Thursday, November 20, 2008

The social context of Internet publishing


If I were a parent with teenage kids, a high priority as a father would be that they (or he or she) be able to understand what is going on in the world on their own, without needing others to prompt them to buy things. At about seventh or eight grade, a young adolescent should start to grasp what the adult world will demand of him or her, start developing some interest in more adult goals. Gradually, the learning accumulates to the point that the teen can start to connect the dots as to what is going on. The earlier someone learns this, the more welcome school and academic challenges will become.

There are two pieces to this. One is, of course, education as we are used to conceiving of it (including education from parents). But today, with technology changing rapidly and social norms also being tested, people have to be able to anticipate that serious challenges to their lives can develop from the outside world very quickly. We’ve seen all kinds of examples: oil shocks, financial scandals, pandemics (including STD’s and HIV), 9/11, natural disasters (Katrina, wildfires, etc), and most recently the financial Panic of 2008. Schools are stressed, but they probably need to spend more course time in social studies than in the past, because social problems have become more uncertain and complex. And schools need to teach students the legal and ethical issues surrounding the Internet, and most school systems are not equipped to do so without asking for more help from Silicon Valley companies.

The other piece is the information itself. Gradually, the web (and the “semantic web”) provides the structure not just for looking things up but for cross referencing them and for seeing the trends and implications of developments. It encourages a certain intellectual self-sufficiency. No longer does one depend on a religious, business or familial “power structure” to determine what one will know or believe. The political value of propaganda and special interests decreases, and “the knowledge of good and evil” can be achieved.

Today (Nov. 20) the New York Times has a story on the “National Page” by Tamar Lewin, “Study Finds Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Isn’t Such a Bad Thing,” link here. The “free entry” Internet went from a forum for publishing, discussion, and perhaps business or political self-promotion to social networking, a development that brought the online and physical worlds together and broke down walls of “privacy” and “ownership.” What social networking sites reinforce is the idea that the “transparency” of information (so much discussed now during the fiscal crisis) includes an awareness of the source. They remind us that structure and “power” in social relationships still matter, particularly when people have to do things they otherwise wouldn’t “choose” to do, just to get along or to manage.

That brings me back to “implicit content.” The advent of social networking sites a few years ago made people sensitive to the purpose or motive behind people’s postings or content. For example, if a high school principal goes to see the movie “Elephant” (Gus Van Sant), she will probably say “it’s only a movie”, however horrific its premise and content. But if a teacher in that school had authored the same screenplay and posted it on her own personal domain and let if be found, she’d probably be gone quickly, and maybe even get questioned by the district attorney. What people make of things (and “reputation”) is creating problems that we are not close to having an ethical or legal handle on.

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