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Coda: Living in Balance

Published onApr 27, 2020
Coda: Living in Balance

The issue of the stranger exemplifies the contradictions and complexities of life online. On the one hand, we live among strangers, now more than ever. For the first time in history, the majority of the world’s several billion people live in cities, and this percentage will keep growing (World Health Organization 2010). Most of us now live surrounded by strangers—people of whom we see only a very narrow slice, a fleeting impression made from a glimpse of clothing or an overheard comment. We are accustomed to not knowing, greeting, or acknowledging the great majority of the people we see. Online, too, we are among a growing population of unfamiliar people, reading comments and relying on recommendations from people devoid of any context of knowing who they are, what they think, or any cue that tells us whether we are similar to them or quite different.

Yet, as mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, at the same time the stranger, as we think of him,1 may be disappearing. In a world where face recognition is commonplace and your past actions, social connections, favorite books, and starred cat videos are tied not only to your name but to your actual physical self, the stranger as a person about whom nothing is known will exist only as a historical concept, a relic of the risky and benighted (or, one might say, the free and private) past.

The term “surrounded by strangers” evokes lonely alienation, yet it is not a purely negative condition. In an essay entitled “The Experience of Living in Cities,” Stanley Milgram wrote:

Conditions of full acquaintance, for example, offer security and familiarity, but they may also be stifling, because the individual is caught in a web of established relationships. Conditions of compete anonymity, by contrast, provide freedom from routinized social ties, but they may also create feelings of alienation and detachment. (Milgram 1970, 1464)

To be a stranger is to be alone, but free. To be amid friends and family is sustaining, but also constraining.

The stranger has multiple guises. Most feared is the dangerous stranger, the one to whom parents warn their children not to speak, the unknown, unmoored person who may randomly attack. Fear stems from lack of control: we have an overly heightened anxiety about things we cannot control, and a corresponding false sense of security about those we think we can. Statistically, you are more likely to be harmed by an acquaintance than a stranger; similarly, few people hesitate to drive while many are afraid to fly, even though airplanes are far safer than cars. Still, the fear of the stranger who is unconstrained by community is not entirely groundless. As we have seen repeatedly online, real anonymity—being truly nameless and faceless, outside the control of social norms and sanctions—unleashes the worst in many people.

More positively, strangers can inspire us. In a short story about a writer struggling with a creative block, novelist Rebecca Miller wrote:

[He] walked out onto the street again. So many bodies—why weren’t they at work? Who were these people? Tourists, students, suits on lunch breaks, mothers killing time till the next school run. Stories in each of them, infuriatingly locked away from him. He peered into their faces for clues. This was what he needed, he thought: he needed to get out more, to be among strangers. (Miller 2011, 226)

The strangers who intrigue us on the street are not blank and impenetrable ciphers, but semi-legible beings, giving off tantalizing clues about what they think, where they’ve been, and what they’ve done. In person, we always see something of each other, enough at times even to establish some sense of familiarity. This includes inherent features, such as skin color, body size, and the like, as well as elements of deliberate identity construction, such as the clothing that marks social position and affiliations, for example, hipster, fundamentalist, or country club golfer. Mediated interaction, without physical presence, allows us to go “beyond being there,” beyond our accustomed and embodied cues, and to have new and different cues and information form the basis of the impression we make on others. Changing the external manifestations of identity does not itself change who we are, but it can have a profound effect on how we organize society.

Being among strangers may be inspiring, but simply watching a parade of unfamiliar faces pass by is the experience of the tourist, in the city but not of it. The sociologist Richard Sennett claimed that although being among strangers is the source of cities’ vibrancy, it comes not just from seeing new people, but meeting them—the transformation of strangers into acquaintances (Sennett 1976). He notes that it is a risky excitement. In the “city” (and Sennett’s definition of city—“a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet”—is an excellent description of many online environments) you meet new people in new contexts, and thus have little, other than their own claims, by which to know their history or to determine whether they are reliable, smart, or well intentioned. Finding acquaintances outside the purview of your existing circle expands your world, bringing in fresh ideas and experiences; but it also makes you vulnerable to someone who may want to take advantage of your trust.

