If Romeo Had a Cell
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Zach Schepis

By Zach Schepis

Image courtesy of Chris Potter.

The eternal literary call Juliet once so desperately rained down from a Shakespearian balcony seems more dated now than perhaps ever before.

Imagine if the pining young Capulet had sent her lover a text instead: Wherefore art thou Romeo? Can you get away from your family? When will you be here?

Absurd, yes, but all of those tragic pitfalls would have been easily sidestepped.

Our societal turn towards pervasive networks, and the mobile revolution itself, have spawned the sentiment of networked individualism. This form of connectivity–free from the constraints of solitary groups–provides a paradoxical sense of both location awareness and communication not dependent on locale.

We’re on the grid, whether we like it or not. No doubt this is old news for generations of Millennials and their well-assimilated predecessors. However, the implications of these social affordances are only just being discovered.

Lee Rainie is the director of internet, science, and technology research at the Pew Research Center. If you haven’t heard of Pew it’s a “nonpartisan fact tank” responsible for informing the public about what shapes both America and the rest of the world.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-informed source. Pew is practically cracking at the seams with data. Journalism and the media, global attitudes, demographics, religion and public life, politics and policy, science and technology…

It’s not without a hint of authoritative irony that Rainie has become an expert on superfluous data in digital communities–given how steeped in data he is at Pew. He’s not allowed to voice his personal opinion, but having personally conducted and reviewed thousands of surveys, polls, and trend charts, he’s clearly an expert who understands the public; perhaps better than they know themselves.

“It all amounts to a new phase change,” says Rainie. “The volume and velocity of information is so much different now than it’s ever been. I call it a new social operating system, partly new in the sense that we can share and create stories in brand new ways.”

Take the mobile phone for instance. Aside from slimming down to a mere 140 grams from its original 35 kilogram bulk, the number of mobile subscriptions catapulted from 340,000 in 1985 to more than 302 million in 2011. As of 2013, 91 percent of adults owned cell phones.

We don’t need the data to tell us this. We can observe the moments of intense silence and focus on crowded subway trains, as users bury themselves in screens to flit through text messages. This is no longer a phenomenon limited to the youth either; over half of the adult population texts.

Cell phones are just one facet of the connective spectrum. Accessing information has become instantaneous in a manner that many are beginning to take for granted. The libraries loom like dusty pillars of yesteryear, and journalists everywhere are more than a little worried about their futures.

“It used to take tremendous amounts of effort to surf through indexes and tables of contents,” Rainie says. “In a historical context, the individual has more power now than the tribe.”

The reflection marks an interesting dichotomy between the individual and network. In the industrial age there was work and there was home, there was personal and there was public, he explains. You had the choice of living in a remote place or living in an exposed place.

Now those boundaries are breaking down. He notes that it’s one of the huge consequences of technology on social interactions. Communities can be conceived in any way possible. Have a favorite type of music? Sports team, passion, hobby–even a disease? There’s a group out there waiting for your support and interest.

The same is true for how politics have changed.

“Think of all the ways something becomes a viral concern,” says Rainie. “Think of Ferguson–a local event happens and it becomes a global concern. People are sustaining movements this way over a period of time, and it can grow in power as people use it for their own purposes.”

The health realm also reveals that even the way people take care of themselves has changed drastically as a result of this new social operating system. It used to be common to sit with a doctor in an office for 10 minutes, take the doctor’s word and run off to receive a prescribed medication.

Rainie explains that, according to Pew data, more people are co-deciding their prescriptions with doctors. Whether it’s deliberating over available treatments, reviewing side effects, or even seeking second opinions, the public has a newfound role of awareness and action through health care.

We’ve become much more empowered to take care of ourselves.

With that responsibility comes the ability to self-check. There’s a big premium now on being smart about networking–smart about when you’re being attached to versus detached from technology.

“Think about the people in your life that have their act together,” says Rainie. “When they’re involved in technology–they’re all-in. But they also know when to take breaks and find ways to remove the technology from important relationships and activities. They allow time to restore themselves–even physically.”

While Rainie acknowledges the possibility of a dystopian future in which we’ve all become harmfully dependent upon the network to create definition, he seems far more hopeful in the data that he presents. The key seems to be remaining aware, but not deluded by the torrents of information.

Older people might claim that younger generations are narcissistic, but data from Pew exposes the inherent lies in those stereotypes regarding youth.

We might share a lot more now, but are also inadvertently more attentive to privacy than our elders are. Rainie adds that we’re more attuned to our reputations (Googling names, seeing where they appear in posts, tags, etc.) so we’re far more vigilant about knowing how we’re perceived and portrayed in the environment.

It’s just a lot more work. But then again the payoffs are much more substantial now than in the past. Rainie explains that individuals with big, diverse networks tend to be wealthier, happier, and better off than those with narrow ones.

“Our studies have shown that you even have better health,” he explains, “and you contribute more to your community.”

To hear the rest of our interview with Lee Rainie, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.

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