all your recipes in a great visual format. It includes a shopping list and an alcohol manager, and allows importing from any website (read: foodblogs), not just a few popular ones. It’s not good if you need to keep track of nutrition, but it’s the best layout I’ve seen. The only bad thing is that my shiny new iMac is not in my kitchen, and so if I want to use a recipe that isn’t on the laptop I either have to e-mail the file to the laptop (not that big a deal) or remember it. The large print option is great if you do have a laptop, though. As a person with thousands of recipes to cook “one day,” this is making my life a lot easier.
ProVoc: This program has been “retired,” which means they won’t update it if you do find a bug, but the good news is that it’s free! It’s a flashcard program designed for learning languages, but you can use it for whatever you want. There’s a really nice training module so that you can practice your vocabulary. I find this invaluable, since I try to study my seven or eight languages as much as possible but have very little time. I can enter in new vocab on the weekends, then train myself in ten minute spurts during the week. There’s also an iPod feature, though I haven’t tried it yet.
Scrivener: This is a $35 shareware program for writers (Mac only), and I really like the format. I wrote my last novel on it, and though I did get the heebie jeebies a little about exporting, it does export well and has lots of features. You have to tinker a bit to make sure all your formatting is being preserved, and I had a bit of trouble importing my first novel into the program to edit it, but I figured it out eventually. It also has that handy “ignore the rest of the computer” function, which is great for ADD writers like me.
OSX Leopard: If you have a Mac with Tiger and are considering updating, I’d recommend it. Granted, I just got a new computer, and I don’t know how it would run on a smaller system, but I love the organizational features of this thing. You can have separate desktops, so that your personal stuff is on one desktop, your work elsewhere, and the porn hidden on desktop three. No, really! I also really love “Front Row,” a media program with a remote so that I can be lying in my bed working and select music (the font is rather large on the Front Row menus), change the volume, skip tracks, etc. I can also sit in my chair and watch DVDs as if I had a television.
iPod Touch: Okay, I got this for free, but if you’re thinking about iPhone because of all the nifty features and already have a phone, think about getting the Touch instead. AT&T will really rape you on fees, whereas if you keep your old phone you don’t have to pay a termination fee, you still have a phone, and you can use the Touch features free anywhere that has WiFi. It’s true that with an iPhone, you could use data features pretty much anywhere, but in my case it’s not that hard to find a coffee shop or a library if I need to jot an e-mail. It’s got a calendar, notes (shopping list!!), address book, web browser, separate YouTube browser, maps, weather, and of course the standard music-movies-photos trifecta. I only have 8GB, but that’s just fine for someone like me who doesn’t really need all their music on the iPod. With the AppStore coming soon, I’m hoping I might be able to get recipes on it, too.