Living a Facebook life in a Google world
(Or "How the Internet crashed my party.")
by Preston Swincher '09
Updated: Friday, August 28, 2009
Preston Swincher, who graduated in May, was an Honors entrepreneurial management and theatre major.
The summer I turned 22 I had a few friends over to celebrate my birthday while my parents were out of town. Afterwards, I scrubbed that house until it looked like Mr. Clean himself had been there with a bottle of OxyClean and a ShamWow. And — to my credit — when my folks walked in the door my mom commented that the house was actually cleaner than it was when they had left. But after a few minutes of talking, my dad suddenly turns to me and says, “So, how was the party?” And I got that feeling I used to get in my gut when I was 6 and my parents would call me by my full name and I knew I was in trouble but didn’t know why.
In order to not make the same mistake twice, I turned and asked, “How did you know?” Do you know what he said?
“I Googled it.” Seriously! My dad Googled my party!
Welcome to parenting in the 21st century.
My topic is “Facebook life in a Google world.” My emphasis today is on the words that I feel are the most important in the prompt: life and world. I’m going to talk about how social networking and other Web-based phenomena are reshaping the way that we interact with each other, and the way we interact with the world on a very fundamental level.
But before I hit the globe, I’d like to start with us: the Internet generation. My mother likes to talk about how, at the ripe age of 12, she could take public transportation — with strangers and no parents — to downtown Fresno to play around. She had no cell phone, no means of reaching her parents, and was expected to be home by nightfall.
The Internet generation is different. We are a generation raised to be afraid of skinning our knees, told not to bike farther from home than the end of our own driveways, and told explicitly not to talk to strangers.
However, we are social beings. In order to grow and develop we need to mingle and interchange ideas among minds foreign to our own. We were told not to talk to strangers, and now we post private information on the Web, for any stranger to see.
Social networking is my generation’s cultural reaction. It is our way of reaching out, of creating our self-image by sharing ourselves with a world that we have been meticulously sheltered from.
Let’s talk about my favorite manifestation of behavior stemming from this new way of reaching out. It’s called Facebook stalking: the art of procrastination through looking at pictures of and reading about friends that you either see everyday or will never see again.
I love it when people complain about time wasted on Facebook. The Internet generation is filled with busy people — we answer more phone calls and make more decisions every day than any generation before us. The standards of what is expected of us to be competitive college candidates as high school students continues to rise.
We are busy, yet saying we are addicted to Facebook is like saying a gambler likes horses. Our problem is not the horse, but what we get out of the experience. Therefore I am proud to say that our problem is not Facebook, but each other. As social beings, we are so busy that we would rather look at pictures of or read about our friends than do anything else. Every hour ‘wasted’ on Facebook tells me that we still care.
And so we wisely spend our time sharing information with the Internet. We’ve given freely of ourselves, posted our hopes, dreams, current statuses, and problems all in one place. We of the Internet generation really believe in fair exchanges, and so now we expect something greater in return.
Our information is a microcosm buried within a larger, more profound free-information movement. Time’s person of the year in 2006 was You, citing the countless contributors that have given time and knowledge to the Web, creating e-phenomenen such as the blogosphere, YouTube, and Wikipedia. The Web is like the godchild of Gutenberg and Shrodinger’s cat: when you print something on it, there are as many copies as there are observers.
And now all of us are printing things on the Web. We are reaching out, and we are not waiting for permission or orders to do so. Volunteers are building the most comprehensive, accessible encyclopedia in the world. We are educating each other, putting information out there so that human curiosity is the only limit to learning.
The Web began as a collection of simple gifts — a few private how-to Web pages — but has now evolved into large collections of shared knowledge. We have these massive Web sites like Wikipedia, but we want it at the price of the early Web pages. We want it all for free. I’m proud that we feel entitled to free information. We get disgruntled when someone asks us to pay for anything on the Web. We want the entire world delivered, in 3-D with paperless billing, shipped to our doorstep and we won’t sign the UPS guy’s clipboard when he gets here. Although we may compromise if it’s digital.
We don’t need the institution when we can deliver on our own. Peer-to-peer file sharing is delivering music, open-source software is assaulting Microsoft’s hold on the market, Skype is threatening the telecommunications industry, and Wikipedia has already replaced most major encyclopedias.
