The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: digital

Digital Citizenship

Now that he’s out of public office, former President Barack Obama has been going more public with some of the causes that carry special meaning for him, as has his wife Michelle. To be clear, he’s not calling for an increase in the quantity of people to expand but the quality of how they utilize their online resources to better their communities, their countries, their world.

Recently the Obama Foundation issued a challenge to better examine digital citizenship – its potential and pitfalls. The positives everyone is aware of: broader engagement, developments in real time, massive education opportunities, and the ability for everyone to have a voice. But the former president is worried that a whole negative side is emerging from these advantages. As he put it to college students recently in his hometown of Chicago:

“We now have a situation in which everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them. Rather than expanding their viewpoints, or perhaps even changing them, millions are instead surfing the Net for those things that affirm what they already believe. Obama believes this is happening, “to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.

As a result, the Obama Foundation is focusing less on digital participation and more on what it terms “digital demeanour.” So it asks its online website visitors to answer some basic questions at the outset:

  • Who’s a model of digital citizenship in your world?
  • What habits to do you want to change about your online life? What’s one simple thing you could do to improve your “digital health?”
  • What people or organizations do you think exemplify digital citizenship when it comes to questions of embracing difference – of thought, identity, or any other variable that you value?

This all sounds great, but Obama has been increasingly voicing his concern over those online trolls and haters who use the medium to blow up their communities instead of building them. And some troubling new research is validating his worries. It’s not just about the fact that Internet can bring out the worst in people, but that such individuals desire their worst to be on public display.

Researchers from the School of Health and Psychology at Federation University at Mount Helen (Australia) discovered that, though trolls may indeed possess a certain sympathy for a subject or group of people, never turn it all ugly and vindictive as a result of their psychopathy. They are astute enough to know what really hurts people or brings out the insecurity in others and use those traits as they engage in online activity. Many hold to important causes like climate change, equality, poverty, race, etc., but their real desire is to harm others. In other words, their hateful state of mind overpowers their care for such causes in a way that it destroys any hope of collaboration or solidarity.

The research concluded that, “creating mayhem online is a central motivator to trolls.” Moreover, research also confirmed that trolls were likely to be high in sadism and have a strong desire to hurt others.

Research like this is something Obama and his foundation are closely following, for good reason: such individuals are relentlessly are looking to destroy others online at the same time as they purport to believe in valued causes – like citizenship itself. Obama knows well enough that most citizens avoid such caustic voices. The problem is that those naturally inclined to collaboration, goodwill, or compassion remain silent to such a negative online presence. The former president is increasingly calling for citizens who care about their community and their country to emerge from their hesitancy and denounce such pathological behaviour, just as they would if it happened on their street or in their business or school. Digital citizenship means little if it can’t be guarded or defended.

The poet Robert Frost used to say that key to preserving freedom was the courage to be bold. This is what Barack Obama is calling for. But the time will come when we will have to speak out online and denounce those who demean, malign and destroy others online. Compassionate opinions build solidarity and understanding; malignant opinions are a cancer leading to death. Obama thinks the time has come for us to join in the former in order to defeat the latter.

Identity – Digital Soul

pixelated faceThe London Free Press had a feature article this past weekend on our digital identity, aptly titled “Our Digital Soul”.  There’s more to come in the next couple of weeks but this first installment was about the reality that there’s a lot more “out there” about us than we realize.  Sensors in various places pick up our facial features, voice characteristics, fingerprint identification, even odour, sweat and how we walk.  In other words, who we are is increasing becoming digitized, our “soul” supposedly no longer our own.

The article dealt primarily about digital identity as it relates to security, but we all know it descends far deeper than that.  A recent report by the British government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, reasons that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, even on-line gaming, are not only changing how people view us, but how we perceive ourselves.  Interestingly, his report was titled “Future Identities” and highlighted how different our world is going to look like just 10 years from now.

Beddington figures that the most important trend that will determine our identity is what he calls “hyper-connectivity”.  Sounds good, until we discover that his research had concluded that all this “connection” could actually result in communities becoming less cohesive.  While the Internet provides for untold opportunities to connect with others online, it can easily result in encouraging social exclusion.  In other words, I don’t have to really see someone to connect; I can just text.  Convenient as that may sound, and is, it actually goes against millennia of socialization that prompted humans to require face-to-face contact if communities were to be established.  It was harder to remain anonymous and easier for others to perceive the sincerity of those they were encountering.

The identity paradigms are shifting underfoot.  In the wording of the report:

The changing nature of identities will have substantial implications for what is meant by communities and by social integration.  The study shows that traditional elements that shape a person’s identity, such as their religion, ethnicity, job, and age are less important than they once were.  Instead, particularly among younger people, their view of themselves is shaped increasingly by online interactions of social networks.

The study outlined some conflicted findings.  While the Internet permitted many to hide who they truly were, for others, especially the marginalized, they were allowed to escape the preconceptions of the age.  Those fighting disabilities, for instance, quickly learned that being online meant that people didn’t notice such challenges.

Something that became readily apparent in the report was the blurring of work and social identities as people’s personal lives became more public through the use of social networking sites at work.  Ultimately, that’s a good thing.

The drawbacks also became clear in the report.  People with ulterior motives – criminals, trolls, hackers, molesters, for instance – could hide behind their fake digital fronts and create social dysfunction.  Remaining hidden or anonymous also permits political polarizers, bigots or prejudicial people, to sew significant levels of social discord within a community.  Without face-to-face encounters it remains even more difficult to understand a person’s true intentions or motives.

Our digital identities are what we make of them.  But if we want to build our communities, social networks will prove pivotal in the coming decades.  If all we want to do is mix it up, sewing the seeds of purposeful discord, then it will remain difficult for communities to move ahead through the digital domain.  Lurking behind a person using Facebook to open up to the broader community lays someone else choosing to keep him/herself anonymous.  It will be difficult to maneuver our way through such contrasts.

Beddington points to the remarkable solidarity displayed during London, England’s 2012 Olympics as an example of what can happen when people put their better angels on display on networking sites.  Yet he points to the same city’s 2011 riots as an example of the destructive force of the digital domain.

One thing remains clear: while a decade ago Time magazine boasted of the new “Digital Democracy”, it has not yet arrived at the point where it structurally is lifting our political systems for their current malaise.  Most Canadians possess little of the kind of knowledge that makes for an informed citizenry, and only some of them possess the skills necessary to negotiate between all the images and propaganda besieging their minds everyday.   Those most savvy with the new technologies – Canadians under 40 – often adopt an anti-institutional bias (church, government, politicians, corporations) that effectively removes them from the very influences they need to motivate in order to bring about the reforms to which they aspire.

Social networking on media sites can permit our identities to remain in isolation, even as we communicate, yet our digital soul doesn’t represent who we fully are.  If the networking features of the digital world don’t succeed in bringing us together in ways that matter then we remain remote identities residing in our communities. It’s as Robert Frost wrote: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows”.  Our communities await our “coming out”. Sometimes it is in letting go of the limitations of who we are that we become what we can truly be. Unless our digital identities lead to human contact and growth, we shall ever be isolated and society will remain unreformed.

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