Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Digital Narcissist

How We Build Digital Narcissists
Narcissus fell in love with his own image while staring into the water.  That kind of self-infatuation is difficult to come by in our world with its relentless competition and big problems; you can't help but feel humble before what faces us.

Fortunately, many first world children don't have to face that reality.  In the past decade they have found a new cocoon to wrap themselves in that isolates them from the harsh truths that surround them.

In that digital cocoon they are free to see only what they want to see.  The machines that serve them slavishly see to their every whim no matter how asinine, base or self-serving it may be.

At the best of times it's tricky to develop a sense of humility and perspective in children, they tend toward an egotistic world view.  The technology cocoon amplifies this and insulates them from adults (both parents and teachers) in a way unseen before.  In a whirl of habituated media consumption, children today are always able to find a 'fact' on the internet that backs up their myopic world view.  They are immediately and constantly able to communicate with peers who are more than happy to reinforce their prejudices. In spite of its promise, social media is very socially insular.  Rather than moving us into an era of interaction and awareness on a global scale, for far too many people the internet is offering something more akin to mental masturbation.

The other week we went to the backwoods of Ontario.  With limited internet and basic cable, we weren't in the self-directed, media rich world we usually are.  I stumbled upon a fascinating documentary that compared militant Hindu girls' camps and the Miss India pageant.  We ended up watching (and learning) something that we wouldn't have in our self-directed media paradise.

Remember when TV was only a few channels and you ended up watching what was on?  It was in this way that I discovered The Twilight Zone, Woody Allen, early Japanese Anime and a variety of media that I would never have picked up in our insular modern media world where we define ourselves by our niches.  I'm not saying things were better that way, but limited media did tend to push us out of our comfort zones and try things we otherwise wouldn't.  We also tended to watch something only once or twice. Limited media forces you beyond your areas of interest and you tend to focus better on it because access to it is special.

I used to beg for rides or ride
the bike for miles to get this!
When Bits & Bytes on TVO wasn't enough to satisfy my new computer fixation in the early '80s I had to search far and wide for media that would cover this new medium.  When I found COMPUTE! magazine in a small shop in a strip mall five miles from home I used to beg for a ride over there or jump on the bicycle and ride forever to go get the latest copy.  That media was hard to get and greatly valued.  Every page of that magazine was a glass of water in the Sahara. My urge to find it had to be great or I wouldn't have bothered.  Limited media makes us value the information we find and lends a sense of accomplishment to our learning.  All that is lost today.

In 2013 media practically scratches at the door of your mind to be let in.  You have to make an effort to stop it rather than find it.  Ironically, this inflection in media delivery does a lot to take away our ability to self direct our interests.  It's hard to enjoy a glass of water in a flood.  What's worse is that instead of amplifying our ability to learn, modern media delivery has cordoned people off into their own habitual interests.

Instead of focusing on research and access we need to consider how to manage distraction and information overflow.  Only once this is in hand can we start to direct ourselves in this storm.  The digital narcissist is the logical result of our sudden access to any information that we want, and it fits hand in glove with the consumerist drive that dictates digital development. It behooves the companies that are reducing users to consumers to create a false sense of how powerful we are; it sells.

Generation Xbox
In a media vacuum you have time with your thoughts.  In that silence you have a chance to examine yourself critically, figure out a direction you want to go.  We expect meta-cognition in students but I'm finding that they are increasingly out of touch with a balanced view of their self worth because they are buried under a media avalanche that is not simply a result of technology advancement, there is intent in the deluge.

The navel gazing digital narcissist can't examine themselves because they exist entirely as a figment of their own imaginations.  Meta-cognition and the sense of perspective it demands is impossible for them in this media storm; a quiet mind is an unknown experience.

The digital native is trapped in an ego feedback loop with a steady stream of media that caters to their every urge, and because the longer they are engaged with media the more they are worth, the media itself is more interested in keeping them plugged in that it is in advancing their thinking.  

Wrapped in this digital cocoon, is it any wonder that the poor digital native can't help but gaze at the screen like Narcissus and his pond?