We are a burgeoning collective, unlike anything before us. The rapid communalization of cities, brought about by the Internet (specifically social web culture and practice), supports the notion that “community” and “collective” are best treated synonymously, wherein the whole values each individual beyond the basic tenets of production.
The complexity of systems in nature, society and science provides a means of exploring the relationship between “individual” and “community”—an essential step toward education reform and sustainable urban development. Communitarianism, as a social contract that emphasizes the role of community in establishing more equitable judicial and economic institutions, is one possible answer.
We are a burgeoning collective, unlike anything before us. The rapid communalization of cities, brought about by the Internet (specifically social web culture and practice), supports the notion that “community” and “collective” are best treated synonymously, wherein the whole values each individual beyond the basic tenets of production. That said, I mean to disambiguate “new collectivism” from any known socioeconomic system or policy, by putting greater emphasis on the individual. There is ample room here for competition and free market ideology to preserve innovation, given that neither relegates consciousness, autonomy or personal destiny to a “lower” moral imperative. The bottom line is that communitarianism, within the combined context of systems science, education and urban development, is driven by pragmatism. For this reason, we should strive to understand the complex systems that constitute our world.
We create reality on our terms, using tools that are both familiar and accessible. What we now consider reality may soon be expressed entirely online. This should come as no surprise, given that much of reality is already created, experienced, and revised in virtual space. This might be a stretch, but one could argue that virtual reality and digital immersion are essential for developing the mentality necessary for an exodus off world—if only for the fact that VR removes the subject’s perception from material reality, while digital immersion insulates the external body from disequilibrium. As Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976) explains, our genes are hard at work, as they always have been, to ensure our survival. At least until they find a more resilient host.
The current man-machine interface can reflect symbiosis (equilibrium) or parasitism (unfairness); this depends on interface as well as situational context. Because humans are seemingly cursed with espousing the status quo, the prevailing social contract will mostly-likely be the sole determiner of moral agency, where individuals are expected to make choices based on propaganda manufactured by a system that, despite having presided over their lives with startling proficiency, seeks to avoid responsibility for the personal destinies of those very individuals. (Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who popularized the term “virtual reality”, shares strong feelings about the unwisdom of crowds here.) That said, we must avoid entering into a social contract where the bottom line ends with personal gain. As more nations embrace enlightened ideals, repressive institutions become less compatible with the very individuals they need to survive.
Enter Matrix. Evolution is currently negotiating with the first true generation of digital symbionts. It’s a matter of time before man-machine is redefined entirely. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has inspired an impressive following (some say religion—I don’t) based on the longstanding humanist ideal that we have more control over our future than we realize. This “transhumanist” stance lies in stark contrast to the Abrahamic doctrine (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that seeks to diminish individual autonomy and self-worth, in order to transfer responsibility and power to one of several unseen deities, via divisive propaganda and conformism en mass. Religion, in this sense, is the most prevalent example of a sustained alternate reality.
Meanwhile, Gregory Ulmer, the rhetorician who coined the term “electracy” to define post-literacy in the context of education and personal agency, describes a certain “homesickness” felt by the digitally immersed gens x and y (Internet Invention, 2003). In the context of post-literacy, it’s a disconnection from family, governance and other prevalent social norms—what some might consider a prelude to major social contract revision. Sherry Turkle (Life on the Screen, 1995), N. Katherine Hayles (Writing Machines, 2002), Annette Markham (Life Online, 1998) and others speak of an identity proliferation engendered by “hyperconnectedness” and the collapse of linearity. In the coming months, I will hypothesize that empiricism, having been turned on its head by the very force that would subsume the material world, stands to lose credibility with future generations who see simulation as a source of liberation. This view of simulated reality will serve as the basis for a new social contract.
We are all molecules, joined by interest, energy and family, either forced or willingly, to others who affect our destiny more profoundly than we know. Whether we are joined by cluster or compound, or we are catapulted away from one another, our inner purpose, shaped by a multitude of choices (media consumption, social and career paths, and a host of other interactions), is what should determine the value of an individual. Given that effective communication is essential for sustaining knowledge economies, an informed society makes for a stronger and safer one, and the success of our learning institutions depends on innovative human capital management. This takes the value of the individual into close consideration.
Following a brief assessment period, I’ll follow up on my research with a revised survey for scientists, academics and educators familiar with social media that will report on current culture and practice within these spaces. Using this feedback, along with the insight I hope to gain from my interactions on sites like Facebook and Quora, I will ascertain what is lacking and locate individuals whose work illuminates these issues. To this end, abiding by the central tenets of systems and simulation theory, I hope to contribute to the development of open source communications for scientists, students and educators—the goal: a brighter, more productive future for science education and research.