Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Marley's Digital Chains

The first time I read Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it wasn't so much Marley's ghost that bothered me, it was the chains.  OK, the rag that tied his mouth shut was pretty creepy too, but mostly I had a problem with the chains.  I was too young to realize that it was an existential thing - that I was undone by the notion that, no matter how sorry he was, those "chains of sin" would follow him forever.  As Marley said:

"I wear the chain I forged in life, I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

No matter his current regrets, he was going to haul those chains around with him throughout eternity.  It just didn't seem fair.

The same, it occurs to me, is true about the strands of text, image and experience we "make link by link of our own free will" out on the Internet.  No doubt, all those links seemed good decisions when forged, when we hit post, link, send or tag.  Each link was a momentary insight, a fleeting truth. But they grow heavier by the year, and we cannot shed them, no matter how sorry we now may be.

Actually, we cannot shed them even when we are not sorry, we cannot shed them when they are simply outgrown and inconvenient - like Uggs in a ballroom.  I came to that realization when I began my experiment with Google+.  I quite liked the idea of an upside-down version of Facebook, where the small group took precedent over the revealing hoard.  So I created a "circle" that contained only the graduate students who served as graders for my large undergraduate courses.  I flung open the door in anticipation of a cozy chat with a group of young scholars who shared my interest in online education.

In walked a member of the team, a bright and delightful young man, who was also a Google+ power user.  Trailing behind him was a chain ponderous beyond all imagining.  Posts and responses from utter strangers stretched off to the far horizons.

"Please leave those in the hall," said I.

"I cannot," said he, quoting poor Marley, "They are my business."

Well, I let him in anyhow.  But I wasn't wild about the idea.

Surely there is some simple way to strike off Marley's Chains when we enter the theoretically more cordial environment of Google+?  The idea was, I thought, to advantage the small, the private, the constrained. Yet still we hit "share" and forge anew these schizophrenic chains, condemned to drag their babbling voices behind us into any "Circle" to which we are invited.  What's more, they do not fit into the room, you cannot bar the door.  The chains stretch out, posting and re-posting time out of mind.

"This is just between us, " you say.

"Right," says Marley. "Strictly 'entre nous'"

"Got it," say his chains.  "Under the hat"

"Mum's the word!"

"Shhhh," "Keep it down!"  "Cool it!"  and so on around the world.  

Rude at best, creepy at worst. 

And Marley's Chains stretch far back beyond today's sexy new "social media." Old email, papers written and published online back when you were far more certain and foolish than you are today, programs from conferences you wish you hadn't attended.  All our digital faux pas clanking along behind us. It is not so much my own chains that trouble me, though a quick Google search reveals them significant in their own right.  Still, I have labored on Marley's Digital Chains for a mere mite of my life.  I was already 45 years old when the digital forge leapt to fire. Hence, many a callow and foolish link lay forgotten amidst the dust of analog attics.  Letters, notes, diaries, poems and photographs were abandoned - with only occasional regrets - to be swirled away by the insistent winds of time.

Time was when time was forgotten.  But that was the world before bits and bytes.  I read, with the same blend of fascination and horror we bring to train wrecks and natural disasters, of parents setting up Facebook accounts for their children in utero.  An ultrasound image anchors the profile of the unborn.  I swear, I wake up sweating.  But Marley chuckles, smashing away at the forge: "They're gonna love this at preschool."  These are the chains that worry me.

I have nothing against memory, though, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I prefer her more forgiving twin, memoir.  But the Internet's blind fidelity to "that which was entered" crafts for us all trailing tails of Marley's Chains.  Yes, some are chains of our own making, but others are struck by those beyond our ken, the creation of an unknown "friend" of a "friend", yet still permanent.

In closing let us turn again to Dickens:

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change."

Perhaps we should consider departing from some of the courses down which we follow our Internet guides.  Perhaps every thought should not be given voice, perhaps some images should be restrained, perhaps some video should remain private, some music "thumbed" neither up nor down.  Perhaps, since we cannot break them at our leisure, some chains should be left un-forged.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

iThink, therefore, i.

I consider it irrefutable evidence of the universe's sense of humor that such an uppercase individual will forever be associated with the lowercase i.  I empathize with what must surely be his family's joy, as he steps out of the limelight to rest a bit before the hearth.  And I hope that he has years of inspiration yet to share from his new perch as Chairman of the Board.

Still, Jobs has to feel a bit like Tom Sawyer today, hearing all these almost eulogies while still firmly abroad in the world of the living, hiding in the gallery.  And he certainly has the ego to enjoy them.  Who wouldn't?

