Thursday, November 5, 2015

Online IS "in real life"

We seem to have a love-hate attitude to digital technology. On the one hand we're buying and intensively using all the shiny devices we can get our hands on but at the same time we seem to be terrified of them. Mobiles and tablets are often portrayed as dangerous obsessions that are killing human interaction and turning us into zombies. We all enjoy jokes about people gazing into their mobiles, oblivious of the world around them, and long for the good old days when people spoke to each other. It's easy to criticize but maybe we should consider what people are actually doing when they're looking at their screens.

An excellent article by Héctor L. Carral, Stop saying technology is causing social isolation, is the perfect myth-buster. When we see everyone on a train staring into their screens many people feel provoked, claiming that mobiles are enslaving us. Why don't we talk to each other anymore? But if we cast our minds back 30 years or so I don't remember any spontaneous discussions with fellow commuters then either. We all buried out heads in the morning paper or a book - what's the difference? I used to get really bored standing at cold windy stations or bus stops with nothing to do but gaze into space. Today I use that time to listen to wonderful music or podcasts, see how my friends are doing, admire photos from friends, take part in a discussion or check my e-mails. We probably communicate more than ever before thanks to digital technology.

My main premise is that I don’t think smartphones are isolating us, destroying our social lives or ruining interactions. I see smartphones as instruments for communication. Instruments that enable interaction on ways that just weren’t possible before, connecting us with people all around the world, via Twitter, instant messaging or other services. Some may say that if you want to interact with people, you should interact with the ones around you, and that is probably true on certain occasions. But, on other occasions, I’m just not able to comprehend why should we be forced to interact with those physically close to us instead of with the people that we really want to interact with.

One reason for this suspicion of technology is the fact that many still only use it for entertainment and passing the time. We worry that we are becoming passive consumers of trivial entertainment rather than acknowledge the active, communicative and creative opportunities of digital technology. There's also the idea that communicating with friends digitally is not "real" communication and becomes the opposite of "in real life". Somehow your online contacts are labelled as virtual or in some way "unreal". In the past people discussed anonymously in chat rooms using pseudonyms and with cartoon characters as avatars. Here you had no idea who you were actually talking to and it was understandable that this was not seen as real communication. However today we mostly communicate with people we know and use real photos and profiles of ourselves to establish trust. When identities are clear and trust is established online communication is definitely "in real life" and I can have just as intensive face-to-face discussions with online colleagues using tools like Skype as I can have if we were in the same room. I see their faces, eye movements and body language.

As digital literacies are developed so will our perceptions of online behaviour. When we make the leap from being consumers to being producers and collaborators we will hopefully lose these negative stereotypes that are still so prevalent today. It's time to drop expressions like IRL, cyberspace, virtual and everything beginning with e- and realise that it's all about real human communication, but using the opportunities offered by new media. 

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