At USC a few weeks ago, professor Bill Nye, popularly known as “the science guy” on TV, collapsed on stage out of exhaustion as he prepared to give a lecture. Instead of helping him, many students in the audience took out their cell phones, snapped photos, texted and tweeted.
It would seem that our 21st century response to an emergency is not necessarily to interact, but to record it.
The earthquake in Sichuan, China in 2008 was made more dramatic because a high school student ran down the stairs of a collapsing building while recording everything on his cell phone. He emerged in time to record buildings collapsing about him, killing his classmates, and his footage brought millions of hits -- beating the professional reporters who came to the scene by a few days.
“The entire world [has become] news gatherers – some of the most extraordinary events are reported by ordinary citizens,” Chris Cramer, global editor of multimedia at Reuters, noted at a media conference Athens in December 2008. He spoke of a sea change in the world of media and journalism, citing the coverage of Saddam Hussein’s execution by a prison guard with a cell phone. The video was viewed around the world. “I think every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, by ordinary people,” Cramer predicted, “and not by traditional journalists on the scene.”
As he spoke, Athens itself was erupting in protests. Young people used social networks like Facebook and Twitter to rally tens of thousands of people downtown. Inside the hotel where the media conference took place, traditional journalists cried mea culpa. None of the protesters, it seemed, had bothered to inform the newspaper reporters of their protest plans.
Generations have been raised on video games, spent the bulk of their lives in chatrooms and on YouTube, on cell phones and iPods. They have been conditioned to invest the bulk of their emotional life in the virtual space. And many have learned to split their attention, with one eye on the electronic mirror, and the other on reality.
Diaries, once hidden under mattresses, are now online in the form of blogs and vlogs. Private moments – the whispers of bedroom boudoir – are inverted and bared for all to see, blurring the border between public and private.
As humans, we are beginning to believe that we do not fully exist without some sort of electronic imprint in the virtual world, a digital projection of ourselves.
I tweet, therefore I am.
Wafaa Bilal, a photography professor at NYU recently implanted a camera in the back of his head as part of an art project. The camera will broadcast a live stream of images to a museum in Qatar. On his skull, the real and the digital converge, and the real is photographed for the benefit of the digital.
Narcissism and voyeurism have become the drivers of the digital world, a mirror of our own.
According to The Economist, the latest trend is “self-tracking,” and a market for these devices is rapidly emerging. Two start-ups are selling wireless devices that can track people's physical activity, while another company has created a device that measures brainwave activity at night to chart their sleep patterns online.
“People around the world are now learning how to leverage the incredible power inherent in the URL to create what is essentially a parallel universe of digital identities,” noted Robert Young, an Internet entrepreneur. But in this new industry, he observed, “the raw materials for the ‘products’ are the people… the key is to look at self-expression and social networks as a new medium and to view the audience itself as a new generation of ‘cultural products.’
Through the digital world, people can attain real power. Erstwhile unknown singers and performers can become famous practically overnight with a well placed YouTube video. And an army of young, able-bodied women and men make extra income by performing sex acts in their own bedrooms that are broadcast through their webcams.
In the digital world, an individual can become an important actor on the global stage. A single person can mobilize tens of thousands to protest or, as in the case of Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, undermine entire nation states by showing their dark underbellies.
Assange was the readers’ choice for Time Magazine’s Person of the year, while Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was the magazine’s pick. “The social-networking platform he invented is closing in on 600 million users,” the magazine noted. “Facebook is now the third largest country on earth and surely has more information about its citizens than any government does. Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout, is its T-shirt-wearing head of state.”
Perhaps it’s too early to tell the long-term effects of an oversaturated information age on human evolution. But according to the New York Times, “Scientists say the constant use of computers and cellular telephones is causing a significant, evolutionary shift in our brain’s wiring.”
Perhaps the most troubling consequence of devoting so much attention to the virtual world is the death of empathy. Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, told the New York Times that empathy is essential to the human condition. However, given the virtualization of the real world, and tendency for many to multitask, “we are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”
Which may very well explain the reaction of students at USC. The real event is no longer as important as its virtual image, which can be relived online. No one doubts that communication technology has enhanced humankind. But it comes with a price. The Wachowski brothers’ seminal movie Matrix, made at the end of the 20th century, in which humans are enslaved in a simulated reality, was a warning of things to come. But it seems a new epic is due: Bored with reality, humans are now migrating voluntarily to the allure of the virtual world. And as we migrate, we may just be leaving something precious and irretrievable behind.
Andrew Lam is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." Listen to Andrew Lam's interview on Forum KQED: with Michael Krasny.
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