Disruptive Technology Meets the Immigration Imagination
How Do We Know if Social Media is a Positive, Negative or Neutral Force?
Posted Apr 30, 2013
One can look around any city or town in America and find evidence to support the argument that new digital technology is truly dangerous to the human condition. Good examples range from obesity and onset diabetes linked to the sedentary entertainment habits of young children who incessantly play video games, to incidents of distracted drivers causing fatal collisions while selfishly texting on cell phones at high speeds in busy traffic.
My first, real emotional response to the widespread use of digital technologies with negative consequences for the human race occurred in November 2010 when the L.A. Times reported that Bill Nye the Science Guy had fainted on stage during a seminar lecture at USC. I remember thinking to myself, “At least he’s not dead!” But by all accounts he well could be dead if it had not been for his own resilience and self-recovery. No thanks to the throng of profligate young co-eds attending the lecture.
Sadly, as reported, not one person in the packed crowd of digitally sophisticated university students lifted a single finger to help the sick man as he slumped to the floor— in plain view of all, no less—unconsciously unaware of his plight. Instead, a myriad of millennial fingers in the school hall that night received messages from cerebral reward centers more interested in updating Twitter and Facebook feeds—and that’s what they did.
While the Emmy award-winning science educator lay unconsciously beneath the podium in need of their human intervention and medical assistance, USC science students, by the hundreds, chose to take his picture with their digital devices and engage in remote social networking, assisted by new technology to inform their friends, rather than to show immediate social concern for a dying man.
According to USC senior Alastair Fairbanks who attended the lecture, "Nobody went to his aid at the very beginning when he first collapsed -- that just perplexed me beyond reason. Instead, I saw students texting and updating their Twitter statuses. It was just all a very bizarre evening."
Even today, more than two years removed from the initial event with Bill Nye, I am still at pains to wonder, “What the hell is this? What is this negative, terrible thing that has become of a single generation under the misguided influence of a new technology that causes people to become so jaded, so uncaring and cold to the human condition? Is there anything positive that social networking devices can offer human beings in the hope of increasing our capacity for caring and not to reduce it? Or are we all just hapless victims of this socially disruptive technology?”
From my position as a distance learning pioneer and curriculum developer for a leading graduate school in three states, I was clued in to the academic debates surrounding the advent of early Internet use in the late 1980’s through the mid 1990’s. During this time, author and media critic Neil Postman once raised the question whether technology is a neutral force in and of itself. He was inclined to believe the contrary, contending that technology is always charged in one way or another, to the positive or negative, and we ignore this reality at our peril. “Technological innovation is not the same thing as humane progress.” He once said in a taped interview just prior to his death in 2003. "New technology can never substitute for human values."
After speaking at length with Dr. Postman on the phone in March of 1990, and asking him to explain his position, I still chose to disagree with him only insofar as my commitment to human, free moral agency is concerned. I am a big believer in redemptive remediation (the ability to learn from one’s mistakes) and the human capacity to choose good over evil in reasonable measure.
But while I’d like to think of technology as neutral, I can’t escape the fact that some people choose to use their gadgets—their smart phones, laptops and tablets—as distractions from the here and now, from the physical relationships and real communities right in front of us.
It’s hardly a stretch to say that the more access to social technologies we have achieved, the more isolated we have become. That much is true. We are “connecting” virtually, without question, but ironically we are falling away from physical, psycho-social (and sexual!) connections that are becoming increasingly more foreign to our digitally tempered sensibilities.
And this is where I agree with Neil Postman: in his apposite observation that our definition of what constitutes a community has changed with the introduction of digitally delivered, remote-access social networking.
In the same taped interview mentioned above, Postman makes a brilliant comparison between the defining characteristics of a physical community, say, in the 18th century and an Internet chat-room community of antique car enthusiasts or human resource consultants “gathering together” online in the 21st century.
The participants in the physical community from the 18th century, he points out, were not only defined by their differences, but were even more so distinguished by their social capacity for negotiating, in real time and space, the terms of agreement necessary to resolve disputes related to those differences.