We’ve delivered free information, free messaging, and even free entertainment. You could go to Hollywood; or you can join the 77 million people who have found joy in watching a baby in Sweden laugh on YouTube.
We are delivering, through social sharing, a system I like to call global-grassroots — the Internet oxymoron.
Global-grassoots has given us an expectation that is driving demand for a Web-based world, and the market economy is scrambling to keep up with us. Our entire society is scrambling to keep up.
All the information that is used to run our complicated lives, from social networking to social security, from private lives to private enterprise, is being systematically digitized. It is a really profound yet scary leap.
Consider this: when you surf the Web, everything you see is completely man-made. If the U.S. went out like Pompeii, we could dig up all the computers we could want, but the Internet would instantly become an item of legend. We’re making a shift, a shift from that which is tangible to that which can only be viewed on a screen.
I liken it to when ancient man first realized that his life was so complicated he started poking clay to keep things in order. Our lives have overtaken our means of keeping in touch with each other and of keeping organized, so we will live and breath this technology until it becomes seamlessly integrated into our lives.
What do I mean by seamless integration? I mean that technology is increasing the accessibility of the Web. Everything is going to get physically and metaphorically smaller. My desktop will lose its top and just be a desk. I won’t be a username I’ll be a user: for what’s in a name when the computer knows who I am? And the World Wide Web is going to ditch a lot of excess and just be the world. The Internet generation doesn’t want to be wireless, we don’t want to be wiremore. We want to be wired.
Let me tell you about a desk. This desk has been invented. The entire surface is a touch screen that senses up to ten points of contact. When I don’t want to work on this document, I’ll shrink it and push it aside, pull out pictures of my loved ones and stretch them out so I can see them, let my work surface get cluttered with excess loved ones.
It’s like the “Minority Report” for kids instead of Tom Cruise. Same thing. No more keyboards or mouses, because holding data is much more intuitive. By the year 2015 we should have human-level linguistic user interfaces. I’ll be able to talk to my computer just like in “Star Trek,” except he won’t be called computer, he’ll be called Al, for the guy who “invented” the Web, or Fred, because Mr. Rogers is nice.
Then when I want to work on this document, rather than type on a clunky keyboard, my computer and I will have a conversation. Kids at school will quit crumpling up wads of paper to throw at each other because it will be much more gratifying to scoop up a big pile of data and watch it explode all over your classmate’s desk — and he’ll say, “I was studying Argentina but now Egypt’s exploded all over my desk and Cleopatra is wrestling with Eva Perone. And I’m terrified of coming between strong women.” And if nobody else finds you funny, the computer will appreciate the irony and laugh at the joke.
Another technology is being developed at MIT as we speak. It is a device about the size of a cell phone that hangs around your neck. It costs $300 to produce and makes use of only off-the-shelf electronics. It houses a small camera and a small projector unit, and communicates with the Internet via your cell phone. It’s called the 6th Sense, because it lets you interact with data stored on the Internet in an incredibly mobile and intuitive way.
Let’s say I’m shopping at the grocery store. I pick up a roll of paper towels. The camera recognizes the product I’m holding and compares it to purchases I’ve made in the past. It then projects information straight onto the paper towel rolls, telling me that I typically purchase cheaper products, and that I would probably prefer a cheaper single-ply product to a triple-ply product and that I should set this Bounty down. Unless I’m cleaning my parents’ house.
If I draw a circle on my wrist, it projects the time. If I go like this [he forms a rectangle with his forefingers and thumbs], it takes a picture. Walk up to any building on the street, and I can project a map of my current location.
Our senses relay information to us about the world around us to help us make decisions. The 6th Sense is designed to give us access to the collective experience of humanity as found on the Web.
Take this a step further. If the Internet can recognize an object for what it is, how long before it can recognize a person? How long before the Web knows who I am and what data belongs to me and who my friends are and where I live? The laws of physics and nature recognize my body as taking up so much area in space, and soon computers will recognize my person taking up so much data on the Web.
The air I breathe will be the files I own and the words I utter will be the signal I send across cyberspace. The line between that which is real and that which is digital will become so fine that we will not be able to discern it until we reach out to touch it.
