Lately, there’s been an undercurrent of criticism against the web, and not just the web itself, but its constant intrusion into our lives due to smartphones.
Recently, a clip of comedian Louis C.K. on Conan O’Brien’s show went viral (ironically) on social networks like Facebook, showing a rant against the stultifying effect of the web. In the video he spoke about not letting his daughters have smartphones so that they might experience true empathy and “real life.” It seemed to perfectly encapsulate the culture’s ambivalent relationship with “online life” right now.
On the other hand, there are those, like esteemed science writer Clive Thompson, who argues just the opposite, that the connected web is not only making us more intelligent, but also more aware of our world and the people who live in it. This, in turn, is making good on the earliest promise of personal computers as envisioned by everyone from Douglas Engelbart to Steve Jobs: That our web-connected devices are, in fact, human augmentation machines and “bicycles for the mind” (selfies and all).
I think part of the problem people like Louis C.K. and Dave Eggers might have stems from the fact that, even after over 20 years, the parts of that bicycle, and the terrain it is going over, continue to change. The web is all at once a modern, instant-knowledge engine, and all of that is now accessible from our pockets at LTE network speed.
It’s been a bit like, well, a kid on Halloween who gorges himself on candy without thinking of the stomach ache to come later in the middle of the night. Live through enough Halloweens and you start to learn that candy is best enjoyed in small doses.
Sure, the web is so much more than just “candy,” but at least the click and dopamine-driven, popular web of today doesn’t work that much differently, both in how it is being produced and how it is being consumed.
Not only do we have to be more conscientious about that intake of web-fueled candy, we have to be more mindful about building out our in real life, or “IRL,” social platforms so that we have a more balanced diet of social interaction and stimuli.
The best part of linking up
Maybe we should go back to something like our relationship with the web when it first existed (though even then no one knew whether or not you might be a dog). I remember it well: almost 20 years ago, in 1994, I was the owner of what was then a small, struggling coffeehouse in Corpus Christi, Texas. To turn things around, I made a very fateful decision to add free Internet access to my coffeehouse, which made it one of the first Internet cafes in the world.
The local press loved us and we became quite the sensation in the community. The publicity also turned me into something of a go-to guy for helping other businesses build their websites.
Building websites for so many people became so time-consuming that it gave me the idea to automate the process and work on the kind of tool that would let all these people build their own damn pages: the CoffeeCup HTML Editor (named after my coffeehouse, for which I had already locked up the domain name).
This was a task that required a little more work than uploading some simple HTML. I needed help, and the “IRL” environment of the coffeehouse provided it to me. I knew a regular customer that was a programmer, and he agreed to code this new software as I would work on features, interface and usability. We worked for three straight months and the first version of the CoffeeCup HTML Editor was born. As soon as we released and began selling it in 1996, it was a hit as one of the first HTML editors in the world.
CoffeeCup helped its users lay much of the track for that early HTML 1.0-powered Web. If you saw a dancing hamster or an animated American flag, it was probably built on CoffeeCup (sorry).
In a sense, I suppose I should feel guilty for my indirect, small role in helping bring about the kind of world that someone like Louis C.K. reasonably fears: one where not just magic can happen at the speed of light, but also one where trolls can lob anonymous insults and people engage in selfie humblebrag competitions at that same speed.
I share some of his same fears, but I’ve seen far too much of the positive connections that come through this network that has literally connected the world – my life certainly would have been different without it – to feel that the appropriate response is to shun it or completely disconnect.
Rebuilding a truly social network
Rather, I think the appropriate solution will probably come out of something like what Google Ventures partner Joe Kraus has suggested with his concept of “SlowTech.” Tl; dr: by training ourselves to be mindful about our interaction with the web and those around us, approaching both with full and complete attention and intention, we can improve upon the narcissistic, obsessive facets of that interaction that has defined the past few years.
We’ve built a complete infrastructure for our online identities and the way they interact with everybody else’s online identity far better than I could have ever imagined back at that coffeehouse in Corpus Christi. These social networks are so strong that it seems the most popular ideas in Silicon Valley these days are niche-driven “skins”: e.g., Twitter for video-sharing, Facebook for retirees, etc.
More important than building the next Instagram for dogs in sweaters, though, is taking the best practices of social interaction and collaboration on the web and building a Facebook for real life. These social networks have had such a dramatic impact on the history of human communications that, in some ways, we need to re-learn how to, well, communicate and interact collaboratively.
That is what I’m trying to do now with Geekdom: taking the face-to-face energy and frisson from the original “Coffee Cup” and applying it in the context of our newly and constantly wired (and wireless) world. Now, I’m simply helping to serve up ideas instead of coffee, and Geekdom does my coffeehouse one better by bringing together people who are working on solving similar, big problems. Now, someone who has a great business idea, but needs technical assistance or mentorship — someone kind of like the 1990s version of me — won’t have to rely on something like Quora or the local coffee shop.
To return to this kind of balance across society, it’s not just a matter of personal mindfulness as espoused by the likes of Kraus and Louis CK. Instead, we need to start creating environments where we’re collectively forced to look up from our smartphone, so that we may again begin to empathize and collaborate with other human beings the way we did for thousands of years before the invention of these devices.
By forming “social networks” as they originally existed, we’ll not only become healthier and more balanced people, but also maximize the power of all the collaborative resources for working and living available to us, wherever they might exist.
After all, wouldn’t you feel foolish if that really was a dog on the other end of your online connection?
Nick Longo is director and Mentor-in-Chief of collaborative coworking space Geekdom. He is an entrepreneur, rainmaker, Internet pioneer, and ideologist.