By comparison, the online world of “my chosen social network” vs. “your chosen social network” is defined by our power to choose who and when we will allow others to interact with us. (Distinctive caller ringtones, voicemail, caller ID, and the all-important “unfriending” Facebook function have given us this power.)
I further agree with Dr. Postman when he suggests that the “online” community is not a “real” community in the physical sense and spending too much time there can have deleterious effects and consequences for any generation that fails to acquire the social skills, moral sensitivities and self restraints thereto appertaining unavoidable human confrontation.
From an evolutionary biological perspective, participation in the real world social community has an immediate impact upon centers of cerebral function (especially the amygdale housed within the temporal lobe). And the long-term political consequences of a digital generation of “social networking” communicators who, likewise, fail to develop brain centric patterns of social control related to this function can be disastrous. (To find out why this is important, check out David DiSalvo’s book, What Makes your Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite.)
Now, it would be easy to become jaded about disruptive technologies if we left the analysis right here. So please permit me to relay a wonderful and new social insight that I have recently experienced which portends a future filled with people who can actually enhance the old-world sense of community—a physical community defined by those who can peacefully negotiate their differences as Postman defined it—while simultaneously harnessing the social networking capabilities of disruptive technologies to a positive use.
As the fates would have it, for the past five years I have become a willing fixture in the thriving Armenian immigrant community in Los Angeles, California—one that extends with richness and vitality around the world proudly boasting a continuous 6,000 year history dating back to the earliest record of humankind in the central Caucuses near ancient Mesopotamia.
This vibrant, robust community has taught me many incredible lessons over the years, and having become an honorary member—a multi-generational American kid from “back east,” with a mixture of Scots, Irish, English and German ancestry—I proudly consider myself now to be ABC: Armenian By Choice.
Most recently, I was invited to attend an 18-hour long, protracted Armenian wedding gala, filled with ancient and ethnically relevant Christian traditions unique to the Caucasian Hyestanzi. It was during this event that I learned to appreciate in a profound way, contrariwise to Neil Postman’s predisposition for pessimism, that technology need not be the negatively charged tool that unhinges community, but instead can be a welcomed and indispensable tool pumping rich, red blood into real communities, which only makes them stronger.
From dawn to dusk, and on past midnight, this large and extended family (of 85 plus) car-pooled and caravanned, house to house, in manic ritual fashion. The energy was palpable at each staged event along the way, from Hollywood and No Ho, to Burbank and Glendale, back home to Hollywood and then to the closing reception in Glendale again.
Live music with drums, horns and pipes filled the air. Rhythmic, controlled dancing with uplifted arms attended each stop and food lined the walls. Vintage Armenian cognac and Russian vodka swelled in the bellies along with the food, and children ran beneath the legs of swaggering adults.
More than once I witnessed this adult or another chasing down a small child to commandeer a state-of-the-art smartphone (ostensibly being used by the younger to play video games) instead to be used by the elder as a video capturing device—or so I thought.
Upon closer inquiry, I learned that many of the cell phones at each stop were not recording video at all, but instead were being used to Skype live streaming video back to Armenia and Russia, connecting distant relatives to the ritual family events taking place in Southern California. Especially at the bride’s house and later at the reception, I witnessed small wars being waged between children who wanted the phones for game-playing diversion and the adults who were committed to preserving the community traditions by forcing the children to participate in the group function.
In one case I saw a bargain struck between a six-year old child and his grandmother who was Skyping live stream with her sister in Yervan when the boy wanted to use the device for gaming. The grandmother, in her infinite warmth and wisdom (as only a grandparent can possess in such selfless measure), negotiated with the child and finally gave him the iPhone under the condition that he carry it around as a camera introducing his great-aunt to other family members at the reception (which he did, to everyone’s delight and to his own satisfaction).
