Plugging In and Moving Out: A Conversation With Lee Rainie

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It’s no secret that the advent of the Internet drastically changed society as we know it, but an ongoing debate persists about whether this transformation was for the better.

The far-reaching cultural increase in feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety is often attributed to the allegedly artificial feelings of connectedness that individuals garner through interactions on their computers and smartphones. Is this collateral damage worth the perceived benefits that come along with access to infinite information at our fingertips?

Lee Rainie, a good friend of BTRtoday and director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, recently published a book concerning these very issues.

Co-authored with Barry Wellman and titled “Networked: The New Social Operating System,” the book provides a groundwork for discussing ways in which these changes have impacted our human experience.

Rainie joins BTRtoday for a discussion about the book’s findings, and to share his insight about how these Internet centric technologies may help us and hurt us.

BTRToday (BTR): What are some of the potential pros and cons of our increasingly Internet-centric culture?

Lee Rainie (LR): There’s a very human instinct to want to know if there’s a clean answer to the big question about whether the Internet is making us better or worse. The answer is that it’s doing a little bit of both.

We make the argument in the book that the data is quite clear–when you connect as many people in as many ways as digital technologies do, you get a host of potential benefits:

You can deal with more people, you can deal more often with people; you can grow your social network; you can diversify your social network; you can learn new things; you can find information from different sources.

BTR: Sounds pretty positive so far.

LR: Our survey data tell us that people think that the Internet has basically been a source for good in their lives. Particularly in the social dimensions–it’s made them better, more connected people.

At the same time, they also worry about being distracted and about potentially withdrawing from life, because the screen is sometimes more attractive than actually dealing with other people and all of the messy business that that involves.

There are mixed stories on this. But, if you ask people if the Internet has made things better or worse for them, almost everybody says better.

BTR: In the book, you outline the “triple revolution” as the catalyst that spurred this transformation. What did that entail?

LR: Since the dawn of the Internet–actually the dawn of computers–there have been three big revolutions in connectivity that have changed the way people get along with each other, the way they learn things, and the way that they teach each other things.

The first is the Internet broadband revolution. Just a generation ago, not many people had the Internet, and those who did tended to be very special kinds of people–people with lots of education, lots of technological skill, and lots of resources.

Now, it’s almost everybody. Ninety-one percent of American adults are Internet users, and 67 percent have broadband at home. When people transitioned from those good old days of yesteryear–dial up modems and high speed connections–it made them very different kinds of Internet users.

They began to build Internet use into the rhythms of their lives, they began to privilege digital content over paper, analog content. It was a new way to begin thinking about the volume and velocity of information coming into their lives.

The second revolution is the mobile revolution; the rise of cellphones, and particularly the rise of smartphones, has been equally transformative. Right now, 90 percent of Americans have cell phones, two thirds of them have smartphones.

BTR: This kind of uniform connectivity must challenge the ways that we used to view information…

LR: When you walk around with that much connectivity and computer power in your pocket, it changes the way that people think about how much information is available to them sure, it changes how many friends are available to them, and the ways in which they can contact anyone at any time–or any information source at any time.

The third revolution, is the social media and social networking revolution. Humans have had social networks since they settled down in communities many tens of thousands of years ago. What’s new about the technological version of social networking is that we can see our networks as often as we want, and they can see us.

So there’s this perpetual connectivity and there’s this persistent way that we can get in touch with the people around us. It creates an environment where everybody can share their stories and tell what’s going on around them and react to things going on around them–it changes the way they participate in civic and community culture.

BTR: Do you foresee another one occurring?

LR: The coolest thing is the next revolution! The fourth revolution is the Internet of things, and how our devices themselves will be connected, and what that will do.

BTR: Speaking to those impacts you mentioned, how does the operating system of networked individualism liberate us from the restrictions of tightly knit groups?

LR: My argument in the book is that for a pretty long time, pre-dating the Internet but certainly accelerating during the Internet age, human beings lived in small tight-knit groups. They lived very close to their families, they lived in small villages. Their work life was built around small, artisan communities. They were tight, they were local, and they dominated people’s lives.

