Posted by: rolfsky | January 17, 2008

revivals and boiling frogs

No, not revivals of boiled frogs, but the recurring pattern of “revivals” being the response to boiling frog problems. The other day I mentioned that it was “lame” that I didn’t know how most of my friends were on a daily basis because I didn’t live or work in close proximity to them. This could be specifically in contrast to the comfy couch I recalled fondly from my university theater days.

So what is the answer? Only have friends that live nearby?

This is, of course, a “silly solution” but was pretty much the standard way of life for all of human history save for the past few hundred years. Limited by our human form, we built our brains and social patterns around daily human contact.

And there’s no definite cut-off to when we “lost” this human contact, it is a boiling frog problem because subtle changes have profound yet non-linear consequences. Some problems are much easier to chart cause and effect. Polio vaccine nearly eradicated polio, the American Declaration of Independence served a rallying-point for rebellion on the British, but did the automobile make us lose our friends?

Specifically, did the automobile help to create a “degraded” social experience by shaping the way we live our lives?

If you didn’t follow the last question, you are not alone. As with any technology, there are trade-offs. While it increased our mobility it also forces us to lay down broad swaths of concrete and asphalt, devote massive resources for making places for cars to park, and creates huge areas where it’s not safe to walk. (Humans on foot are restricted to marked crosswalks, because they don’t belong in the street. Who says?)

“The automobile was an enabling technology that permitted greater dispersion of the population.” Motor vehicles disperse populations almost randomly, and roads and highways become the essential common links between people and their homes, their jobs, and their diversions. This process was underway well before anyone recognized urban sprawl and put a name on it.

All of these results are unexpected, but we’re willing to do them because of their immediate benefit. In the same way that the frog will not notice the water heating around him, we fail to grasp to cumulative effects of our technology because of the disconnect between cause and effect. We don’t hate the car, we hate the traffic. But we wouldn’t be stuck in traffic if we didn’t live where we did (which we chose because living in the city sucks (because the city is designed to be navigated by a car)).

And what happens next? What happens when we suddenly realize that we miss our friends and not even MySpace is going to bring them back? Revival. In essence, a revival is a spasm where the actual is so far from the “ideal” that the causes are ignored because the effect stands by itself. Somebody finally says, “you know what? this really sucks! I’m going to do something about it.” If enough people agree, a movement is started.

So when is the social networking revival? For you, it all depends on how much you really miss your friends.


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