Friday, June 29, 2007

Social websites hail arrival of global village by Victor Keegan

In The Hindu, Jun 29, 2007. Reprinted from The Guardian.

If you were to stop someone you know and ask them to give you a list of all their friends — together with their friends’ friends, complete with their special interests — you would be dismissed as strange, if not bizarre. Yet that is what is happening with the seemingly unstoppable expansion of social websites such as MySpace, Bebo, and Facebook. For years we have been worried about a state-backed Big Brother using new technology to extract personal inform ation about us, whether from the web or CCTV cameras. Now it has all changed.

Surveillance is so pervasive that it won’t be long before someone publishes a consumer’s guide to CCTV cameras; and we are so unworried about privacy that we are voluntarily shovelling information about ourselves into the public domain which can be used by governments or potential employers, not to mention predators.

If you accept someone as a friend on Facebook you immediately have access to all their friends’ photographs and details, together with similar information about their friends’ friends and so on. Members have a personal wall on which anyone can write comments for everyone in their network to read and comment on. New sites are coming out, such as, which are building accurate profiles of people based on their reaction to photographs shown to them, but that is nothing to what can be gained from trawling a social website.

This striptease of the vanities is happening all over the world and so quickly that there hasn’t been time for a PhD thesis to tell us what it is all about. Maybe the best way to understand it is that the digital revolution is recreating on a global scale the bonded communities of old. As Marshall McLuhan observed: “Privacy, like individualism, is unknown in tribal societies.” Just as young people head into city centres to link up with each other by mobile phone, so the new global villagers are using technology to break down traditions of secrecy in favour of mutually shared knowledge, no matter how personal. As McLuhan also noted more than 40 years ago: “When we have achieved a worldwide fragmentation, it is not unnatural to think about a worldwide integration. Such a universality of conscious being was dreamt of by Dante, who believed that men would remain mere broken fragments until they should be re-united in an inclusive consciousness.”

It is easy to write a disaster scenario for a world in which everyone is linked and in which you can communicate instantaneously with everyone in your group, since the accelerating speed of circulation of news and comments could produce the worst excesses of madness of crowds. But it could also produce a global counterbalance to the excesses of politicians and corporations and an electronic version of the Indian idea of darshan, which McLuhan described as “the mystical experience of being in very large gatherings.” The global village may at last be at hand.

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