Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Digital space to real space

Millennial musings of a non-millenial man

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Our BlackBerrys, the Internet anywhere and wireless global connectivity do give us a sense of freedom but they may also be diminishing face-to-face interactions and engagement from the realities of life. Sometime it takes a natural calamity to bring us back to our sense of humanity.

Last week when most Americans were hooked on Super Tuesday presidential primaries and its aftermath, a cluster of deadly tornados with wind speed 125-150 mph ripped across five states in the US South killing 59 people. Miraculously an 11-month child was saved ~ not by Google Earth but a perceptive human who spotted the child in a mud puddle. And President George W Bush was there too. “I’m here to listen... to make sure that the federal response is compassionate and effective,” Mr Bush said after an aerial tour of the area where he saw first-hand, not on YouTube, homes flattened and fields strewn with trees and animal carcasses.

The identity, cultural values and religious life of a community are anchored in physical space, which MySpace and Facebook cannot replace. But it is true that human bonds, especially of the millennial generation (those born between 1977 and 1994), are loosening. With our cell phones and GPS, perpetual mobility and perpetual connectivity, we are in touch without being in touch.

In this age of virtual presence and transitory relations with disembodied and delocalised groups that rise and disappear in cyberspace, the sense of the place, its physical and cultural intimacy, its diurnal patterns, is becoming very important to people. The feeling of being a New Yorker, the smells and the sounds of the city even in the dead of winter is so desirable. If you live in Kolkata or Mumbai, for example, you know what I mean.

During the grueling presidential primary season, Democrats and Republicans have been going from one state to another on an endless pilgrimage to be with the people, physically connecting with them, touching them, eating with them in local diners, which they could not have done in cyberspace. One of the greatest virtues of democracy is that it churns up society periodically and creates the possibility of renewal through self-examination as it is happening now in the United States as presidential hopefuls, Republicans and Democrats, crisscross the country promising a better America. They love the blessings of borderless cyberspace to raise funds but talk of protecting the borders to stop illegal immigrants who come to seek work while corporate America outsources work to a digital seamless world.

The question is whether the digital age, which gives us the choice to work and collaborate from anywhere, could also revitalise and renew abandoned suburbia, downtowns and slums especially surrounding big cities hit by subprime loan crisis and home foreclosures. Social networks, chat rooms and virtual communities hold the promise of bringing about new social activism in communities and empowering people to demand changes, but so far it has not been happening.

Laws are made to empower citizens to live a life of self-regulated autonomy in accordance with their personal beliefs and values. Can civic responsibility be maintained if one loses a sense of place? Can a civic generation be created in cyberspace? Digital economy tends to make people less committed to their communities.

Closer the world becomes because of globalisation, greater is the need for localism and committed local leaders. Identity that creates bonds becomes crucial. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Americans are so worried about illegal immigrants, who are so essential to the economy and yet are perceived as a social burden. Americans fear dilution of their identity due to the influx of people from across the border.

Yet a serious question arises as to how a country should make itself desirable enough to keep and lure the elite, when a substantial portion of work becomes mobile and could be done from anywhere in the world. The late management guru Peter Drucker saw the digital economy threatening “a new class conflict between the large minority of knowledge workers and the majority of people who make their living traditionally.”

But you don’t see this happening unless you wonder why Maoists’ insurgency in India continues unabated or why a physician like Amit Kumar is able to persuade poor Indians to sell their kidneys instead of providing them with affordable healthcare. Digital and stock-market millionaires are rising everywhere, in India too.

In spite of digital economy the median family income in the United States has not been going up significantly, while the number of millionaires is galloping. Trickledown economy has been trickling very slowly to the bottom rung of the people. Stock market does not spread wealth, though the number of Americans owning stock directly or through their pension funds has increased substantially. When the top ten per cent own 90 per cent of the stock, market alone cannot provide a cure for poverty.

Migration of jobs from industrial rustbelts to other countries, and the consequent desertion of erstwhile prosperous communities, has been causing pain. Call to reform education, including testing and teachers’ accountability, has been an attempt to halt dislocation when global corporations become increasingly global and mobile and rootless. The need to build a broad-based economy that gives hope to people left behind could have never been more urgent than today. The millennial generation needs to get out of MySpace and YouTube and smell the earth.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University, Vermont. He is the author of Digital Freedom: How Much Can You Handle?)

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