Connected Enculturation

Hello fair and faithful readers, today I’d like to talk about culture, freedom, and human decency. Oh, and of course the internet.

I’m going to start by pointing you here, where Laura Hilliger talks a bit about web literacy. The key phrase that sent me off on the tangent I’m about to unfold for you was: “Web literacy is not about technical skill . . . it’s about citizenship, it’s about participating, it’s about embracing and spreading the ethos of open culture.” Now in my thesis work at the moment I am buried in thoughts about identity and community, so I was primed to think about the necessity of a connected culture. The way I see it… Culture is the answer to some of the questions brought up over the last few weeks about the balance between complete freedom and personal accountability.

The web is a funny thing because its greatest strength, freedom, anonymity, inter-connectivity, is also the source of its most serious problems. I look at cases like Megan Meier (and to be honest, when I googled “online bullying suicide” the list of results was a bit horrifying in its scope) and I see one of the unfortunate results of the very things about the internet that we celebrate. The freedom to interact with others that the internet affords does not carry within it a regulatory component, which means that the nature of those interactions will run from the very positive to the extremely negative. Additionally, the ability to communicate anonymously, or even just safely outside of punching range behind a screen, carries with it a greater temptation (or if you’re an optimist who believes in the essential goodness of people, an easing of the inherent reservations towards causing harm due to that same distance) to be a jerk to people. In short, if you know you can get away with it, why not mess with people?

The kneejerk reaction to that sort of scenario – particularly among Snailmailers* – is to eliminate the cause of the problem. Cracking down on the complete freedom, anonymity and inter-connection of the internet would make it more difficult and less attractive to be a troll, after all. Unfortunately it would also hamstring the web itself, creating some perverse monstrosity in its stead. So we return to the double-bind, the things that make it good also make it evil, this is starting to sound like a parable for the human race…

But lo! Do not despair! There is a solution, of sorts, and like any good compromise it is ultimately dissatisfying on some levels. The solution is the enculturation of the online population. It is through teaching, and embodying, certain ways-of-being online that we can defang the trolls of the world. First, we must create a cultural force that directs people towards behaving decently to each other online even when they don’t have to. Exterior force, such as the legal system or swift kicks to the shin provide, is a popular way to encourage people to act decently, but this would corrupt the very nature of the open web. Instead we must create social mores, expectations of behavior, and structures of self-perception that internally motivate people to act decently. Rather than not trolling somebody because she could get arrested for it, the Online Citizen needs to be at a point where she doesn’t troll them because she sees herself as a person who does not troll. We must tie the cultural identity of the online citizenry to a set of moral values that are appropriate to, and recognize the temptations of, the new freedoms and affordances of a connected community.

That said, I am truly a cynic at heart, and I am under no illusion that this inner morality will be a complete solution. However noble the cultural framework of a society, some psychos will always slip through the net. This necessitates the second major aspect of this connected enculturation, self protection. Part of learning to be an online citizen must be the process of developing an understanding of how to control access to your private information, relationships, and life. We are still in the first few generations of truly connected humans, and these brave pioneers have had to learn the hard way what it means to be safe and secure in this environment. Hopefully the painful lessons learned in the last few decades will be passed down to future generations, to whom securing data will be simply be a part of life. The practice of protecting one’s information, gating it at different levels depending on the sensitivity of its nature, needs to be bound up in the cultural identity of the online citizen. The same sort of values, mores and expectations that dictate how you act toward others, must also dictate how you manage your own information.

It boils down to a balance between self-protection and respectful behavior towards others. The common element in both of these ideas is that you cannot rely on others to accomplish them. No one can force you to protect yourself, nor can they force you to be the sort of person against whom others do not need protection. Both of these things need to come from within, and we can encourage, or discourage, the growth of these inner virtues through the nature of the culture that we as online citizens embody on a daily basis. It is not something that can be easily measured, we cannot set precise quarterly targets for cultural construction, but what we can do is constantly embody the ideals that we need to pass on to the next generation. To paraphrase the Mahatma, we need to be the culture that we want to see in future generations.

*What should we call the landlubbers of the internet age? Or are we too mature to coin a pejorative term? Probably the latter if I’m going to follow my own advice…

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