One Family, One Planet

by rthieme on November 29, 1996

One Family, One Planet

Richard Thieme

Published by Gateway Computer in the Gateway Magazine, Winter 1996

Our Island Earth

The first photos from space of our planet – a fragile blue-and-white oasis in the desert of our solar system – changed what we meant by “one world” forever.

Our experience of the Internet is doing the same thing.

Remember when we thought of computers as “number crunchers,” superfast calculators? Now we know that networked computers are symbol manipulating machines, just like human beings.

It took time for people to learn that telephones were communication devices. It took time for motion picture cameras to move off tripods. The use of new technology always runs in the ruts of the old until the technology teaches us how to use it. Cameras taught us to see differently. Computer networks are teaching us new ways to relate to one another and to think. We are in a symbiotic relationship with networked computers. Our mutual interaction continually discloses new horizons of possibility as we climb a spiral of transformation together.

Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them

Marianne Moore defined poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” That’s cyberspace too. Computers connect real people through symbolic structures.

My first PC had a green screen and 64K of memory. It became my electronic companion, playing games, helping me write articles, keeping track of monthly bills. But when I added a 300 bps modem and began connecting to bulletin boards, I became a citizen of the world.

A single computer is like an isolated human being. It’s a brain in a bottle. The network is the computer, and to the degree that thinking means an ability to look at various representations of data, we can say that global thinking (as in “think globally but act locally”) is impossible if we are not connected to the Net.

The Internet is evolving. Ten years ago, it was used by scientists, educators, and computer professionals. Then came Mosaic and the GUIs that turned “Internet” into a household world. In 2007, when convergence will have blurred even further the distinctions between entertainment and information, television and radio and movies, wired and wireless, the Net will scarcely resemble what we call the Net today.

The Internet isn’t a Thing, it’s a Living System

Everything in the world is changing. Like people on one train next to another, we don’t know if we’re moving or the other train is moving or both. Since most of our lives are lived at work and with our families, that’s where we feel the changes.

The impact of computers on our work is everywhere analyzed, everywhere talked about. The impact of the Internet on families is just beginning to be noticed.

All of our relationships — as spouses, friends, children, parents — are going through the looking glass of mutual transformation.

Good News, Bad News

When I bypass national boundaries, as I do when I sell articles to other countries, do I need the federal government in the same way? When Wales or Scotland trade directly with Europe, do they need to be part of Great Britain in the same way?

When I retreat to my home office or den and connect to people directly through the Net … do I need the members of my family in the same way?

The bad news is: no, I don’t. The good news is, I need them just as much, but differently.

Families Grow like Trees

Fact: horizontal structures like usenet groups or IRC chat rooms are growing laterally, enabling people who share interests to hang out.

Impact on family: we don’t have to leave the house to find like-minded friends. We can do it at the computer even when our “S.O.” is in the next chair reading a book. When the reader puts down the book, the surfer is there physically … but mentally, they’re a million miles away.

The Good News: as we did when recreational reading, and television, and VCRs, became widespread, we can negotiate how much face time or “touch time” we need. People are still people and need to learn how to ask for what they need and negotiate differences.

More Good News: as horizontal communities spread like branches, the trunks of the trees grow taller too. Networks are like fractals, self-similar at all levels. The family in relationship to the global network faces tasks similar to those faced by families in relationship to changing neighborhoods or growing cities.

We adjusted then; we can adjust now.

Reality Check: the ability to communicate effectively is a necessary skill. Studies show that 85% of effectiveness on the job is due to communication and people skills — attitude, above all – and 15% to task-related knowledge. The same is true in families.

During times of change, at work and at home, it’s impossible to overcommunicate. Frequent feedback mitigates the anxieties caused by change that prevent us from listening.

The “Power Rush” of Customized Information

Fact: The Internet enables us to customize the information we receive by using online clipping services or subscribing to mailing lists and Usenet groups. The all-powerful filter of the newspaper does not need to make decisions for me. Why should I rely on an editor to choose columns for me when I can click on a list of a hundred each morning?

