At the end of last year, I discovered Coursera. My first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – a term which makes me picture fighters and mages trotting across idyllic medieval countrysides and holding open textbooks inches from their noses while monsters wander around in circles in the background them), titled E-learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc), just started this week. Obviously, I’m interested in digital culture, communications and technology. That along with my background/connection to education (educational publishing industry, volunteering in adult literacy, even considered doing a Masters in adult education for a while, etc.) made this seem like a perfect candidate for getting my feet wet in Coursera!
The theme of the first half of the course is Utopias and Dystopias. Not surprisingly, this week’s materials include a number of short films and readings on portrayals of technology’s influence on society. There’s commentary around movies like Metropolis and Matrix. There’s a lot of discourse on how technology can be seen as isolating people, controlling them, warping social contact, versus empowering people, creating access to information and connections at an unprecedented scale, etc. From an educational angle, there are also discussions about “Digital Natives” versus “Digital Immigrants” and how they perceive and interact with technology.
At a more personal level, all this is making me reminisce on how I got started on what we affectionately call the intarwebs, and the experiences in my life around it.
I was born at the best time: young enough to not fear computers, old enough to not fear human interaction, dead before robots gain sentience.
When I first saw that tweet in my feed back in March 2012, it put a smile on my face. It’s funny, it’s beautifully witty, it’s perfectly geeky, and it hits on three aspects of what I think are huge in terms of how I was able to experience the “technology” (in this case, internet/digital culture).
I’m a member of the generation that discovered computers while we were of relatively early school age, and grew up with them into our adult lives. (Gosh, it feels weird to type “our adult lives”. When did this happen.) I remember being in (probably) grade three, sitting on the floor listening to a classmate explain email. I remember hearing her recount how a family member mistyped an address and accidentally reached a stranger in France. I remember trying to visualize this and wrap my brain around this, and thinking, “That’s amazing. I don’t think I could ever get something like email.”
The internet wasn’t something that was always a part of our world, but it entered it while we were still of curious enough mindset that we weren’t dissuaded by it, that we didn’t really have to think about being “brave enough” to explore them and help to shape the perspectives and use of them. And that we were coherent enough to think about how we connected with others, that we did connect with others, and that we were able to grow around a common appreciation of things we connected around and find camaraderie in these shared digital experiences.
At the same time, I’ve often joked with friends about how grateful we are that we didn’t get online until we had grown some brain cells, and saved ourselves from having our stupid idiot child selves recorded for eternity all over the Internet. Several years ago, I experienced a digital equivalent of running into someone you haven’t seen in years in the grocery store. I was in an IRC channel when a user spotted my name and made an obscure reference to not only my maiji character as a squirrel, but to some of her habits as I originally envisioned her in my very first online community/fandom (Yu Yu Hakusho, in case you were wondering). She typed it on a whim without expecting a real connection, as my name only triggered the memory, but since it actually was me, I was pretty blown away. In about three seconds I established it was an old friend from back in the day whom I’d had no contact with in the years since. Meanwhile, it also triggered memories of some of the hilariously dumb fanfiction my elementary school self used to churn out. Which must still be floating around somewhere on the intarwebs. (Please don’t look.)
But ultimately, what did the internet allow me to do? At a relatively young age, instead of forcing me to “choose” or have friends based on arbitrary, out-of-my-control things like age or geographic boundaries, it allowed me to form friendships based on something I think is a lot more important: interests. I have friends I grew up with since kindergarten whom I only communicate with online now. I have friends I met online and have come to know very well in person, and sometimes even see each other on a regular basis. I have friends I have never met in person but whom I know better than people I’ve worked with and saw nearly every single day. It’s amazing and wonderful to realize I have friends all over the world from backgrounds and walks of life that can be quite disparate from mine.
Both my offline and online friends were, are, and become as real as it gets. And I look around at us and think, I’m very proud of us. I think I’ve become a pretty productive member of society – I think the vast majority of us have. I’ve watched us grow from kids hanging around on video game message boards to actively challenging each other in creative writing forums to private chats on ICQ to group chats on IRC to linked Livejournal diaries. All our youthful writing and outbursts of silliness and anguish gradually morphing into mature silliness and anguish, even as we migrated from platform to platform, even as we stayed connected or lost touch or found each other again. Or didn’t. Not that different from the “real”, offline world, where people drift in and out of each others’ lives all the time, from childhood to school days to old workplaces.
And I see us as we are now: a large number of us have grown into articulate, creative, smart, lawyers and teachers, illustrators and animators, writers and engineers and more. Some of us have “found our way”. Most of us, like everyone else of any generation, are still looking for it. We stay in touch on Twitter, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, through emails and even Christmas cards (yes, mailed physical Christmas cards).
I look back with fondness at how we’ve all grown into our digital lives – that is, lives that include the digital. As usual, as with any generation, technology didn’t really warp us all or make us better or worse. Utopia or dystopia? Simply, it’s life. And I do believe mine is richer because of it.