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Accepting Inefficiencies and Different Scales of Change in Networked Environments

November 17, 2011

I didn’t know him personally, but I was saddened to read about Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s recent suicide.  I have no personal insight into his situation, the sources of his stress, or what brought him to take his life.  It’s tragic, full stop.

As I was reading Gawker’s story on his death, I was struck by its implicit message that some of Zhitomirskiy’s stress may have derived, in part, from his desire to “change the world.”  As Gawker says, “Did the pressure of running a struggling, much-hyped start-up—not just any start-up, but a Facebook killer—contribute to Zhitomirskiy’s death?”  He and his Diaspora co-founders set themselves the monumental task of competing with Facebook – crafting a brand new social network that challenged one of the internet’s most powerful laws — a difficult, but noble goal.

It’s the scale of this goal that stands out to me, that I want to think through here.

I often explicitly hear from tech entrepreneurs—or even just those who use platforms like Kiva and Kickstarter—that they have an explicit desire to “change the world” through their work.  Why does this seem, to me at least, to be such a dominant scale for change embedded in the projects of internet-based entrepreneurs?  Is it something about the network itself, the people drawn to the network, the rhetoric around online social movements?  Especially at a time when #Occupy protesters are calling for wide-spread societal change, it might seem disingenuous to question the very idea of world-changing work.  This is not my intention.  The world does constantly need to be rethought and reinvented.

This potential is enticing and I have deep sympathy with the promise of networked social action led by articulate, impassioned, talented individuals like Zhitomirskiy.  Who wouldn’t want to have their vision of how they think the world should be adopted by millions of people?  Who wouldn’t want to live their life motivated by a passion to make social change at a scale the internet makes possible?

My concern is about people’s need to be seen and judged publicly in order to do this kind of work, and the absence of understanding what kind of pressures such motivations, predicaments, and cultivated visibility might create.  Most people are not accustomed to making themselves seen and vulnerable in pursuit of large-scale change, embodying the responsibility for achieving that change, and judging and being judged on their ability to lead large numbers of people organized into fuzzy and dynamic networks.

Translating the ideal of large-scale networked social change into a personal goal can be exciting and motivating, but it can also be an ever-present source of self-initiated, socially constructed pressure.

We are at a tricky moment in history where networks and near-constant connectedness make visible fundamental mismatches between the scale of our experience, the scale of our imagined impact, and the scale of our actual agency.  We are victims of complex, distributed systems that are beyond our individual capacities to appreciate or control (the international banking system, environmental change).  And some of us are privileged enough to have time to ponder these systems and share our visions of how we think things should be with those we would likely never have met even 5 years ago.  But all of us are also stuck figuring out how to be the middle space between systems beyond our control and agency that’s seemingly within our grasp.  We’re being forced to figure out, simultaneously, our personal stories and our network stories – without much appreciation for how much emotional work this entails and what kind of support we need to imagine and realize potentials.

It’s often hard to know what to do with such imagined potential.  And it’s even harder to see the shape of the technical, social, economic, cultural, and political systems we inhabit — to understand them well enough to know what’s possible, what we might change at any given moment, what it’s worth investing our bodies and souls.  It’s a new kind of skill to know not just how to use networked media to create social change, but to understand, find peace with, work within, and subtly change the potentials and limits of your network, and to know the merits of working at different scales of change.

Essentially, I think we don’t understand yet the very idea of networked scales of change, how to live in relation to them — and when to shift among scales in ways that take care with our psyches.

I’m not criticizing digital, networked mediated relationships, saying that we should retreat from online networks or reifying physical, face-to-face interactions.  Much excellent work exists on how complex these shifts and distinctions are.  Nor am I talking about the potential cognitive limits on social relationships, or the need to craft new kinds of social science for making sense of big data.  This isn’t a problem of information overload or filter failure, nor is it only a critique of the idea of perfect memory.  This is about negotiating our individual emotional relationships to the lived realities and imagined potentials of big data, fast rhythms, network efficiency, and algorithmic automaticity.

I’m envisioning something more akin to a spiritual understanding of networked scales, knowing how and when to: navigate ourselves among scales, appreciate the value of different impacts at different moments, craft emotional relationships to networked potential that go beyond today’s instincts to confuse measurement with interpretation, efficiency with success, network position with personal satisfaction.

Optimizing your relationship to a search engine, building your list of Twitter followers and keeping them engaged, garnering more YouTube views, managing your Facebook threads and friend lists in a timely fashion, and imagining a future income from all this – these are exciting moves that let us experience and affect change at new and different scales.  But, un-examined, they also look like sources of self-initiated, socially constructed stress that lead to less healthy lives than we might otherwise find in our networks.

At the risk of seeming like I’m simply a curmudgeon complaining about the narcotizing dysfunction of networked media, I think that we need to have new conversations about what these scales and speeds mean to us as humans trying to live within and change a world that has gotten very large, very fast.

I used to volunteer regularly with a peer counseling hotline.  For someone who’s been embedded in cultures of technology and designing for years, it always struck me as an incredibly inefficient service.  We’d wait by the phones for people to call.  If no volunteer was available when someone called, they’d get a message asking them to wait or try again later.  You never knew if a call would take 5 minutes or an hour.  Sometimes we’d get prank phone calls that would tie up staff and prevent people with genuine calls from getting through.  Sometimes the volunteers would joke that if only we could use the downtime to make outgoing peer counseling calls (“Hi, someone said you might need to talk about something?”), our time would be used more efficiently.

I was deeply frustrated by some of the hotline’s inefficiencies (especially those that prevented people from getting help) but, over time, I grew to appreciate other aspects of the hotline’s sporadic pacing.  Specifically, it often takes time for people to open up.  Some details of people’s stories seemed trivial and needlessly time-consuming, but people seemed to interpret my patience with them as evidence that I was willing to wade through the mundane as we searched together for the meaningful.  The calls took time, they had to happen one-on-one, and my tolerance of inefficiency built a particular kind of trust.  Improvements to the system can always be made, but the counseling experience only seemed to “work” at a specific scale and rhythm that was inefficient but somehow human.

Essentially, internet life lets us see and imagine new scales of experience but, unlike previous mass media, it leaves open a question of agency – how can individuality persist and thrive in increasingly social and connected environments?  How can we and should we imagine, realize and be okay with our individual locations within networks?  What are the limits on this agency?  When are these limits inefficiencies whose scale should be embraced, and when are they constraints whose powers should be resisted?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but my hope is that we can make room for many different scales of existence.  I hope that we can know that it’s okay to be silent, to fail, to wait, to listen, to slow down, to be alone, to enjoy success that isn’t rendered in networks or visible millions — to be patient with your mind and heart as we figure out our networks together.

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