If I were to get a few words at the funeral, before Steve revealed himself to the startled congregation, I would dwell on the significance of the lowercase i.  Jobs has, no doubt, long realized that when you decide on a product all by your lonesome, and when don't "test market" it to catch the mood of the herd, when you insist on doing it your way, and when you are right as often as he is, well folks are going to get a bit testy.  Nothing irritates us like someone else's success.  I choose to believe that this is where the whole lowercase i concept came from - in Jobs's inherent feel for marketing. IBM, the first company to play Goliath to Jobs's David, pointed the I to the company - "I B the Man."  So with the iMac, the ancestral i, Jobs pointed the i to the user: "i'm just here for you."  And somehow i became us.

But i might be wrong, mightn't i?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Respect in Disrepair

Respect seems a crippled concept in contemporary culture, becoming, in some ways its own antonym.  The Godfather provides at least a cinematic history of this inversion.  "I am sorry. What happened to your father was business. I have much respect for your father."   But that respect will not prevent me from sending him to sleep with the fishes.  Or we can move from gangster to gangsta by spinning the dial to any of the festering "reality" programs and hear something like, "Diss me again and I'll kick your 'bleep!"  Spin again and we find C-SPAN with our "leaders" engaged in partisan bickering that makes it clear that they would not recognize respect if it jumped up and bit them in their "bleep."

It was not always so.  My wife and I were watching The Conspirator last night, the movie about the trial of Mary Surratt, accused of participating in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.  The film's reviews are mixed, but even those who found it somewhat pedantic are in agreement as to its attention to historical accuracy and detail.  In the 1860's lawyers always buttoned their coats as they stood to address the court. Even when that particular court had forfeited its claim on respect, you showed respect for the notion of the law by buttoning your coat in the presence of the court.  To do less reflected poorly upon you.  Etiquette, manners, were and are the external manifestations of respect.

I am concerned with the current Alice in Wonderland treatment of etiquette and respect because, quite simply, learning cannot occur in an environment devoid of either.  We sit atop the food chain not because we are big or strong or fast.  Rather we are there because we can construct culture.  We can define rules for civil behavior that say "Look, I extend an open hand.  I smile.  I will not kill you and eat you.  Let us talk, let us learn one from the other."

The notion of respect, of manners, of etiquette have been a little slow out of the gate when it comes to the whole area of mobile technology.  I was glad to see Mark Zuckerberg don a suit and tie for the G8 conference last year.  The iconic hoodie-wearing CEO of Facebook Nation demonstrated respect for the forum, and in so doing affirmed that etiquette and manners have a place in digital culture.

But what is that place?  I will admit, to affirm a meme from the Chairman, it's complicated.  The ability to be in constant contact gives rise to situations that did not exist in the pre-cellphone era.  Birth, death, tragedy and joy can - of an instant - flash from around the world into the palm of our hand.  It seems foolish to ignore information of such import.  To do so would be disrespectful - and we answer, we attend.  But then, far more often, the trivial, the banal, gains the same access and is awarded the same attention.  That, too, is disrespectful.

So what are the rules?  In flux no doubt, but I would like to propose some starting points:

The person present takes precedence.
  The individual with whom you are face-to-face, the person I see, takes respectful priority over the person I cannot see.  I will maintain eye-contact, I will not blatantly, nor surreptitiously, text the remote, intruding other.  To do so is simply bad manners.  If the remote message is truly of such import that it must interrupt the face-to-face then I will apologize - sincerely - and remove myself from the face-to-face environment.

The world is not your phone booth.
  There was a time in the paleotelephonic age when, not only were there phone booths, but they had doors.  The doors affirmed the notion that telephone calls were private.  We tend to assume that meant that people shouldn't eavesdrop on our conversations.  In the digital age we seem to have forgotten that it also meant that we should not inflict our conversations upon our neighbors.  Remember, your freedom to broadcast your conversation extends only to the point where it intrudes upon the freedom of others not to hear your conversation.  Speak quietly.  Better yet, take it outside.

Yes, that means you.
  I read a story recently about a group of passengers who broke into applause and cheers when some public transportation personnel forced a woman - who had been yammering into her cellphone for several hours - to leave the car, which was plainly labeled: "Quiet Car.  No cellphones or music players permitted."  The woman should be glad that applause and cheers were the only things broken.  There are obviously still soft spots in mobile communication etiquette, but when someone takes the trouble to create and clearly state "the rules of the game," read them, follow them.  They mean you.

I agree.  Those seem like common sense assertions, despite the extent to which they are ignored.  Yet "common sense" means commonly shared, common knowledge, commonly accepted good manners.  The way your mother raised you.  And maybe that is the problem - many of our mothers never had a cellphone.