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Roy Ronalds
Roy Ronalds

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Digital Structures in a Remote Society

As a technologist, one of the things that I study is how to create and maintain communities in the digital space. For example, in applications that I create, I try to build in the ability to maintain a community within that application and within that user base. A web application alone is a pile of software. An application that can sustain a community around it is something new and different. This is often the difference between very high-level software engineering and architecting, and just building a thing. The most effective software applications foster a continued community of varying depth around them, so that users don’t just come and go, they come back and establish a presence, a digital presence that sticks around the application. In aggregate, many digital profiles combine to form some slight trace of a community around the application.

We are in very interesting time period at the current moment. Interestingly, if we look at society at large, masses of people seem to be desperately seeking ways to create digital community. What is Facebook, Diaspora, Twitter, email, TikTok, if not ways to move human community online? Obviously these moves are all done with mixed success, but at least recognizing the massive movement going on is what is useful to us.

Diminishing of Human Organizational Structures

In the past we had many sources of community that extended beyond the nuclear family. Extended family is one, church is another, town is another, there are many more. Today those structures are being degraded.
Please don’t mistake this observation for being reactionary. Other structures are being built to replace them. There are many reasons for that, but one interesting factor seems to be just that human nature of needing companionship is being fulfilled by digital media and social media. By this I mean that evolutionarily we developed to want to be part of a human pack, or a clan, or a family, generally to want to be in the middle of a noisy, rollicking, not-alone pile of humans. We have a basic need to see faces, to hear voices and to feel very close to other people. So when digital media gives us those voices, that noise, and shows us many faces, in a very one directional sense; then we feel much less of the need to gather that same thing in non-digital life. Another way of putting that is that our animal instincts are being satiated by the presence of visuals and noise that mimic a family, or a clan, or some human collective that indicates that we are safe and among friends.

The takeaway is that we should try to do these new things - social media, online communities - with care and thoughtfulness, because they are replacing much of what we had before and what we relied on before. For example, if Facebook interactions are replacing parts of local town and village gatherings and politics, we probably want to be able to create localized social media groups and communities that map to the physical world, so that what is lost has an somewhat analogous replacement.

Considering the Emotional Effects of Digital Spaces

Although some of the “itch” to interact with people is scratched by media, I often still see young people saying that they feel very lonely at a very deep level when using digital media, a dissonance that confuses and dismays, because at a shallow level we can reach out and hear a voice in a minute’s notice, we can see a face at a second’s notice, and we could communicate outward to a friend at a minute’s notice. All of that operates at a shallow level, however, while at a deep level we are left with a gaping void of no physically proximate humanity.

Even towns & villages are being effected by a similar phenomenon. Where before there might be a townhall meeting, where many people would get together and discuss and argue for approaches to leadership in a physical space, the communication has moved online, and the self-selecting effect of people being physically in the same room, the passionate visceral response that attending such an event would elicit on creating memory and on hearing the choices made and developing an understanding of one’s local area, is all lost to the digital convenience of online communication. We read a town blog post, make some comments, maybe even attend a political video meeting, and then flip that switch to turn it off and go have dinner. The impact is less, and our deepening connection to our town is less, and indeed some of the people participating may have little stake in the town at all. They may not even live there. In many cases, the effect of parties with little stake in good outcomes is magnified, and the effect of otherwise interested parties is minimized.

Recognizing Our Personal Post-Apocalypse

As a result of all these changes, it is pretty pretty clear that we are in the middle of a massive re-organization of society. The Internet is not just a technical logical leap - one of many happening at the same time - it is the death knell of a way of living, and the ringing bell of the birth of a new society that has nothing at all figured out yet. We can imagine future archaeologists looking back upon this time in human history, and seeing the obvious blossoming scope of how extreme the change to human society was in these scant few decades. Here we are living amidst that in the present! We must let ourselves feel fear, uncertainty, confusion, because we are in the very middle of, in the very depths of, a great upheaval. We can also feel joy, pleasure, and satisfaction, as we participate in and even build a new way from scratch.

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