Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Social Network vs The Human Network

It’s an unhappy coincidence that a lot of people I know happen to be teachers. Close friends, old friends, partners of friends… It feels like if I dialled a wrong number I’d get through to a school these days.

Why is that a problem? Well, they like to talk about it don’t they. An awful lot. Which is tricky, because to see people so passionate about what they do is admirable, and in most other cases would be contagious too. But in this one it just isn’t. Quite possibly, it is because my job is terribly dull so I don’t like to hear others talk about theirs. Perhaps if I delve deeper, some form of jealousy or even guilt arises. I’m not sure. All I know is that, on the surface, a certain percent of my social time is taken up avoiding that subject.

This attack on teachers, and good friends of mine, is not to make any direct point about the profession, but instead about the human network and my personal place within it. My girlfriend could make the exact same claim about being part of the musical network through my connection to Rhubarb Bomb - something she never asked for, yet is forced to contend with every day. This human network is what takes place in our real, day to day lives. The people we see and spend our time with. The antithesis of this is the social network.

Social networking is a phenomena that has eradicated the previously worrisome detail of geography and instead brought into focus our interests, wants, concerns and beliefs. Facebook is flawed, currently, because it is built upon the idea of friends keeping in touch. This ends up with the inevitable guilt connected with deciding whether to cull that person you’ve not spoke to in five years, but you once worked in a sandwich shop with and had a great laugh and – who knows? – you might bump into them. Twitter, which is instead built around the idea of sharing knowledge, news, gossip and wisdom amongst people with similar interest and understanding, is a far more accurate expression of who we are and what we want to do. I also think it is the piece of technology that points most towards the future

The human network is an odd mix of the two. Part shared interest, part routine. Taking the teaching example, I clearly have an above average amount of them as acquaintances. That could be down to whole range of factors: class, social standing, the quality of the schools in the area… I’ve tried to figure it out and I’m not sure. My only inkling is that I come from a generation with little to aspire to in terms of set career pathways. We’ve been encouraged to aspire for more, but then someone forgot to make things worth aspiring to. Hence, a lot of clever, aspirational people end up as teaching because nothing else came along.

Whatever the reason, I am part of a network of people who are part of a profession that doesn’t interest me. And because of the personal ties, I can’t break that connection. I can’t ‘unlike’ teaching. It’s part of my life. To which you might say “big deal” and you know what? I say that too.

But I had a rather terrible vision of the future last week. I was at a charity gala at a very busy country pub. It was a lovely sunny day with all manner of people stood around drinking, chatting and having fun. We managed to find some seats around the back of the pub, close to a bouncy castle setup for the kids. I often forget I’m not in my early twenties any longer, but I looked upon these adults, all a lot younger than me, all with children in tow. Either crying, or running away, or spilling something, or shitting themselves, or falling over, or demanding something, or wiping their hands on me. And I suddenly realised this was my future. Because regardless of which path  I choose in relation to breeding (currently FIRMLY in the ‘no’ camp) this will be inflicted upon me by the majority of the people that are part of my share of the human network.

I would rather hear about government inspections and Key Stage 3 thingbobs til the end of time than be forced to coo over somebody’s newly hatched youngling. I can be happy for them when it arrives, just like I am happy when someone gets a new job and wins a holiday. I just don’t want every detail forced upon me. But it shall be because we are intertwined. I can’t face it, it’ll ruin everything.

To be fair, the onset of parenthood will likely remove them from my immediate circle anyway. For about 21 years. And that is the flaw with the human network. Your life is completely out of your hands.

Hence the attraction of the social network. It’s clear now in the compartmentalisation of much of our society. Every genre of music has its own digital station. Every niche cultural expression has its own channel. Social networking allows us to smokescreen any part of life we don’t agree with. We can block it out and slowly thicken up the walls of our own bubble.

And I think, in the long term, that is a more frightening concept. It will make us less accepting of people who think different to ourselves. It will limit, not expand, the range of places from which we receive the information that forms our ideas. Geographical boundaries may crumble, but idealistic ones will rise higher and higher. The human network and the social network will become more incompatible as we struggle to marry the signals we are getting from both.

The above example of my fear of my life being taken away by hoards of rampaging little consumers will lead me to the seeming utopia of a social network where everyone thinks the same as me, and gets all the in jokes and shares in my pessimisms. That is why they have taken off in the last ten years to such a degree. The lie is that Social Networking is an expression of a global society but that’s not true: it’s an antidote to it. Couple that with the fact that human beings are complicated and an awful lot of hard work at the best of times, whilst social networking is just so damn easy, and you get that social networking is simply an escape from reality. No, it’s more than that. It’s not escaping reality, it’s reality altering, in a possibly very destructive way.

But the ease of it: that’s why I think the social network will ultimately win out and that’s how society will radically change in the next fifty years. But for me, as unpleasant as some aspects of the human network are, they contain something incredibly important; the unknown. I may have to put up with every school term being ‘a really difficult one’ and with only ever seeing my friends when they can get a sitter but hey, least I’m seeing a different aspect to life. I’m expanding my outlook, testing my stubborn beliefs. I’m seeing things from other people’s perspectives. I’m accepting I don’t have all the answers. And if not all that, at least I’ve got something to react against.

Dean Freeman

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