Societal Culture and the Internet’s Clusters

China’s internet users number 130 million – and are growing 30% every year. Second only to the U.S., China is installing broadband everywhere, and internet cafes are the size of K-Marts and as abundant as Starbucks.

In 2005, Dr. Guo Liang of the Chinese Acadamy of Social Sciences published a study showing that one third (and growing) of internet users had no email accounts, and of them, only a third check their email daily. Forty-two percent of netizens did not use a search engine. Seventy-five percent had never made an online purchase.

Instead of replacing encyclopedias, newspapers, storefronts, travel agencies, yearbooks, and the Postal Service, as Americans did, Chinese people, Guo explains, were flocking to video gaming virtual worlds. This was not the business-oriented web of the West.

Dr. Guo’s study revealed that the Chinese internet user’s online presence had very little in common with their real lives; they went online to escape. To masquerade. To role-play.

Another scientist, Dr. Tao Hongkai, started a counseling hospital to treat patients for the growing problem of RPG gaming addiction. His breakthrough came from exploring what internet users were escaping from. The official Chinese State news report on his treatment is here. But his own uncensored explanation for why millions of young Chinese get so addicted to gaming amounts to an indictment of modern Chinese Society.

What is the Problem?

An American journalist went undercover and took the doctor’s treatment and came back with some lessons we in the States can learn about our own society, to perhaps understand why millions are flocking to our social networking sites.

[Doctor Tao,] railed against the one-child policy and the xiao huangdi (little emperors) it had created; children whose every material need was met even as spiritual needs were ignored. Instead of having their own hopes, spoiled teenagers carried those of six other people, their parents and two sets of grandparents. They were over-protected but under-developed, without discipline or a sense of meaning. “They have nothing to hold on to,” he said. “They are empty inside.”

Tao is an advocate for reforming the Chinese education system with its heavy dependence on standardized testing.

According to Tao, “the worth of an individual’s overall character rests with psychological, professional and comprehensive qualities. It is not simply a matter of satisfactory test scores.” Tao also notes that students being crushed by slave-driver teachers and the pressure of a single test, the gaokao for college entrance, have time for only rote memorization–not for singing clubs, or volleyball teams or after-school activities. You got that NCLB?

How is the Software the Solution?

The most popular games in China are Mir II and World of Warcraft, these are games not of gore but of wits and team-building and winnable battles. These games give the teenagers something which society, and especially their schools do not: freedom. “If they want to fight, they can fight. If they want to curse, they can curse. If they want to marry, they can marry. Back in real life, Tao said, “every child is a like a little donkey. The teacher grabs his two long ears and pulls and pulls. The parents get behind him and push and push.”

Online Law of Transitivity

In America, young netizens are filling social networks. Why? What is the problem this software solves? What are they replacing online that is missing in their lives?

I would suggest lasting affinity relationships. Not temporary intimate relationships.

Consider how the strength of a relationship in Social Networks is a function of the number of common “friends.” It’s a law-like phenomenon, you could call it The Online Law of Transitivity. Stronger relationships can build greater trust based on common values, lifestyle, culture, and viewpoint.

The individual’s identity is affected by participation in a self-governing social unit (in online social networks, the personal identity is important to understand, as I wrote previously). Our modern conception of individual identity in a self-governing social unit was formulated by Locke and Montesquieu — you know, that whole “consent of the governed” principle.

The law of transitivity for identity is as follows: If A=B and B=C, then A=C. For example, if Bruce Wayne is Batman, and Batman is the Caped Crusader, then Bruce Wayne is the Caped Crusader.

Consider this law and how it figures into an application of Locke’s theory of personal identity:

Locke’s theory of personal identity is based on consciousness. Consider person A at time T1, and person B at a later time T2. We can say that person B is the same as person A only if person B has the same consciousness as person A. Specifically, this requires that everything that A remembers, B also remembers. If A remembers that she was bitten by a rabid dog when she was five, then B must have that memory as well.

“should the soul of a prince, carrying with it the consciousness of the prince’s past life, enter and inform the body of a cobbler . . . everyone sees he would be the same person with the prince, accountable only for the prince’s actions: but who would say it’s the same man.”

Explanation:
Human Identity: same man (as for any organism or mechanism).
– same person (see the prince and the cobbler thought experiment).
– same soul or thinking substance

Personal Identity: same consciousness:
“As far as consciousness can be extended backwards…so far reaches the identity of that person.”

Ergo: The internet makes the above no longer a thought experiment. Strong relationships and shared consciousness is happening in online social networks and online communities. As Howard Dean said recently, the internet is the first organism to have consciousness from before it existed.

This potentiality for Universal History is a thread running through large online communities such as DailyKos or YouTube where any thing must exist at some place in the hive mind. And by belonging to the hive, whatever the object, be it a film clip or a personal observation of a political phenomena, is embedded in the personal identity of the end user, even merely as someone with potential access to the object.

And thanks to Google, “as far as consciousness can be be extended backwards” is, well, all the way back. And with Twitter, the immediate presence of the present is more staggering than its growing number of users.

This monumental past, and overwhelming present, is an idea described in this book about the roots of the internet, called: The Whole Earth Network, and the rise of Digital Utopianism.  (Which is one of the few books except Larry, or the Cluetrain that contains new political philosophy insights rooted in an understanding of the actual function of the internet.)

I believe that what Americans are doing on the internet can be a great thing for our democracy, our communities and our relationships. This tool, this organism could reinvigorate our Republic as well as restore our vital affinity relationships with each other and renew our sense of the commonweal. I’m an optimist.

I believe the best of internet user behavior in America is an example of millions of us, not escaping, but restoring what was precious and nearly lost. Americans are flocking online to do these social things, civic things, collaborative things, because these human needs were starving and being killed by American society. Driven by fear and consumerism, we’ve built cities suited for a solitary car culture, homes built for fortified hibernation; in short, an anti-social society. Our structures are inhuman. We’re turning to technology to be more human because “the American way of life” is basically monstrous.

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