I, too, was invited to participate, and I made every effort to appear cool and dignified as I waved sheepishly, yet respectfully, into a small plastic screen filled with smiling faces and gleaming white teeth belonging to “Morkurjan” and several other people I did not know, half a world away, in a former Soviet state.
Yet, having survived this ritual marathon of profound cultural importance to a foreign-born people I have learned to love and respect, I am suddenly struck by my inadequate store of English vocabulary needed to describe the phenomenon.
Lately I find myself asking more questions than I have answers for, like: “What is this life force that animates and sustains the will of an alien people to live this way in America? What causes foreigners like this to pursue a brave, new distant world filled with freedom, promise and danger—and simultaneously to preserve old world customs in the face of a globalized tsunami of pop culture simulacra and disruptive technologies that symbolize little more than a passing digital montage of banal abstractions designed to pacify, numb and distract?”
I would assume that my European ancestral kin centuries ago (long before the postmodern distractions of iPads, video games and cellphones) were similarly animated by such cerebral impulses when they first left home to reach American shores. But what is the science behind this observed phenomenon? What shall we call it?
In service to brevity, reason, and the reader’s enduring patience, I will simply call this magnetic life force of creative adaptation to foreign lands the Immigration Imagination. By this term I mean to explicate one aspect of the neuro-narrative intersection of biochemical brain function where observable patterns of metacognitive human awareness meet with observable patterns of cultural behavior to imbue civilized immigrant culture with values that separate them from the rest of us who have forgotten (or, in fact, who have never experienced) what it means to be sufficiently satisfied as self-actualized and valued members of a society rooted in history.
While I must credit my new Armenian family with the inspiration for coining such a phrase as the Immigration Imagination, I can recall witnessing this phenomenon in others. For example, the parents of my Hungarian American-born college roommate possessed it and tried to pass it along, but he has since lost it. My Indian-born American friend in Covington, Virginia still possesses it, but readily admits his struggle to pass it along to his children.
My orthodox Jewish friends in Ft. Lauderdale, FL still possess the Immigration Imagination, as do my Persian, Greek and Brazilian friends in Herndon, VA, Philadelphia, PA, and Sarasota, FL, respectively. Sadly, my American-born friends of Italian, Canadian, Scottish, Irish, English, and German parents tell me stories of their parent’s and grandparent’s possession of the Immigration Imagination, but none that I can tell still carry it. I know for a fact that I and my 5th generation European immigrant siblings and cousins NEVER possessed it although our forebears did—otherwise how would the have come to this continent?
Although it is beyond the scope of this article to support the assertion that a correlation exists between specific kinds of cell phone use and the mental health of an individual in relation to this or that community, it is nevertheless my opinion that American consumer culture has become synonymous with instant gratification, and the way that many of us use handheld digital technology for person fulfillment only reinforces this unfortunate stereotype.
Similarly, when some individuals disrupt community functions to “take a phone call,” or others passively abandon the larger group to use mobile technology for solitary and self-gratifying purposes—while remaining in physical proximity to the group—such activities can have a disorderly, distracting and destructive impact on the social fibers of togetherness that make communities strong.
From a moral, philosophical perspective, this type of self-serving behavior has far-reaching social implications and may explain why the number of community-starved Americans who report being lonely has sharply increased since the advent of Internet technology in the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s.
Furthermore, the work of Yale scholar Stephen Darwall reinforces the notion that the quality and value of human interactions (like participating in a family wedding ritual) rest, at least in part, on the individual’s capacity and willingness to accept moral obligation for acting constructively and fairly when relating to others.
Occupying an authoritative space—what Darwall calls the “second-person standpoint”—everyone shares the same inalienable right to give reasons for wanting others to make certain changes in their behavior that affect the group. Darwall writes in his book The Second-Person Standpoint,
“Second-personal reasons are invariably tied to a distinctively second-personal kind of practical authority: the authority to make a demand or claim. Making a claim or a demand as valid always presupposes the authority to make it and that the duly authorized claim creates a distinctive reason for compliance (a second personal reason). Moreover these notions all also involve the idea of responsibility or accountability.”
