paralysis through overconnectedness

Several thoughts have been percolating over the last few weeks, from a bunch of different areas. Here goes a pretty random braindump to try to get the thoughts together…

I just watched the documentary No Impact Man, and a conversation between Colin Beavan and Mayer Vishner struck me. Mayer was talking about how Colin’s project may be harmful to the cause of environmentalism, and suggested that the only reason the project was being given any attention was because nobody thought it would make a difference. That if the project was really going to be challenging the status quo, and specifically in a way that harmed the players in the hegemony, that it would be ignored until it faded away.

Near the end of the documentary, Colin is giving a speech to a group of students. He says that if we each can only do one thing, it should be to volunteer with a community organization. Because, as a society, we have lost our sense of community. We don’t feel any real sense of accountability to anyone, which is what has led to our society of consumption, greed, and unsustainable growth.

What if Mayer’s perspective applies to education as well? What if these amazing projects and people are only getting press because they aren’t a real challenge to the status quo. They are fringe experiments, which can be co-opted by corporate interests, akin to greenwashing by companies – the “eco plastic bottle” etc… What if our personal sense of revolution is nothing but fodder for corporate adaptation?

What if our ease of connecting with large scale networks hinders our ability to engage with human scale communities?

What if visualizing the entire planet as a connected, giant community renders it simultaneously opaque and falsely transparent? We let ourselves think that we are connected to everyone, but in reality it is only on a meaningless, superficial level.

What if we are no longer connecting with each other, for the sake of “connecting” with “friends” (whether online or face to face)? This doesn’t necessarily rely on technological connection. I remember someone saying (I can’t remember who, or when, or in what context…) that the photograph that was taken by the Apollo 11 astronauts as they looked back at the Earth was the first time that humanity was able to perceive of the global context in a real sense – seeing the entire planet in a single image made it seem small and fragile for the first time. It appeared small, from the perspective of a spacecraft traveling faster than anyone had ever traveled before. But back on Earth, at human scale, it’s huge. The dissonance between the two perceptions becomes problematic.

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We see global issues, events, problems, and can’t possibly imagine that anything we do as individuals could impact that, so we feel powerless, useless, disenfranchised. And when we do try to make a difference, we see that co-opted and corrupted by corporate interests.

What if the combination of individual’s isolation from their environment (500 HP 3-ton metal boxes with roll cages and 19″ rims, plastic earbud cones-of-silence…) and superficial connection at industrial scales (friending, poking, networking…) renders us unable to feel effectively engaged or empowered at the human scale?

Why do people behave in sociopathic ways when they are insulated from their surroundings?

On my street, all of the houses are fronted by double-width garages. Cars rush through the street at 60km/h, whisking their occupants inside before the metal door automatically encapsulates the residents, safe from exposure to the neighbours. Walking along the sidewalk, it feels like being stuck in a giant strip mall. Industrialized manufactured sterility. Only rarely do you spot another person, and even then it is only fleetingly, with no more than a quick nod exchanged in passing.

We do the same thing with our classrooms. And offices. We isolate by design. We delegate responsibility to amorphous, imaginary Others.

We have designed our society to function this way. Can we design our way back out of it?