Watson Essay 1

“The Effects are Going to be Far More Widespread and Momentous.” - Shirky

Fred Turner illustrates societal shifts and generational separations with the catch phrase “from counterculture to cyberculture” to provide a picture which defines the nature of the changes that have occurred in recent decades. Though the title is effective in exhibiting the purpose of the book, it detracts from the explanation of our generation’s move to “cyberculture”. For our current purposes, counterculture “refers to a more significant, visible phenomenon that reaches critical mass, flowers, and persists for a period of time. A countercultural movement expresses the ethos, aspirations, and dreams of a specific population during an era.” Additionally, counterculture – as the word itself implies – typically opposes or is separate from dominant culture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterculture). Separately, cyberculture is “the culture that has emerged, or is emerging, from the use of computer networks [and now, other forms of digital technology] for communication, entertainment, and business” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberculture). Considering these definitions, it seems logical to accept that our generation’s shift to cyberculture is not a shift away from counterculture, it is simply our own unique rendition of it.

Our parents’ counterculture incorporated drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, free love, and an absolute defiance of structure and hierarchical controls. Our cyber-counterculture involves the world wide web, digital communities, cell phones, and GPS that make us feel interconnected and free while they in fact serve to prevent physical interaction while providing a constant and inerasable record of our interests and movements. In our attempt to stay constantly connected with the world around us, have easy access to information at all times, and make our daily tasks digitally achievable or addressable, we’ve not only become a multitasking generation, but we’ve also begun to sacrifice a way of life by living tacitly. The question (or the problem, depending on your individual opinion) then becomes: how are these things affecting who we are and how we live – individually and as a society? Are we sacrificing more than we’re getting back when we live through and by our technologies? By making our lives just another thing to multitask – are we missing out on our own experiences? Is our life still ours if we’re living it through other people’s experiences or finding our own experience from the safety of our living rooms by the soft glow of our laptop screens?

Or more plainly: what exactly is the cost?

Generally, it seems that this question is, as yet, unanswerable. It has been suggested that it may be decades until we can tangibly measure how we’ve been affected (Havrilesky). This view is in line with Clay Shirky’s arguments in multiple ways; first, Shirky stated that in order for individual technologies to make changes within society, they must first become so completely infiltrated in daily life that their use is all but overlooked. Thus, the effects of these technologies cannot be fully gauged until time more time has passed and this infiltration achieved. Second, Shirky also confirms that “the important questions are ‘When will the change happen?’ and ‘What will change?’” then going on to say that “the only two answers we can rule out are never, and nothing,” furthering the argument that the cost of our shifting lifestyles is not yet determinable while suggesting that the possibilities are, in fact, endless.

Another relevant topic which Shirky discusses is based around the fact that humans are instinctually social creatures. Thus, “the centrality of group effort to human life means that anything that changes the way groups function will have profound ramifications for everything from commerce and government to media and religion. […] When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” The fear is not that change will come, but rather what the change will be and whether or not we’re paying enough attention to the possibility that living in a cyberculture could have negative effects rather than positive ones. The prospective changes to society and humanity are deep-rooted and weighted because they will intensify or expand our essential social skills, meaning they will exaggerate and extend our characteristic social failings as well (Shirky). And, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though people are stopping to think about the consequences before they rush off to submerge themselves in the emerging cyberculture. There’s no thought given to what were giving up because were all so busy trying to take it all in. Evidence of such negative effects is only just starting to materialize, as most hypotheses in this area currently end with a question mark; however, a study conducted at Stanford University confirmed that “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time” (Gorlick). While this finding may seem trivial or even slightly irrelevant, as a preview of the reactions that will result from media multitasking in our cyberculture it speaks volumes. By obsessing over getting all the possible information at one time while completing all of our tasks simultaneously and as fast as possible, we are receiving more information but retaining less of it. Quality versus quantity comes to mind, but when it comes down to the quality of our lives, should we really be choosing excess over excellence?

