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Being 'fully human' online

By Ezra Klein

If we're going to keep arguing about "the challenge of staying fully human in the brave new online world," at some point, we're going to have to define what "fully human" means. Too often, it seems to refer to the author's preexisting preferences for leisure time. Being on the Internet is very different from being in a quiet room with a good book and a long time to think about it. So if you're someone who likes to spend Saturday in a quiet room with a good book and a long time to think about it, you might find Facebook unnerving. And Zadie Smith and Ross Douthat do. Sometimes, I'd guess, we all do.

Conversely, if you're someone who likes people but has trouble meeting them, or gets shy in unfamiliar social settings, you probably don't think the Internet has made you less human. If you live in a big city but don't like bar culture and managed to find someone to love -- and who loves you -- by e-mailing back-and-forth about your shared affection for the third season of "Happy Days" -- which of course got you talking about Nick at Nite in general, and then your families, and then the difficulties of being so far away from them -- you probably don't feel like the Internet made you less human. But those experiences tend to be left out of these conversations.

But you'll find them in Robbie Cooper's book "Alter Ego." Cooper traveled the world to photograph people who play online games, and then he matched their pictures with their avatars. Among his subjects was a 35-year-old man named Jason Rowe:

alterego.jpg

"The difference between me and my online character is pretty obvious," explains Rowe. "I have a lot of physical disabilities in life, but in Star Wars Galaxies, I can ride an Imperial speeder bike, fight monsters, or just hang out with my friends at a bar. I have some use of my hands -- not much, but a little. In the game I use an on-screen keyboard called 'soft-type' to talk with other players. I can't press the keys on a regular keyboard so I use a virtual one. I play online games because I get to interact with people. The computer screen is my window to the world."

Rowe might be an extreme example of the way many people are "fully human" online, but he's certainly not alone, and though the people he's interacting with may have fewer physical handicaps, they're experiencing something very close to what he's describing: The computer screen can be a window to the world, and an authentic one.

Consider the case of the CEO whose testimony persuaded Cooper to embark on this project: "He told me that he used virtual world games to play with his children," Cooper remembers. "He was divorced and had bad access to them, so he would meet them every evening in 'Everquest,' where they could play and chat. I asked him, what did they talk about? He told me they discussed things like homework, school, their mother; the normal stuff of humdrum reality." To me, that description of mundane conversations about humdrum reality, and not the sustained time for meditative reflection that gets lionized in many of these essays, has the ring of human life.

By Ezra Klein  | November 15, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Tech  
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Comments


i have an elderly neighbor who is crippled with severe arthritis and other illnesses, and she rarely leaves her home, and almost no-one ever comes to visit her.
this morning, on one of her extremely rare appearances,
we were talking, and she said if it was not for her internet, she would lose almost complete contact with the world.

our ability to "stay human," depends greatly on our ability to connect with other sentient beings....to experience life, and continue to feel things, and be engaged in living our lives.
some of our most profound experiences are in the spiritual world, and not in the material world.
people who we love, are more present in our lives, than the person standing on a line, in front of us.
the impact of a spoken sentence, twenty years ago, or the thought of a poet written in a past century, continues to be alive...and an unforgettable moment of beauty can exist forever, in the most real way for us, and continue to give us a reason to go on.
the ether, is part of the Spirit.
just as a memory is. just as an old photograph.

"one sees clearly, only with the heart."

~~~~~the little prince
antoine de sainte ~exupery


Posted by: jkaren | November 15, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are quite right that we often launch into judgment and sharing those judgments before we've defined terms, even for ourselves let alone assuring our audience knows how we mean the terms we chose. The online world does have "the ring of human life," in that sometimes it rings authentically and sometimes inauthentically; sometimes it is used wisely or with kindness and sometimes foolishly or with malice; sometimes it brings people together and supports their humanity while at other times it divides people and undermines them as people. Too often discussions of the online world begin by looking at the non online world through panglossian contact lenses.

Posted by: CulturedAnarchy | November 15, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

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