Thursday, December 27, 2007

Embrace connectivity - Oregonian Opinion

Originally Published in the Oregonian Dec. 22, 2007

Embrace connectivity - Oregonian Opinion

Consider: Each generation considers the music of its youth as the apex of creative genius but almost invariably derides what follows as unlistenable garbage.

In much the same way, cultural observers throughout history bemoan how we're forever receding from some recent mythical golden age. "Things were simpler then," they like to tell us. "People were friendlier" and "Technology didn't run our lives" are prevailing themes we hear with increasing regularity.

We are seduced by these romanticized notions of bygone eras. A past -- even a mythical one -- can be reassuring and give one a sense of control in a world of increasing complexity and change. Alas, turning back the clock is not an option. Fortunately, the past was not as uniformly Utopian as it's made out to be; and the present is not as unavoidably bleak.

We forget how life in pre-industrial society could be brutish, nasty and short. We've rapidly evolved from a rural agrarian society to a high-tech world interconnected by instantaneous communications. This has had profound impacts on human relationships.

Perhaps the most dramatic change has been to our sense of community. Until relatively recently, people rarely traveled widely or left their towns, so exposure to other cultures was severely limited. Communities were tight-knit, but since they resulted entirely from proximity, they could also be very insular.

Contrast that with today's global culture, where people can freely move about (virtually or otherwise) to interact with like-minded individuals who share their causes and passions. From the environment to commerce, ours is a world in which everyone is increasingly interdependent on each other, albeit on a larger scale. Where folks used to raise a barn for their neighbor, people of today are mobilizing microloans to finance small businesses n Ecuador.

Change can feel depersonalizing or empowering. Sure, an e-mail is less "personal" than a letter, but it fosters interaction with circles of acquaintances worldwide -- something unheard of 50 years ago. I still chat with my neighbors, but I've expanded my circles of friends to other continents as well. As a result, I feel more aligned with (and invested in) my global community than ever before.

Moreover, many things that people consider depersonalizing, others find liberating. Nothing against bank tellers, but I like the impersonal ATM -- it works on my schedule, allowing time for other creative pursuits. The same goes for text messaging, online shopping and voice mail.

Modern society frees us from so many menial tasks and ancient hazards (i.e. diseases, starvation). Who says we can't seize the opportunity to engage in activities that enhance our community and human interaction?

Sometimes it's all a matter of perspective. Take the Internet, for example. To some, it's a cesspool of anonymous escapism and depravity. It also happens to be an unprecedented compendium of the world's accumulated knowledge -- a hub of unbridled collaboration where people engage with each other and explore their world in ways unimaginable 30 years ago.

Societies grow and change but there is nothing inherently depersonalizing about this. The choices are ours to make.

-- Chauncey Canfield

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