Contributing to the research-based psychological sciences, Harvard trained psychiatrist and UCLA professor Daniel Siegel, M.D. makes a good case in his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation for expanding current thoughts on Theory of Mind to include the notion that individual brain structures develop in direct correlation to the quality and character of social interactions. Here Siegel uses the term “emergence” to describe neural linkages (inside our brains) that are dynamically and permanently shaped as a result of our relationships and interactions with others.
Dr. Siegel is clearly suggesting here that there exists evidence rooted in hard neuroscience to support the notion that “I” is not “me” as previously held; rather, “I” is “we.”
“The mind (is) an emergent property of the body and relationships [and] is created within internal neuro-physical processes and relational experiences. In other words, the mind is a process that emerges from the distributed nervous system extending throughout the entire body, and also from the communications patterns that occur within relationships."
Even in the Republic, when asserting that the strength or degradation of a society is reciprocal in nature with the health of its citizens, Plato made the existential/political case for individuals to take personal responsibility for preserving the common good.
Returning, then, to my example of the Armenian elders who insisted that younger members of the group participate fully, and attentively in the day-long list of wedding rituals, one can see how the individual behaviors of members in one group can lead to the preservation and strengthening of their shared culture while inferring from the possibility of the opposite that individual behaviors of members in another group can lead to the neglect, abandonment and eventual death of their culture. In short, it comes down to the well-worn adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it!”
How curious it is then to have had this unexpected experience of the Immigration Imagination intersecting with disruptive digital technology to reinforce my 20 year-old disagreement with Dr. Postman on whether or not technology is a neutral force. While, on the one hand, I still cannot find fault with his contention that “technological innovation is not the same thing as humane progress,” I also cannot relinquish my commitment to free moral agency and the shared human capacity to learn from our mistakes—the ability to choose good over evil in reasonable measure.
In the end we are all responsible for the well-being of others and the commonwealth benefits from the goodwill of all. As a magnetic melting pot of many historic flavors that continues to trigger the Immigration Imagination in millions of distant minds attracted to our shores, the United States of America is already home to countless foreign tongues that struggle to tie our common culture to the rituals and customs of the past.
Without question, the minority rights of each new generation of American-born, immigrant children to perpetuate the culture of a family’s origin are protected by the U.S. Constitution. But the ability to enjoy the richness and value of ancient traditions lies in the will of each new generation to preserve and pass them on. Having witnessed first-hand the will of some Armenian parents to manage disruptive technology in this adaptive capacity, I am now aware of how easily it can be done.
How fortunate I feel to have met up with the Armenian people who actively choose to enhance the old-world sense of community—a physical community filled with reasonable participants who can peacefully negotiate their differences as Postman defined it—while simultaneously harnessing the social networking capabilities of disruptive technologies to a positive, culture-preserving use.
I am not sure whether Neil Postman ever witnessed the use of disruptive technology in a setting of such strong immigrant communities. And although he died before I could ask him, I have hope that he would have agreed with me that grandmothers using smartphones to connect children with their aunts at great distances (while they dance at family weddings!) is an immensely positive and well-managed use of digital technology—but only so because it supplements the nonnegotiable core of community.
Indeed, this is one conversation I would enjoy having with anyone open to the discussion. Because nothing should concern us more in the 21st century than the extreme implications of raising another generation of American teenagers growing up with digital tablets and smartphones who are more inclined to take our pictures for posting on Facebook than they are to help us, or even to dial 911 when we fall.
Donald Wilson Bush is a pioneer in distance education who writes about the global convergence of politics, science and technology, researching the effects on society evolving at the crossroads. He is also a published professional cartoon illustrator and public speaker. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and Forbes. He lives in Los Angeles, California and Virginia.
Bill Nye the Science Guy fainting at USC
Neil Postman's position on technology
Neil Postman taped interview
Book: What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite
Book: The Second-Person Standpoint
Book: Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation