Minding the fine virtual line in a borderless world
The Jakarta Post -- WEEKENDER | Thu, 01/29/2009 6:07 PM |
Some friends and I were chatting recently about the global financial crisis and its effects on Indonesia. One guy firmly believed there would be none, because there is no mortgage problem here and most Indonesians don’t invest in the capital market. I argued that globalization made it impossible for virtually any earthling to stay untouched by anything happening outside their borders.
He was just launching into his counterargument when his laptop fired a “ping”. Wait, he chuckled, someone just posted me something on my wall. Soon he was buried in the world of Facebook. When I had to leave, he just waved and muttered something about me needing to register on networking sites so he could keep tabs on my goings-on. He kept his eyes focused on the screen as he spoke.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the situation.
For the remaining naysayers, listen up: globalization has arrived and is here to stay. For the often ill-informed or ignorant believers, be aware that it has brought some more baggage, and that for each posh Louis Vuitton trunk, there is another piece of nondescript luggage potentially as nasty as Pandora’s box.
Take the crisis. It started at Uncle Sam’s grand house of cards, quietly took down Baby Stearns, Aunt Fannie and Uncle Freddie, ravished Brother Lehmann, Sister Merrill and Cousin WaMu, and then quickly infected shaky Wall Street houses before spreading into unsuspecting houses on Main Street and World Streets. Welcome to the Global Village, population 6 billion.
Self-reliance may work to some extent, but completely rejecting globalization is delusional. No country can efficiently produce everything to provide sufficiently for its citizens, as no country can effectively run its economy without foreign citizens playing some part.
The relatively self-sufficient Eskimos face an ecosystem going awry, thanks to climate change inflicted by the rest of us. And self-professed West-haters al-Qaeda rely on the Western-invented Internet to spread its propaganda.
Which brings me to what I find most discomforting: that the Pandora’s box of free information is much uglier. We can control the movement of goods across borders, but regulating the information stream seems futile.
The Web’s massive capability to store information and connect people has created a perpetual thirst for new information and instant gratification, which birthed the 24/7 news cycle and the Blackberry. It also fosters the primal human traits of curiosity and recognition, accounts for the rise of blogs and YouTube, and creates a world where reality shows triumph over regular TV.
Networking sites such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook are the natural outcomes of all of the above.
What seems to have been conveniently forgotten in this euphoria is that regardless of how many ways we can get connected, the number of messages a human being can receive, process or relay in a given period has limits. Thus, consciously or not, people prioritize their information sources and outlets. The question is how wisely they will prioritize.
The Indonesian execs still busy parading their new Blackberry may not know yet that the developed world now has the Crackberry phenomenon, where people have become so addicted to the device’s connection they are at a loss when cut off, including in communicating with other human beings. I’ve seen a group with their laptops, sitting in silence, each busily updating profiles on networking sites, instead of just directly telling each other about the new flame acquired last weekend. Or the angry wife who chose to air her marital dirty laundry on YouTube, including the details of hubby’s bedroom antics, instead of going about it the old-fashioned way through divorce papers.
These kinds of things are quite harmless compared with what those aged 20 and younger – who never knew life without the virtual world – have gotten themselves into. A CSI: NY episode told the story of a young serial murderer who couldn’t separate herself from her hired assassin avatar identity. In an eerie twist on life imitating art, there were recent reports of a wife divorcing her husband who couldn’t forego his avatar’s girlfriend whom he had never even met in real life.
There is also the story of the 14-year-old who felt so lonely when her MySpace crush dumped her that she hanged herself. Or the boy who arranged his suicide in front of an online camera, while Netters nonchalantly discussed the unfolding scene before someone with some sense alerted the police, who sadly couldn’t make it on time.
Most chilling of all are the maladjusted people in search of an identity and place in the world who, instead of pushing their comfort zone to engage with the surrounding society, or using the Web to develop a healthy lifestyle, withdraw to cyber groups that offer twisted ideologies cloaked in false camaraderie. Campus killing spree and suicide bombings, anyone?
I support the rights to free speech and access to balanced information. But in this borderless virtual world, only we can exert discipline and accountability on ourselves. Barack Obama might have pioneered a Web-based campaign that garnered unprecedented grassroots support and donations, but now he’s trying to find the best way to balance normal life (email for him, Facebook for his daughters) and the risks of high connectedness for people in their position.
The same cautions apply for us mere mortals. My new business venture uses networking sites for promotion, although I personally opt out. My friends and associates come from various walks of life, too endearingly idiosyncratic to be put on a one-dimensional page, and what I like to share may well be different or irrelevant to each subgroup of fellow writers – my belly dancing friends, yoga community, ex-roommates, former classmates or business clients and associates.
Still, it hasn’t stopped my old pictures and what I considered private conversations appearing on other people’s sites for strangers to observe freely.
The guarded manner with which I dispense the information is also different from others’, an aspect often overlooked in work emails and other communications. In my consulting gig recently, I worked with a bright talent who lost a job offer because of overly familiar post-interview text messages, despite my advice that formal correspondence is the best communication method with future employers (if SMS is the only option, then it’s still best to keep the language on the level).
It’s a borderless world, true, but it doesn’t have to be mindless. And that part is up to us.
+ Lynda Ibrahim