Thursday, January 21, 2010

Saving Face

by Drew Martin

When I was in middle school, Sony's North America Headquarters literally landed in a field right on the edge of my home town like a sizzling UFO. This was when Sony held the same cutting edge status as today's Apple because their Walkman changed the way people listened to music; in a very cool and removed way.

Before the Walkman, music was primarily blasted from radios and out of car windows. It was pushed out. The bane of my mother's summers was the teenage neighbor's weekly car washing day with his radio turned up loud enough to be heard for a mile around. The Walkman made music introverted, more individualized, polite and quiet.

I did not have a Walkman but Sony influenced me in a much more personal way...we got the kids...the Japanese children of the transplanted employees. The one I remember the most was Hiroshi. I still see him on the first day of gym class in his brand new Puma shoes. He stood in the center of the basketball court, before all the boys, and asked us to hit him in the stomach as hard as we could so he could show us how strong he was. When he was about to leave, a year later, we all danced like crazy to Styx's Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto with him. It's no wonder I am such an indifferent laggard when it comes to technology because as long as I can remember gadgets have not affected me directly but have always been about their larger social context.

I started venturing into Facebook today for the first time. While I could write about a restored connectivity with friends since my email account was hijacked or, as I have set this writing up, about the larger social significance with the pros and cons of virtual friendships or crowd behavior, I think the greatest impact of Facebook will be subtler. We talk so much about introductions and reintroductions but very little about farewells. The importance of the reintroduction will wane as the opportunities for decades of absence are diminished by social networking. In terms of the farewells, how will uninterrupted messaging and "Skype me when you land" reduce the emotionally loaded goodbyes? Eventually, sadly, Facebook or something like it will play a role in the final farewell as we all age and lose those close to us.

It will be interesting to see how this generation of high school students will depart and keep in touch upon graduation. The American high school program is about specialization. Students are placed in classes for their levels and they switch rooms. This is a very individualized approach to education compared to a European model where your have a group of students who are together for four years and often in a common classroom with rotating teachers. When I taught in Eastern Europe I was surprised by the group dynamics this created. In America, students cheat for their personal gain and sometimes to help a close friend. In Eastern Europe the whole class cheated together in a kind of solidarity against the teachers. The social networking reminds me a lot of the European classroom setting. So while we may also talk about the pros and cons of group actions, we are usually talking about just that...the actions as opposed to a new philosophy silently and unconsciously being explored, which is questioning the motives of the nascent packs.

My only comment to add about the virtual world is paraphrasing the painter Francis Bacon who said the purpose of art is to return the viewer more violently to reality. How profound is that? Is the purpose of our virtual worlds to return us to life with more better spouses, lovers, friends, parents and citizens so we can relish what is real and tangible in our lives?