While speaking about the possible side effects of our “digital immersion”, Douglas Rushkoff of Frontline’s “Digital Nation” said we should “really ask whether we're tinkering with some part of ourselves that's a little bit deeper than we might realize at first. You know, how are we changing what it means to be a human being by using all this stuff?" (Havrilesky). This acknowledgement alone defines everything I mean to say. All of our trinkets, profiles, mobile technology, and internet roamings seem innocent enough when considered separately, but maybe “the trick is not to consider it by itself. All the technologies […] are manifestations of a more fundamental shift,” (Shirky) and it is this underlying, all-encompassing shift that deserves consideration – lest we wake up one morning to realize everything has changed and that we were too distracted to notice, much less to do anything to stop it. Primitively, analyzing the shift could all boil down to arguments similar to the questioning assessment of change Shirky outlines early in his book:

And what about us? What about the society in which this tug-of-war [is] happening? For us the picture isn’t so
clear. The whole episode demonstrates how dramatically connected we’ve become to one another. It
demonstrates the ways in which the information we give off about our selves, in photos and emails and MySpace
pages and all the rest of it, has dramatically increased our social visibility and made it easier for us to find each
other but also to be scrutinized in public. It demonstrates that the old limitations of media have been radically
reduced, with much of the power accruing to the former audience. It demonstrates how a story can go from local
to global in a heartbeat. And it demonstrates the ease and speed with which a group can be mobilized for the right
kind of cause.

In particular, this concept shows both positive and negative aspects of change and also manages to relay the idea that because we are submerged in the back and forth as the first true cyber counterculture generation, the surrounding conditions and possible outcomes are not always as clear as they should be. Integrating people and technology is a difficult task and, once you begin blending the two, it’s important to define where humanity ends and technology begins; the key is gaining that understanding and drawing those boundaries without sacrificing too much of either dimension.

In an academic journal discussing the anthropology of cyberculture, the relation between society and technology is thoroughly explored and even goes so far as to suggest that just as technology affects human behavior and social norms, human behavior and societal trends accordingly shape the progression and production of technology. This article suggests directly what many others seem to imply: that the anticipated change, while unpredictable, would be directly driven by our behaviors and consumption, allotting us more control than we may feel we have. In line with the argument for awareness and adopting an active approach to the changes incurred by digital immersion, the article also suggests that we should attempt to “understand the relationship between society and particular social groups and the intellectual and practical devices that permanently alter their routines” (Escobar). Additionally, Escobar argues that it is quite possible that the effects of a growing cyberculture will vary greatly between social groups and, on a much larger scale, between countries, making the prediction of future social changes even more difficult.

In short, the cost of our drastic shift into the digital age and our resulting submersion into a cyber counterculture is not yet wholly definable or even predictable. The changes will come with time, experience, progression, and infiltration and it would be difficult to fully prepare for that; however, in the mean time, continued learning and awareness are the tools to be utilized. We can prevent unwanted change and the loss of desired values by remaining active and attentive. It’s our version of a counterculture and, as long as we continue to live explicitly as well as tacitly, it will be what we make it – that is, if we can manage to keep paying attention.

Shirky, Clay. “Here comes everybody.” New York: The Penguin Group, 2008. <> Turner, Fred. “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. <> “Cyberculture.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 10 March 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberculture. <> “Counterculture.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 10 March 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterculture. <> Gorlick, Adam. “Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows.” 24 August 2009. 9 March 2010. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html <> Havrilesky, Heather. “Frontline: Digital Nation” Salon Media Group, 30 January 2010. 9 March 2010. http://www.salon.com/entertainment/tv/frontline/index.html?story=/ent/tv/iltw/2010/01/30/frontline_digital_nation <> Escobar, Arturo, David Hess, Isabel Licha, Will Sibley, Marilyn Strathern, and Judith Sutz. “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture.” Current Anthropology. 35.3 (1994): 211-231. Web. 10 March 2010. : full source reference
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