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Consider this: I’ve had three different physical addresses over the past four years. But I’ll tell you what hasn’t changed: my cell phone number and my Facebook page. In the quantum age, we have shirked the Newtonian notion of location in an absolute framework of time and space. We no longer seek to find each other based on where we stay, we seek each other where we will be, and move in relationship to each other.
I won’t write you a letter or come a-callin’. I’ll send text to the palm of your hand, place my voice in your ear, because seeing and hearing you will be as easy as saying, “I miss you.”
When all that stands between us is a few words, we’ll be as close as the vibrating air permits us to be, and suddenly the technology will connect us so seamlessly that it will disappear. When we are linked closely enough, technology will cease to be a means of communication clouded with barriers, but will instead be a pure conduit for ideas that is just as authentic and effective as talking to someone face-to-face.
Now take a step back. My two most important words are life and world. Let’s talk about the world in the World Wide Web. Governments can work hard to connect governments, but it takes people to connect people. Global problems require global focus in order to be solved, and democratic governments cannot address long-term global issues when their people get bored of the issues at hand and forget about them.
The Internet is the engine that is shrinking the world. Already we are beginning to casually connect with people all over the world. I learned to make Thai fried rice from a YouTube video filmed from a guy’s kitchen in Thailand. I had no idea what he was saying, but an egg cracking in Thailand is the same as an egg cracking in the United States.
My roommate’s grandmother shares pictures of her grandchildren with a Danish woman she met through an online bridge-playing community. They will most likely never meet, but they are best friends. I got over my fear of British children by watching Charlie bite his brother’s finger. And if you want a slightly more profound experience, go to YouTube tonight and look up genocide, or Darfur, or watch our soldiers in Iraq, witness child slavery in Haiti, fighting on the Gaza strip, and what life is like in North Korea — the most isolated country in the world is still represented on the Web.
Free dissemination of information can create transparency and accountability. We are in a world that is so vast and filled with issues so complex that it is impossible for one person to fathom it all. It is hard to know what to believe when the media presents everything in many different lights. The Internet recognizes that the world is not made up of news reporters or politicians or celebrities; it is made of normal people like you and me who are struggling to make something of themselves. People post their lives on YouTube and on Facebook and on the blogosphere where they have equal opportunity for their struggles to be heard.
The anonymity of the Web, however, is showing us where our struggles have lead us astray. Young girls join anorexia support groups in the blogosphere, where they receive support — not to recover — but to push each other to look like the celebrities they see on the Web: women whose images have been so air-brushed that no amount of starvation can achieve their look.
Soldiers from Iraq post their experiences on YouTube, glorifying killing by setting graphic videos to popular music. They call it ‘warporn’ and every example of it serves only to dehumanize the people in the world that we most desperately need to learn to talk to. Free dissemination of information creates transparency, but not necessarily accountability. Without caution, we will teach each other our mistakes.
The world is filled with human problems that we try to correct with technological solutions. We try to fix these people with governments and weapons and rules and television and all sorts of consumerist inventions. It is my hope that the Internet will allow us to finally present human problems with human solutions, for when that pure conduit of communications draws us together so seamlessly that the only thing at the other end of the line is a voice and not static, a person and not a statistic, I’ll get my news from a neighbor and not from a news anchor.
The Internet generation is going to put Shrodinger’s cat into Pandora’s box, shake him up until he’s good and mad and set him loose; let human curiosity on the wide Web fuel human outrage in the wider world. Then we will see change.
The human heart may not hear statistics, but it does hear voices. It sees faces. And we will put a human face and a human solution on every problem when our neighbors are not defined by geographic location or color of skin or by religion or creed, but by common interest and common humanity. The Internet is drawing tight the wire that connects us all, and when we are all shoulder to shoulder, we will not be able to ignore the problems of humanity.
The Internet is going to let us all crash each other’s parties. And when those without answers ask, How did you know? Do you know what we will say?
We are the Internet generation, and we want the world. And we want it delivered.
Thank you for your time.
Preston Swincher, who graduated in May, was an Honors entrepreneurial management and theatre major. Contact Swincher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web:
Video of Swincher's speech
The Honors Program Oratorical Competition produced two other excellent speeches from Matt Buongiorno ’09 and Darren Ong ’09.