The new social arrangement, that began with industrialization but really picked up speed during the Internet age, was that people began to live more in networks. They’re far flung, they’re loose knit, people have multiple relationships in multiple networks. They don’t necessarily have persistent connections; they have connections that serve their purposes and then they move on to others.

So, rather than this tight-knit local world, they live in a loose far-flung world where they can deal with a lot more people in a lot more ways.

BTR: How has this transformation affected things like traditional business structures?

LR: The implications of this up and down the spectrum of human endeavor are very striking, and of course business organization is one of the most obvious places where networking has changed the basic structure of things.

In the industrial age, we needed big institutions to spend a lot of money to harness the resources to get things done. We had big corporations, we had big unions, we had big government agencies, we had big non-profits.

In a whole host of ways, that served our needs very well. It was the most efficient way for humans to get things done and make decisions. But in the network age, one of the striking things is that you can find people who know the things that you need to know, and you can get access to people who don’t necessarily sit in the next cubicle or even sit in your own company structure!

BTR: Essentially, moving outside of the hierarchical structure.

LR:There are ways in which it’s inefficient to have a big hierarchy with a couple of people at the top making all the big decisions, and then people under them implementing those decisions.

It’s much more efficient and easier for more vertical organizations to deal with each other on a basis of network connectivity and network relationships. So it doesn’t necessarily matter as much where you sit on the organization chart and you don’t need as many layers between the top decision makers and the people who are implementing the decisions.

That’s why business structures are really different now.

BTR: Are we socially equipped to keep up with these advancements?

LR: The jury is still out on that. One of the ways to think about the change from small, tight-knit groups to loose far-flung networks is that the change liberated people. If you think about your ancestors living in that village, in that close-in family, everybody knew their business! And everybody commented on their business, and there was strict enforcement of norms, and there was lots of gossip about what you were doing and whether it was right or wrong.

You have a lot more social liberation when you live in a network–everybody doesn’t know your business, your friends don’t even necessarily know each other. Your work friends don’t necessarily know your neighborhood friends, who don’t necessarily know the family members that live in other parts of the country, and things like that. You’ve got a little bit more maneuvering room and–especially for Americans–the liberation that is connected with that is pretty attractive.

At the same time, those tight-knit groups took care of people. There was a safety net in those groups where if you ran into trouble, even sometimes before you declared that you were in trouble, people noticed and they began to take care of you. They’d come over and feed you, they’d take care of your fields, and they would help you with your small business.

Now you need to work harder to get your needs met, because your network isn’t necessarily the kind of safety net that it used to be. You have to share a lot, you have to tell a lot, you have to be useful for lots of people in lots of ways because you never can tell when they might be useful to you. There’s more work in a network environment to get your needs met. There’s less of a safety net.

There’s more liberation as you move to safety nets, but also more work to get your needs met.

BTR: Looking towards the future of this social operating system, do you see any dystopic potential looming on the horizon?

LR: Sure. You can sketch out any number of scenarios where, for instance, privacy is lost. And people lose the capacity to make intimate, trusting connections because so much is known in so many ways.

Think about how your own friendships have been built: you gradually disclose things to your buddies, and they gradually disclose things to you, and that’s how you form a nice community and a nice, trusting relationship.

If everything is known about you, and there are all sorts of foibles or bruises, or warts in your past, it might be harder to form trusting relationships. That’s one of the potential issues with this.

Another is that there is continuing concern about the general level of loneliness in our culture. The general level of isolation and anxiety in our culture. It’s sometimes harder for people to get those needs met, or for people to be noticed in this environment.

Of course, the other thing too is that people worry that screen life, digital life, is so compelling that it’s hard to detach from it: there are ways that we’re essentially amusing ourselves to death. We can’t ever be bored anymore, we can’t ever be alone anymore, we can’t ever be in solitude just thinking our own thoughts or daydreaming. It’s a concern that a lot of people have raised.