28th June 2007
The serendipity of the past few weeks has been coming across a number of debates and discussions about blogging (well I have met a lot about depression and mental health too, but I am probably attuned to see these even where they don’t exist!) and indeed ‘net life’ as a whole. These debates seem to fall into two broad camps..
1.) The value of blogs/net sources (eg: Wikipedia) as against print resources (eg: literary journals). One might term this as professional v amateur, although this would be simplistic as some blogs are the products of professionals. I will leave this topic alone on this occasion although it is a fascinating one. Clearly it is mainly concerned with the content of the blog/web-site rather than the effect upon the blogger, but there is some spill over into…
2.) The positive or negative (largely negative) effect of the net upon ‘society’ or at least an individual’s social life and interaction. This, as I pointed out from a personal perspective on 22nd June, can then run into questions about an individual’s psychological health.
The argument is predicated upon the premise that it is ‘better’ – morally, socially, politically, psychologically – to engage in ‘real life’ activities than in net activities. This is a classic case of a premise going unquestioned and therefore slanting the argument from the beginning. It also, of course, is a sweeping generalisation mixing all kinds of net activities (blogging, reading lists, gaming, chat rooms, pornography, You Tube and on-line Art Galleries together) together (and indeed all kinds of ‘real life’ activities for that matter). I doubt whether anyone could argue that there is a Universal Rule – that shooting up heroin in ‘real life’ is better than writing a blog for instance. I would certainly not argue the reverse (that net life is better than ‘real life’ in all cases).
But it is the assumption, that ‘real life’ is better, which needs to be questioned first. On what basis is that claim made? In what sphere (the moral, physical, social, psychological, political etc.) does it lie? I am not trying to deny that in some spheres it has some validity; I would particularly identify the political where the net is often used by politicians as an evasion, a means of avoiding contact with those who vote for them (or those who’s votes they desire). There is no substitute I am sure for ‘real life’ organisation – getting out and talking to people (though the net might be a useful aid).
However it is not this I want to concentrate on, but the social and psychological aspects. Ellen has put this far better than I ever could, emphasising the problems as well as the attractions and delights..
>>Most of the time this fear about losing an ability to interact with people is voiced, it’s usually voiced by people who assume that everyone has ease and ability to make friends in physical space. It’s usually presented as the idea that the person now gives up a scad of friends. In fact, of those I know who have gained much from the Net many were isolated altogether before the Net. It wasn’t a case of giving up physical relationships for cyberspace ones, but of having relationships in the first place which they had not much opportunity for. It’s chance that gives us relatives, puts us in this place, gives us that jobs, sends us to the other school. The Net enables us to beat these restrictions.
The relationship is of a different kind. It can be dangerous since unless you are professionally involved outside the Net, or know one another outside the Net, the person can be lying about their identity, can suddenly disappear. It’s so easy to lie and not get caught. There’s a lack of accountability, but in physical space there are other drawbacks. The kind of talk a writing self can do is different from the talk we have in physical space body-to-body. You find out about people in new ways and sometime can feel you know someone better in cyberspace and about real attitudes never voiced in real space. We miss an enormous amount of information of course too.
Life is so ambiguous :). But I agree that the discourse which says we lose our friendships outside the Net assumes a false picture about people’s local lives, assumes a gregariousness and luck that is not common.<<
In Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which I have started reading on WWTTA, there is a wonderful quotation which reads ‘”Society is no boon to those not sociable”. I can certainly apply all to myself; without the net I would now have almost no social contact as a result of the illness. Now I know, and Mark (my wonderful therapist/analyst) tells me, that I should not as a result give up trying to make an effort at ”real life” social contact, and I am doing so with my depression group and my mystery writers group. But I know this will always be difficult, somewhat sporadic, very vulnerable to the illness and so on. I cannot conceive of ever again having day to day social contact of the kind a ‘normal’ person would have (or that I had when I was well enough to work etc.). So the net is a lifeline.
But I think it is possible to go further than this on a couple of fronts. In the first place there is the internationalism of the net (well that should be qualified – the Anglo-speaking world of my net would be more largely accurate). I would never have had the chance of meeting and listening to the overseas people I have met in ‘real life’. But, secondly, there is the fact that the net is relatively ‘harm-free’. I say relatively because clearly there are exceptions. People can be emotionally damaged by the net (and that is without those tragedies which can result from mixing the net with real life – although to drag them into the argument is false as clearly once you cross the boundary from the net to real life the versus argument no longer holds. I am not saying that such contacts always result in tragedy, the vast majority do not and my own experience was a great pleasure, but obviously they can. I am just saying they do not pertain to this argument). But no-one, given my parenthetical argument, can be physically harmed by the net. And this, in a world of war, torture, rape, violence of every kind, is a great thing (indeed as it is my foremost and greatest moral rule it is of tremendous importance to me).
I would have to say that I have yet to read any attack on ‘net life’, and I emphasise that I am talking of my second definition not the question of content which is far more complex, that seemed to me to have any intellectual weight whatever. Those who make the arguments seem to be doing so either from ignorance or prejudice and they seem to proceed on the basis of wholly untested assumptions.
Extending this a little further, and into an area where even more vitriol is expended, we could move to computer gaming. Clearly here (and I am talking of solo, off-line gaming) many of the arguments above, about socialising, internationalism etc. do not apply. But for me personally they are similarly important in terms of depression. In my bad times (not the very bad of course when I am almost incapable of any activity) games provide an essential method of coping – and ‘coping’ as I will no doubt tiresomely reiterate is THE answer, whatever it may mean to every individual – an ‘activity’ which enables time to pass and some modicum of enjoyment to be found. They are thus an aid to health. Once again the arguments against them seem to be found in some sort of moral condemnation who’s grounds are never very clearly explained. This is separate to those arguments about the effects of violent games on behaviour which, because they once again relate to ‘real life’, cannot form part of the versus argument; it is also an argument about content rather than psychological or moral effect.
This entire entry is no doubt both too self-reflective, but that is a part of my argument and defence. Net life, and blogging in particular, allows for self-reflection. And it is natural that something which has changed people’s lives so greatly should be a source of debate and argument. The problem is that the arguments seem to me, very often, to be confused and ignorant. Anyone who wants to read a sensible, informed discussion is recommended to seek out the talk on Ellen’s blog, for I which I provided the link earlier, although it relates more to the question of content than use.