Once upon a time, there was such a thing as the bedtime story.
Once upon a time, children would cuddle up with their favourite stuffed something, while parents gently parked themselves next to them on the edge of the bed and started reading from a book, or – to go back to an even older tradition – recited a story from memory.
There would be no interruption. If a phone rang in the far distance of another room, it would be left to a recorded voice to tell the person on the other end of the line to call back later or leave a message.
According to a recent article in the National Post, that's happening less and less, as more and more parents spend their quality time on their smartphones instead of on their children.
There appears to be no scientific evidence so far (it's still early going) that parents making themselves unavailable or absent that way does any kind of long-term damage that we, as a society, need to worry about. But the debate over what the internet and its spin-off technologies are doing to us as human beings is on, and so it should be.
When figures emerge showing that more children get injured on playgrounds these days because their parents stood by texting rather than paying attention, there's obviously an issue. On the other hand, that can be dismissed as what we can expect from new things coming along. Far more people get killed by cars than they did by horses before cars came along, for example, yet I don't hear anybody saying we should be going back. Everything new comes with its own casualties, and sometimes the new comes with more casualties, not fewer.
The bigger question is, how close to striking at the very core of how we see ourselves as humans does this technology come?
I happened upon an interesting analysis the other day. It's summarized in the term "networked individualism." The term was coined by University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman. People have changed the way they interact with each other, Wellman writes. They've become increasingly networked as individuals, rather than being embedded as before in traditional groups like family, work unit, neighbourhood, etc.
In other words, individualism itself has become a different game. It used to be all about separating from traditional communities in order to find your own terms of freedom. Now, it's about using that freedom to plunge back into the new communities of the web. First separating, then joining again, all in the name of individualism – it's as if, all along, individualism was nothing more than a way to cut us loose from the past and prepare us for the future.
Wellman suggests that networked individualism is part of that future. He talks about it as an operating system. He may be right, and that got me thinking. An operating system implies parts and components. Somewhere down that line of thinking lurks the notion that individuals using the web also become components of the web whose individuality, as they've treasured it, becomes irrelevant – a personal vanity that only counts as long as it keeps them inside the operating system. And that raises the the possibility that individuality as we have traditionally understood it will go the way of the Dodo – flightless and clumsy, an easy prey for the largely still unknown ways of the new network.
'Something larger and super-collective'
It may seem like second-rate science fiction, this idea that the web is the beginning of something larger and super-collective in which humans are destined to be no more than information-receiving-and-firing units. But any student of evolution can tell you that's exactly how things unfold. Atoms are captured into molecules, molecules into compounds, compounds into simple organisms, simple organisms into colonies, colonies into tissues, tissues into more complex organisms, and on it goes until we get to humans, who have a tendency to think that they've risen above all that.
Unless we insist that humans are in fact the crowning end-product of evolution, we have to allow that we are ourselves just a way station to something bigger down (or up) the road.
Now to the quiz question.
How will the bedtime story play itself out in all that?
Have fun with it.