Impact on family: not everybody knows the same news. Our social life-worlds are fragmented. The common ground provided by a community newspaper is undermined.

The Good News: a larger global context that includes and transcends our former, narrower contexts becomes our shared heritage. We bring to one another the richness of diverse knowledge and points-of-view.

Reality Check: couples have different needs for independence and dependence, difference and sameness. Those relationships will thrive — as those businesses thrive — that best tolerate ambiguity, complexity, and change.

The World is a Blank Screen and We Are Projectors

Fact: the computer is a powerful projective medium. Interaction with computers creates a bubble of intimacy and isolation in which it’s easy to lose ourselves. The screen shows us representations of others — dots, in effect, that we have to connect. The fewer dots, the less data, the more we project.

Impact on family: we can get confused about who’s on the other side of the monitor. We can become narcissistic, thinking we’re talking to others when we’re only talking to ourselves.

The Good News: We can turn escape into genuine connection, fantasy into reality, by telling the truth — first to ourselves, than to those closest to us. That creates the genuine intimacy we were in fact seeking all along. Then we can calibrate ourselves with reality, knowing who is really out there.

Reality Check: the symbolic presence of others online can grow addictive, but it is not a substitute for real closeness. If you’re losing yourself in cyberspace more and more and neglecting those in the same room, pay attention: it’s a red flag.

Who are the teachers? Who are the students?

Fact: the Internet, along with distance learning and the life-long learning needed to remain viable under changing conditions, is transforming education. The printing press invented “education” as a physical place for learning and adolescence as the developmental stage during which adulthood was postponed so that learning could happen. Today, some children learn more after school on the Internet than at school.

I know a fourth grade teacher told to teach her class how to use computers but she didn’t know how. So she secretly met with her brightest students until they had taught her enough so she could teach the others. That was a wise strategy but, at best, a holding action.

Impact on family: Children often know more about computers — and how to use them — than adults. That can threaten the self-esteem of their parents, especially when downsizing is threatening their self-esteem at work. The generation gap of the sixties is child’s play compared to the great divide between those excited by the computer revolution and those paralyzed with fear.

The Good News: perspective is still worth fifty points of IQ. Mature parents have plenty to contribute, but how we do it has been redefined. In business, managers are learning to morph into coaches, learning new behaviors so they can exercise authority appropriately under changing conditions. Parenting today means respecting and learning from the different ways our “wired” kids see the world, frame reality, and act.

Reality Check: Families require time and attention in order to thrive.

A CEO tells me he used to devote 75% of his time to hands-on tasks; now he devotes that much to leadership and “process” issues, not because he wants to but because the new work place demands it.

The same is true in our families.

The Destination is the Destination

Fact: computer networks are evolving into forms that support families.

Gateway’s Destination system brings the family together for shared interaction with the Net. That doesn’t mean all interaction with the Net will be communal, but that those activities that are — digital music and video, interactive games, sports, education and interactive news — can now include everyone at the same time.

A long time ago, when televisions became cheaper and we bought them for the kitchen and bedroom, doom-sayers predicted that we would never see one another again. But we use those extra TVs as add-ons and mostly watch television together. VCRs did not end movie-going but increased it.

The Gateway Destination system will not replace individual computers but will illuminate when we need to compute alone and when together.

The Destination system will also continue to evolve. Our family owns two Gateways now and we’re looking at a third, We have different computing needs as individuals and as a family. Home computers in the future will resemble client-servers with a central computer for the family room and individual terminals for individual needs.

Real Toads

Every major change in how we relate to one another caused by evolution in the Technologies of the Word — speech, writing, the printing press, electronic media — at first distances us from one another. At the same time, however. the same technologies make available the means for connecting our more-distant selves in greater intimacy and communion.

We are creating on the Internet the imaginary gardens in which we are finding one another and the collective self that is evolving on our planet.

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