Wired to Connect

I read an interview recently in which someone said “The brain is wired to connect with other people.” Now, the fact that we are social beings, that we crave the company of others and create our identity at least in part through our interaction with others is the sort of thing that is they teach in Sociology 101.

However, this line stuck out to me in part because of its context and in part because of its diction.

The interview was part of a series of interviews with leading progressive media makers, thinkers and activists and had a decidedly “new media” tone with an emphasis on new technology and social networks. In this context this idea takes on new contours than simply saying “we are social beings.” In addition, this context makes the speakers words – her way of saying this – particularly poignant. We are not just social beings, we are “wired” to “connect.”

In addition to the author’s context was my own context. I was reading this interview as my plan lifted off, launching me into my first overnight travel since my son was born. So as I read about how we are wired to connect I was physically disconnecting with my family, my home, and quite literally with the ground itself.

It was this very active disconnection, I suspect, that made this line resonate with me in a particular way. I found myself thinking back to the days after my son’s birth last fall. My wife had had a c-section and so we found ourselves in the hospital much longer than we expected, and while we were able to move about a bit 90 percent of our time was spent hold-up in our hospital room learning how to be a parent, staring in awe at our son, or trying to catch up on sleep.

In those days Erica and I hungered for connection with the outside world, with friends, family and other parents. We both commented on just how strong this urge was to seek out others. In the hospital and at home for weeks afterward we found ourselves constantly updating our Facebook profiles, I was Twittering and updating my Flickr stream while Erica sent emails and made phone calls. It was remarkable how we at once cherished the way that the hospital’s quiet isolation allowed us to bond with our baby and at the same time were starved for community beyond those walls.

Sitting on that plane, reflecting back on those early days of parenthood, I recognized the way those digital communities served a concrete need to connect, but I wondered about the long term ability for these new digital communities to fulfill the role of community in our lives and how these new forms of community are changing the way we negotiate our individual and collective identity.

Benedict Anderson equates our collective identity to an “imagined community,” one that is woven together through the media we consume. At the time Anderson was most concerned with newspapers, but I wonder how his ideas hold up in our digital era. Anderson’s assertion was that no country or nation could ever be anything but imagined because there would never be a way for each of the inhabitants to meet and know each other truly as a community. Instead, we imagine ourselves as a community through our shared experiences of shared cultural artifacts – like the newspaper.

When we sit down to read the newspaper, we imagine we are one of a nation of people reading about these same stories, these same issues. Media companies foster this notion by attempting to speak to and appeal to “the public” which they define as uniform and homogenous thereby erasing difference and projecting a unity that is not there.

It turns out I am not alone in thinking about Anderson in terms of the shifting ways we interact with information and each other on and offline. In a post on his blog Savage Minds Chris Kelty summarizes Anderson’s points about newspapers much better than I can:

“What makes newspapers central to nationalism is twofold: first, the arbitrary juxtaposition of stories (famine in Mali one day, sports in the US the next, an inauguration the third) creates the imagination of a community united in “homogenous empty time” such that “if Mali disappears from the pages of the New York Times after two days of famine reportage, this does not mean that Mali has disappeared or that famine has wiped out all its citizens. The novelistic format of the newspaper assures them that somewhere out there the ‘character’ Mali moves along quietly, awaiting its next reappearance in the plot”(33). Second, the production of newspapers as a reliable commodity whose form is familiar (“one-day bestsellers” he calls them) means that large numbers of people “imagine” the same world, and expect others to be imagining it with them.”

Kelty is remembering (re-reading actually) Anderson and thinking back to when newspaper were just going online and becoming digitized, and the then possibility/now reality of people being able to slice and dice the news so they get a personalized stream of information (think RSS feeds instead of newspapers). He writes:

“What makes the digitization of news significant then, and the advent of personalized news feeds and RSS readers troubling, is that it is now possible to imagine that my version of the New York Times is not the same as your version. Or more generally, that my sources for news are giving me an entirely different picture of the same phenomena or events or issues than yours. As such what is troubling is not that I fail to be confronted with things I don’t necessarily want to see (as the critiques of personalized news suggested), but that we can no longer imagine ourselves to all (“all” in the sense of a national public) be reading (or not reading) the same newspaper. Instead, we have introduced the possibility for a very large number of partially overlapping imagined communities.”

If this “very large number of partially overlapping imagined communities” doesn’t describe Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other, than I don’t know what does. And while my own gut harbors some of the same fears that Kelty dismisses above, regarding the fact that I think the juxtaposition of diverse news can help draw attention to important stories that otherwise people may have avoided, I also recognize that those diverse stories were all filtered through the lens of profoundly monolithic gatekeepers. Now, instead, the news I get is often filtered through my diverse contacts and friends which can have the same effect of juxtaposing diverse stories across a range of platforms. There have been numerous times when a friend has suggested an article on Facebook I never would have stumbled upon otherwise.

It is ironic that these platforms that have been designed to connect us, to feed that part of us that is wired to connect, also ends up atomizing the information we interact with. However, that atomization doesn’t disrupt the power of these cultural products to create imagined communities. Instead, it fractures and diversifies those communities in ways that are not simply problematic or productive, but always and already both.

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