Presence: the condition, state or fact of being present, as with others in a place; immediate vicinity; proximity.
After getting home from a long day at the office, perhaps like many of you, I turned on ESPN. I was hoping to catch some of the tennis coverage. While I was tuned in, there was a “breaking news alert” about Notre Dame’s celebrated football star, Manti Te’o. For those not following the saga that is Manti’s life, he was a standout linebacker for the Fighting Irish, won almost every conceivable defensive award, was second in the Heisman voting, and led his team to an undefeated regular season. But, the larger and, to some, the more meaningful narrative revolves around his personal struggles: the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day. Deadspin.com, the same outlet responsible for breaking the Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger scandal, released a story (Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax) that claimed Manti’s girlfriend didn’t actually exist. Wait, what?
Since there is still so much we don’t know about the facts of this shocking story, I won’t spend any time speculating whether or not Manti Te’o was the victim of a cruel hoax or complicit in an elaborate plot that deceived millions. The question I am concerned with here is the how: How could something like this happen?
For those of you 40 and above, it may seem utterly implausible that anyone could develop a meaningful relationship over the internet. The research, dating all the way back to the early 90’s, demonstrates that it is actually quite easy. Over the past 20 years, technology has been engineered in ways that shape social norms and changing social norms have re-shaped the kinds of communication technologies that we find useful.
Young people today are immersed in overlapping virtual environments, use multiple social media platforms that allow them to create multiple discursive identities. The whole idea of a fixed identity—a one physical version of me—is something that is being challenged on a daily basis. Think about the way we speak and how speaking about something changes the way we think about it; it’s a circular process. The internet, in particular, offers us some keen insight into this communication phenomenon. I won’t get into the argument about whether there is any “there there” (materiality) within this network of networks that forms the World Wide Web. Some have though, and it is an interesting debate. For our purposes, I’m going to take a very rudimentary example and expound on it.
At the age of 86, my grandmother had a Facebook account. As she was learning how to navigate the Facebook world, she asked me: “Son, what is a wall?” The question is simple enough. When considering how to answer her question, though, it became a bit more difficult. “Well, it’s a digital space where you can post a comment.” “Oh. Hm…where is the wall?” Quite right! Where is the wall? How about windows, safari, snow leopard, files, folders—terms computer users are more than familiar with? We tend to identify (name) the digital world by creating correlates to things that exist in everyday life. Furthermore, we surf the web, traverse the information super highway, work, shop, date, and meet online. For those born during or after the digital revolution that took place in the 90’s, they are most familiar with the language that is used to describe current activities and practices. For instance, a computer is no longer thought of as a person who sits and crunches numbers; it’s a machine that performs myriad tasks. This change—no merely semantic—is so pronounced that it is difficult to find someone 25 and under who actually knows that the concept of a computer has a history dating back to a day before ubiquitous Apple products. This all seems pretty benign though, right? Maybe even splitting pixelated hairs. Fair enough. Let’s think about something more problematic, something like presence.
Businesses like IBM have employees that have been working together via Secondlife; they’ve never actually met in real life but feel they know each other quite well. Gaming environments might even enhance this sense of knowing the other person and sensing that she/he is on the other side of a screen. It is not uncommon for gamers to develop very intense relationships, despite having never been in close proximity to one another. So, whether or not Te’o is ultimately telling the truth about his particular relationship, what we can say is that, at least for many, the notion of online dating, chatting and meeting is as real as anything we do offline. Sure, there are still doubters. It challenges the credulity of skeptics, as they wryly ask: “How could you be that gullible?” Rather ironically, when people read about Robert and Elizabeth Browning’s pen-pal-turned-romantic relationship or even those relationships that developed through the mail during World War II and helped spawn the baby boomers, it instigates nostalgia, not blunt criticism. Practically speaking though, communication technologies are being advanced in such a way that more and more of reality is being packed into its features. With Skype, you can talk to a person “face to face” without them in the room with you. A few weeks ago, I listened to an interesting debate between an internet scholar and a doctoral student from China–who is researching 3D effects and media enjoyment—and the doctoral student argued that platforms like Skype actually trump real-life, person-to-person communication. His reasoning is that with Skype you can also send text and video to augment the conversation. Whether he’s right or not is less my point than that the argument is being made at all. We are living in a world where meetings, partners and windows have taken on other meanings.
One of the difficulties facing all of us is how we safely negotiate the attendant risks of new technologies. There seems to be a learning curve where society and culture acquire a type of technological literacy. It also seems that those who wish to use technology for ill are more proficient, at least initially, than the large mass (and the laws) that tends to lag behind. Hence, you get a return of the long con: #longcon2.0. You have people that intentionally create online identities for the express purposes of participating in nefarious acts of cruelty. They build relationships, build trust by triangulating their identities with other “fake” accounts, “false” email addresses, “phony” cellular numbers and “counterfeit” vocations. For some reason, the long con 2.0 seems counter-intuitive. Perhaps it is due to the global reliance on speed? In an age of instantaneity, it is difficult for many to process the idea that there are people out there using instantaneity to slow-play them. By developing relationships, the digital con artist siphons funds and breaks hearts as well as hopes. Is Manti telling the truth? That question is of little importance to me in light of the broader reality looming beneath the unexamined surface of things. That it is possible to be truthful, well-intentioned and be wronged in an intimate (yet public) way—only to be blamed for it, integrity questioned and employment status impacted—is something we all need to think about. After we’ve thought about it, we need to do about it! Praxis is important.
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Kyle McNease - Academic and founder and CEO of Prognosis Hope.