Being a stranger provides the zone of privacy we need in order to enjoy a fresh start with new people and to have the freedom to speak candidly. We need it to see how people respond to us when they do not know who we are. We need it also to try new things—to have the freedom to fail. As a stranger, one can reinvent oneself—a wonderful opportunity to expand and improve; but reinvention can also hide a less than reputable past.

Reinvention is possible only when the past fades away. Social technologies, however, keep the past ever present. We look up new people online, finding work histories, grade school photos, news clippings telling of rewards or arrests; we see the arguments they have engaged in and the jokes they have told. This information provides an instant—and perhaps ersatz—sense of intimacy with people one has just met.2 Tomorrow, face recognition and other social technologies will make such augmented acquainting quicker and easier; more seamlessly part of just looking at someone. Although knowing things about other people does not alone transform them into friends—we come to know each other through interaction—it does unmask the unknown stranger.

Whether this will be a better world remains to be seen.3 Balance is the key: balance between being secure and being free; between being part of a community and having a place to be different, alone, a stranger. For many people, the ideal is to have multiple, separate strands to their lives. This need not be as radical as having many full-fledged identities; it can be as commonplace as being able to take part in a protest or religious gathering without telling your colleagues, to dance without being observed by your friends, to go to a bookstore and read in private. The city has historically provided this; such freedom is nearly impossible in a small town, where the bookstore owner is friends with your friends, where comings and goings are noted and newsworthy.

For a while, the online world helped provide this balance. For people enmeshed in tight communities, it provided a place to be separate, to take on a different persona. For those who could not find a community where they fit in, it erased the barriers of distance to bring together scattered people with common tastes and concerns, whether gay teenagers, fans of an obscure music genre, or sufferers of a rare disease. Yet in recent years the balance has been tilting toward identification, tying all activities to one’s increasingly searchable real name. The virtual city is becoming the global village, where everyone “knows” everyone else, and myriad eyes watch all activity.

Still, the online world may be the final refuge for privacy and the stranger. If face recognition becomes robust and commonplace, and cameras continue to proliferate in buildings and on foreheads, then data by and about you will augment your physical presence, creating an omnipresent data shadow. There is no facial pseudonymity: your face is coupled to you far more tightly than your real name. In this future, only online will pseudonymity—the ability to maintain separate social contexts and have the level of everyday control over self-presentation we take for granted today—be possible. But people must demand it; if universal real-name identification prevails online, it too becomes a space of collapsed context and casual surveillance.4

Too often, it can seem as if technological developments are inevitable—they are not. Yet to change things, to shape new technologies, we need to be aware of what is possible—and of the consequences of different choices. That is why I wrote this book for users as well as designers, for the inhabitants of the spaces, the participants in the discussions, the subjects of the portraits.

This book is a manifesto about what the connected world can be like—a vivid, nuanced space in which the inhabitants have the awareness and tools to shape their world and the impression they make in it. We are not yet there. This is not for lack of data or analytic technologies: today, vivid data portraits and network maps are being made; but they are produced for institutional eyes, to accurately target marketing messages or find criminals (Clifford and Hardy 2013; Gallagher 2013; Wall Street Journal 2010–2013). This is, perhaps, due to lack of understanding and vision of what our mediated experiences and interactions can and should be like.

Understanding privacy issues and assessing information is important. But so is recognizing the joy of sociability. Face to face, we surround many of our social interactions with pleasure. We go out to lunch together, or talk while taking a walk; we meet over coffee. We use the setting to enhance the relationship, to imbue our experience and memory of being with someone with pleasant times, enjoyable experiences. The emphasis here on the visual and the aesthetic has been to create this sort of experience. Setting and sociability—interface and impression—are inextricably linked.

In the words of William Whyte, what attracts people the most is other people. The designs in this book are fundamentally about seeing and being with people: about vividly portraying individuals, bringing conversational participants into focus, populating online spaces, and visualizing social patterns. As with being in the city, going beyond being there holds risk for us; but it also holds the promise of inspiration and new connections.

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